Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), also known as the maidenhair tree, is the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta, all others being extinct. It is found in fossils dating back 270 million years. Native to China, the tree is widely cultivated, and was cultivated early in human history for its many uses and diverse health benefits. The leaves of the tree are what are used for medicine, and ginkgo leaves are typically harvested in late summer or early autumn just as they begin to change color.
The leaves if the Gingko tree are rich in antioxidants and contain high levels of flavonoids and terpenoids, which are compounds known for their strong antioxidant effects.
Antioxidants fight or neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals, which are highly reactive particles that are produced in the body during normal metabolic functions, such as converting food to energy or detoxification. However, these reactive particles also have the potential to damage healthy tissues, contributing to accelerated aging and disease development. This is why consuming foods rich in antioxidants is so beneficial to good health, as they combat the damaging effects of free radicals.
Ginkgo is also noted for its anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or invasion by a foreign substance. In the inflammatory response, various components of the immune system are recruited to fight against the foreign invader or heal the injured area. Some chronic diseases trigger an inflammatory response even when there is no illness or injury present. Over time, this excessive inflammation can cause permanent damage to the body’s tissues and DNA. In fact, many scientists and health experts believe that inflammation in the body is the root cause of most illnesses.
Ginkgo extract has been shown to reduce inflammation in a few specific conditions, including arthritis, irritable bowel disease, cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ginkgo seeds were used to open the meridians—channels of energy that correlate to different organ systems, including the kidneys, liver, brain and lungs. Interestingly, ginkgo has been shown to increase circulation and blood flow to various parts of the body—which may be the origin of its role in improving chi (energy) flow in TCM.
One study in people with heart disease who supplemented with ginkgo revealed an immediate increase in blood flow to multiple parts of the body. This was attributed to a 12% increase in levels of circulating nitric oxide, a compound responsible for dilating blood vessels.
Ginkgo is also widely used to treat sexual dysfunction, such as erectile dysfunction or low libido. Ginkgo has the ability to improve blood levels of nitric oxide, which improves circulation via the dilation of blood vessels. As a result, ginkgo has often been found to be useful in treating various symptoms of sexual dysfunction by improving blood flow to those areas of the body.
Further research also points to ginkgo’s protective effects on heart health, brain health and stroke prevention. There are multiple potential explanations for this, one of which may be the anti-inflammatory compounds present in the plant.
Ginkgo has also been used to enhance brain function and improve cognitive functioning, focus, and memory. One double-blind, placebo controlled trial found that ginkgo did increase mental performance and perceived well-being, particularly in adults over the age of 60. Another study on ginkgo found that it also boosted the participants’ sense of self-esteem.
Some research indicates that supplementing with ginkgo may also reduce symptoms of anxiety. A handful of animal studies have observed reductions in anxiety symptoms that may be attributed to the antioxidant content of ginkgo. In one study, 170 people with generalized anxiety were treated with either 240 mg or 480 mg of ginkgo or a placebo. The group treated with the highest dose of ginkgo reported a 45% greater reduction in symptoms of anxiety, compared to the placebo group.
A review of animal studies suggests that supplementing with ginkgo may help treat symptoms of depression. Mice who received ginkgo before an unavoidable stressful situation were less emotionally affected by the stress than the group that did not receive the supplement. The study indicated that this effect was related to ginkgo’s anti-inflammatory properties, which improve the body’s ability to cope when stress hormone levels are high.
While ginkgo does have many health benefits, there are a few precautions that should be considered before consuming it. If you are allergic to plants that contain alkylphenols or are taking certain medications, it is advised not to consume ginkgo. Because of its ability to improve blood levels of nitric oxide, it also has the potential to interact unfavorably with certain medications. Some interactions could increase the risk of bleeding. Possible adverse medication interactions include blood thinners (Warfarin, aspirin), SSRIs/MAOIs/antidepressants (Prozac, Zoloft), NSAIDS (ibuprofen, Tylenol).
Ginkgo biloba has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties and health benefits. The leaves of the ginkgo tree contain strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities and an ability to improve circulation. Together, these characteristics have the potential to affect numerous body systems and diseases, making ginkgo a great ally in keeping the body healthy and keeping the mind at ease.