Ginkgo – Actions, Uses, and Cautions

Please note: Research on the medicinal uses of herbs, alone and in combination with synthetic drugs, is new and not yet definitive. If you have a serious or chronic medical condition, or are just unsure if herbal remedies are appropriate for you, please consult with your physician before using them.

At about 250 million years old, Gingko is the oldest surviving species of tree, and gingko biloba is the only remaining member of the species. Its leaves have two lobes (that’s what “biloba” means), and it has been called the “maidenhair tree” by some who thought it resembled the maidenhair fern. It is cultivated mainly in China and Japan.

Chinese folk medicine first started using gingko about 5,000 years ago for coughs and asthma, and as a pain reliever. Today people like to chew the roasted seeds to help with digestion and prevent drunkenness during festivals (the seeds contain ingredients that speed up the metabolism of alcohol).

In other parts of the world, though, gingko is used mainly for circulatory and nervous system problems. Studies have shown that it improves circulation in the extremities and the brain. It can also act as an antioxidant, and it has anti-inflammatory properties.

Most people take gingko to help with brain functions like recall, recognition, attention, and concentration. (It is a favorite of students who prefer natural ways to help them do well in school.) But it has also been used, in some cases with medical supervision, to treat the following conditions:
– Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia
– Raynaud’s disease (poor circulation in the hands)
– macular degeneration (a progressive eye disease that leads to blindness)
– eczema
– tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
– altitude sickness
– problems with sexual function, mainly in men

Also, a notable study supervised by the French used gingko to treat workers at Chernobyl after the nuclear accident there. Before treatment, these workers had dangerously high levels of free radicals (cancer-causing agents) in their blood; after treatment with gingko the levels fell dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Although there has not been a lot of study to determine what it was in the gingko that produced this effect, it makes sense from a historical standpoint – gingko was the first tree to grow back after the bombing at Hiroshima destroyed everything there.

Besides, or perhaps along with, its circulatory effects, gingko has been shown (by studies in Germany) to do the following:
– increase the body’s ability to tolerate a lack of oxygen, especially in the brain
– decrease swelling in the brain and retina
– inhibit the decrease of choline receptors in the brain due to age
– remove free radicals
– inhibit platelet activating factor
– protect nerves

Because it inhibits platelet activity, and therefore clotting, gingko is not recommended for people who have bleeding disorders. Also, there are parts of the plant that may be toxic, like the pulp of its fruit and its seeds (the people who take the seeds at festivals boil them to remove the toxins, but their safety is still questionable). And anyone who is taking other medications – especially those whose action might be similar to gingko’s – should check with a physician before using it.

The gingko tree is a tough, resilient survivor. Perhaps it can help your endurance as well.

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