A Tree With Ancient Origins
Ginkgo, referred to by its botanical name as Ginkgo biloba, is the only surviving tree in the species of plants belonging to the genus Ginkgophyta. The earliest known fossil records of Ginkgo biloba show that it grew 270 million years ago in North America and Europe. According to researchers, ginkgo is likely one of the oldest organisms that survive today without having changed its structure in any meaningful way. The nickname “living fossil” is owed to its ancient origins and the knowledge that each tree has a lifespan of up to 3,000 years.
Some parts of Japanese culture call Ginkgo biloba the ‘bearer of hope,’(1) On August 6, 1945, during the end of WWII, Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The destructive power of atomic weapon destroyed everything in a one-mile radius that wasn’t reinforced concrete, and fires burned nearly everything in 4.4 miles outside of the initial blast zone.(2) That is, everything burned except for some of the ginkgo trees. Despite the heat and radiation, several Ginkgo biloba survived. Locals found that some of the trees also produced new, healthy buds in the days that followed. Why other trees burned or died from radiation is not entirely understood.
The ability to live for several millennia and remain healthy against all the odds is one reason that some herbalists and physicians in traditional and alternative medicine recommend ginkgo for brain health, detoxification, and other challenges during normal aging. Modern research also has much to say, offering some insights into the chemical properties unique to Ginkgo biloba that may be a source of its medicinal potential.
What is Ginkgo Biloba?
Ginkgo biloba, ginkgo, gingko, and maidenhair tree are common names given to the tree in the Ginkgophyta species of plants.(3) This plant family originated around the Mesozoic era that spanned from about 252 to 66 million years go. Reptiles and dinosaurs dominated this era and helped to spread the seeds and contributed to its survival. Following a series of extinction events that brought the demise of some of Earth’s largest creatures, the Ginkgophyta species of trees began dying off as well.(4) Fossil records of Ginkgo biloba in North America and Europe point to the last known trees having stood between 2.5 to 7 million years ago.
The majority of the world did not know the ginkgo tree existed until 1691 when German physician and botanist Engelbert Kaempfer traveled to Japan to study local fauna and medicinal practices. In learning the country’s history, he discovered that monks had cultivated Ginkgo biloba from around the 1100s. He discovered that the tree could also be found throughout Asia. He learned that region treasured the ginkgo tree and that it was an important part of early Asian dynasties, art, and poetry. In returning to Europe, he brought the seeds and planted them in a local garden where they survive today. By the 18th century, Ginkgo biloba once again could be found throughout Europe and America.
The ginkgo tree is distinguished by the appearance of its leaves. Biloba, a Latin word for two-lobed, describes the fan-like shape and central division that gives the leaf a heart-like appearance. The leaves then tapers sharply to the stem.Ginkgo biloba is dioecious, meaning it has either male or female organs. The female ginkgo tree produces seeds inside of an outer layer known as the fruit. The female ginkgo tree produces the seeds before fertilization but requires the male ginkgo tree to release pollen from ‘cones’ that sprout on the tree during the Spring. The release of pollen occurs around four months after the cone develops. Full maturation and reproduction does not occur until the tree is 20 to 40 years old.
Ginkgo Biloba Benefits
Ginkgo biloba contains biological constituents that scientists attribute to its many potential benefits.(5) The primary plant chemical derived from the tree includes Bilobalide; Ginkgolides A, B, and C; Ginkgolide J, K, M, Q, and P; Ginkgolic acids; and gainkgols and shikimic acid. The plant also contains antioxidant compounds.
Research into the use of Ginkgo biloba for medicinal purposes suggests that the herb may provide support for:
- Free radical scavenging antioxidants
- Eye health
- Cognition (memory, learning, and focus)
- Mood and behavior
- Immune System
- Postmenopausal Support
Studies suggest that ginkgo plays a role in stabilizing mitochondria, which are molecules found in every cell that produces energy.(6) When energy production occurs, the cell either uses it to continue functioning or it transfers that energy to other cells. During normal aging or health challenges, disruptions to normal mitochondrial function occur and can result in insufficient energy production. Research shows that ginkgo helps stabilize the inner membrane of mitochondria. In turn, this supports energy transmission in and out of the molecule.
In early animal studies, researchers showed that ginkgo could support the function of mitochondria in the brain.(7) During aging, energy production slows in brain cells and can result in cell apoptosis, meaning that the cells die. This can cause a chain reaction that leads to other cell death and neurological decline. The hope of this research is to discover whether ginkgo could help energy production in the brain and help slow the progress of cognitive decline.
Brain Health, Mood, and Behavior
As mentioned, the Ginkgo biloba tree contains properties that may help maintain neurological health during aging.(8) Ginkgo may also provide a positive effect on other cognitive dysfunctions related to cognitive decline, such as “headache, tinnitus, vertigo, inattention, mood disturbances.”
Some studies show that these positive effects stem from the extracts found in ginkgo that provide antioxidant support in the body.(9) A study from the Institute for BioScience, Westboro, Mass., states that the extract has several major actions in the body to support cognition, such as “improving blood and tissue metabolism” that can decline in the later years of life. (10) The study also notes that the extract has an ‘anti-stress’ effect during cellular development and already living cells, thus helping to maintain cell health and a healthy brain.
Research intoGinkgo biloba also suggest it may affect anxiety disorders in younger individuals.(11) In a 4-week study involving 107 young patients identified as having an anxious mood were given either a daily dose of ginkgo extract up to 480 mg or a placebo. Using the Erlangen anxiety tension and aggression scale, researchers noted that those taking a high dose reported the largest change in behavior. The low dose groups also saw a change, though less pronounced. The placebo group had the smallest change.
Research has found that ginkgo may also provide support for eye health and the ocular system. (12) Intraocular pressure and glaucomatous optic neuropathy are both major contributors to vision disorders. Research shows that oxidative stress is a common cause of both challenges. The compounds found in ginkgo may support eye health by supporting the antioxidants already present in the eye, providing support for protein stability in the macula (the area of the high that ‘sees’ detail), and by supporting the adhesion and integrity of cell membranes against oxidative factors that can lead to inflammation or loss of fluids in the eye.
Immune System Support
Research also shows that Ginkgo biloba may help to mediate the immune system and inflammatory factors. (13) In a study looking at the effect of ginkgo on inflammation in animals with ulcerative colitis, researchers found that Ginkgo biloba can have a positive result at different dosage levels. Researchers write that “EGB (extract of ginkgo) alone or combined with other drugs is a promising agent to treat ulcerative colitis or in a dietary supplement for prevention from the recurrence of UC. Further sufficient preclinical and clinical studies should be conducted to prove it.”
Studies suggest that the potential benefits of ginkgo biloba may also extend to aging women experiencing premenstrual syndrome (PMS). (14) In a study with 90 women diagnosed with PMS, each woman was given a tablet containing 40 mg of ginkgo biloba leaf extract or a placebo three times daily from the 16th day of the menstrual cycle to the 5th day of the next cycle. The study found “there was a significant decrease in the overall severity of symptoms and physical and psychological symptoms in the ginkgo group” by a measure of 23%.
Dosage, Side Effects, and Warnings
The amount of ginkgo taken each day will depend on the supplement and the individual’s health concern. (15) Supplements can contain ginkgo in amounts ranging from under 100 mg to over 1,000 mg. However, researchers, herbalists, and physicians will point to the percentage or quantity of ‘standardized extract’ as the most important factor in the supplement. These extracts contain a concentration of plant compounds that are believed to be more bioavailable in the body and may potentially provide optimal results when compared to only consuming whole plant parts. These extracts may include the previously mentioned ginkgolides or antioxidants such as flavone glycosides or terpene lactones.
Children should not use ginkgo. Adults should consult with a primary care physician before beginning ginkgo to their health regimen. The effects of ginkgo may not be immediately apparent. Some users report a 6-week delay before feeling any health changes. Do not increase a standard dosage to ‘force’ a result. Those with an allergy to poison ivy should avoid all contact with ginkgo.
Ginkgo is known to interact with some medications. Avoid taking with medications that are broken down in the liver, and do not take with seizure medication or antidepressants. Those with a cardiovascular condition such as high blood pressure or thick blood may worsen their condition. Ginkgo may interact with Alprazolam, Ibuprofen, blood sugar medication, cyclosporine, thiazide diuretics, and Trazodone. Some people report nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, stomach aches, restlessness, and vomiting when using ginkgo.
Start Taking a Ginkgo Biloba Supplement Today
Ginkgo biloba is available in capsules, tinctures, liquids, tablets, and herbal blends. Some beauty and personal care products can also contain ginkgo. In America, the popularity of ginkgo has continued to grow since the 1950s. Today, more products use this plant for its many potential medicinal properties. Try these for yourself and see if it makes a difference to your feelings of health and wellness.