My first exposure to ginkgo didn’t come in an herb class; it came in my first botany class at the University of Utah. The class was Trees and Shrubs, and my teacher told us that the Ginkgo tree was a living fossil, a tree that was believed to be extinct at one time, but was rediscovered in China. Although I haven’t documented this anywhere, it is something that stuck in my mind.
Ginkgo is the only deciduous gymnosperm. All other members of this division (such as pine, spruce, fir and juniper trees) are evergreen. So ginkgo is believed to be a genetic bridge between the gymnosperms and flowering trees and shrubs. Ginkgo is also thought to be the oldest tree on the planet, with fossil records dated to 190 million years ago.
Today, it is commonly planted as a shade tree and is valued because it is resistant to atmospheric and water pollution, as well as insects and disease. Ginkgo trees are also long-lived, up to a thousand years, and can reach heights of over one hundred feet.
So, what does all this botany information have to do with using ginkgo as an herb. Well, it’s all about the doctrine of signatures, which is the idea that a plant’s growth pattern, shape, color, and general nature provide us clues as to its use. The ginkgo tree has the perfect signatures as an anti-aging remedy. As a long-lived, disease resistant, “living fossil” it should not be surprising to learn that the tree is a great remedy to counteract the effects of aging. It is the leaves which are used for this purpose.
Ginkgo is one of the most highly researched herbs on the planet. The leaves contain terpene lactones (ginkgolides and bilobalide), flavonoids, flavonols, sesquiterpenes and organic acids, which have many scientifically documented benefits. Ginkgo has many beneficial effects on circulation. It relaxes blood vessels to enhance blood flow to the brain and extremities. It also strengthens blood vessels, reducing capillary fragility and bruising. It has been shown to improve diseases involving peripheral vascular insufficiency, such as Raynaud’s disease. It will relieve tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and vertigo (dizziness) caused by circulatory problems, and may help some cases of erectile dysfunction.
The flavonoids in ginkgo have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. By reducing vascular inflammation ginkgo may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The combination of Ginkgo and Hawthorn is particularly helpful here. Ginkgo can also slow macular degeneration.
Ginkgo is very helpful for the brain. Besides preventing free radical damage to tissues (which causes diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia in the elderly) it has been shown to improve brain wave activity. It may even stimulate regeneration of damaged nerve cells. Although ginkgo won’t cure Alzheimer’s or dementia, it has been shown to stabilize these conditions for as long as 6-8 months, preventing further deterioration.
Another important action of ginkgo is its ability to inhibit the platelet-activating factor (PAF). PAF causes the blood to become sticker and more likely to produce clots. PAF is released in inflammatory and allergic reactions. This ability makes ginkgo a very promising remedy for reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, but it also enables it to reduce asthmatic symptoms
Ginkgo may also help relieve some cases of dizziness (vertigo), erectile dysfunction and absentmindedness. Although in general I favor the use of whole herbs, in this case, a highly-concentrated extract of the leaf seems to work best, which is what NSP offers in their Time Release Ginkgo concentrate. Ginkgo is also a part of several combinations.
So, if you want to be a healthy old “fossil,” aging gracefully with a healthy brain and heart, the ginkgo tree may be one of your best allies.
Herbal Therapy and Supplements by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston
Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier
Flower Essence Repetory by Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz