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Ginkgo Biloba for Health

Updated on September 27, 2013

Ginkgo biloba Leaves

Ginkgo Biloba – The Plant

Ginkgo biloba is an extremely ancient plant, the sole surviving species of its genus. Palaentologists tell us that Ginkgo biloba, along with all the other species of ginkgo now extinct, first appeared in the Permian Era, some 250 million years ago; thus ginkgo biloba is comfortably older than the oldest dinosaurs which appeared about 230 million years ago. Ginkgo trees are also individually long-lived; the oldest specimens are thought to be about 3,500 years old.

Thus, this plant is a real survivor; and many of the compounds within it that lead to its toughness also contribute to its medicinal qualities.

Ginkgo Biloba – Medicinal

The part of the Ginkgo biloba plant most often used in medicine is the leaves. Furthermore, the form most often used in supplements is a standardised extract containing 24% of the main active constituent, the glycosides.

The active constituents of ginkgo are:

  • Ginkgo flavonoid glycosides, unique to ginkgo, and consisting of flavonoid molecules attached to sugars.
  • Terpene molecules unique to ginkgo; ginkgolides and bilobalide.
  • Organic acids.

The molecules that form the backbone of the ginkgo glycosides are quercetin and proanthocyanidins, both of which are fairly common in other plants but the sugars bound to them make ginkgo unique. Terpenes are a class of organic hydrocarbons which, in general, are also fairly common; the best known terpene substances are probably turpentine and various plant essential oils. However, the terpenes in ginkgo are unique to ginkgo.

The organic acids also present are what makes ginkgo useful. Both the other constituents are essentially insoluble in water; the organic acids bind to them and make them water-soluble, which makes the other constituents much more powerful in medicinal effect than the isolated compounds might be. This is a typical example of the synergy effect often found in medicinal herbs.

Ginkgo biloba – Mode of Action

Cell membranes, composed mainly of fatty acids, act as fluid barriers, nutrient exchange sites and electrical charge controllers. These membranes are very vulnerable to damage, especially lipid peroxidation produced by free radicals. Ginkgo biloba inhibits this damage very efficiently. It also enhances the transport of electrolyte minerals into and out of the cells, thus helping energy production and controlling cell excitability.

This effect is particularly noticeable in the brain and nervous system, because the membranes of nerve cells are particularly high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and also because the brain uses proportionately enormous amounts of energy and hence oxygen and glucose; the brain, which is about 2% of the body mass of the average person, uses 25% of the glucose and oxygen supplied by eating and breathing.

Other effects of Ginkgo biloba on the nervous system are to speed up nerve message transmission, improve synthesis of brain neurotransmitters, and improve the function of the acetylcholine receptors in the brain; particularly in the hippocampus, the area most affected by Alzheimer's disease.

Apart from these specific effects on the nervous system, ginkgo biloba also increases the rate of perfusion, the technical term for movement of nutrients out of arteries and waste into veins. This is particularly important in tissues that have come to have a poor blood supply.

Ginkgo biloba also has vasodilatory and anticoagulant effects. It appears that the vasodilatory effects are particularly powerful in small blood vessels such as those in the brain, the ears and the extremities (fingers and toes); these are precisely the areas that most need it.

Ginkgo Biloba – Medicinal Uses

I should say at the outset that any medicinal use of herbs should be undertaken under the supervision of a professional such as a doctor or qualified herbalist. Having said that, the known uses of Ginkgo biloba are as follows:

Impaired Mental Performance

Ginkgo biloba can help in cases of short-term memory loss, vertigo, confusion and depression. Because ginkgo improves cellular information transmission, it can improve memory even in young, healthy subjects but it is particularly useful in older people, who are more likely to have poor circulation in the head.

Raynaud’s disease and other peripheral artery problems

Arterial narrowing or obstruction causes a reduction in blood flow in the extremities. The most common effect is intermittent claudication - pain on exertion. However, in worse cases, it can even occur when at rest, and may be accompanied by a purple colour or paleness in the toes. The pain can often be described as burning or gnawing. This is more likely to happen as an abnormal reaction to cold; a certain amount of restriction of circulation in the extremities is perfectly normal in cold conditions and in extreme cases it might actually be painful – but normally, the problem goes away when you warm up. If it doesn’t then you may have a medical problem.

Erectile Dysfunction

This problem is extremely embarrassing, but in fact can be an indication that something is basically wrong with your circulation; this is simply because good blood flow is needed to achieve an erection. If the problem is caused by an underlying circulation problem, then ginkgo may help.

This is by no means certain to work, because erectile dysfunction can be caused by various other problems such as hormonal disturbances, neurological problems, drug side effects and also psychological issues. ED can of course be temporary and have an obvious cause; Shakespeare’s quip “it provoketh the desire but taketh away the performance” illustrates this issue brilliantly in the case of alcohol.

Incidentally, if you start having erectile dysfunction problems and there isn’t an obvious reason then it’s probably a good idea to see a doctor. This problem can be an early warning of other problems that are much worse.

Tinnitus and Vertigo

Both of these problems are sometimes caused by poor circulation in the area of the inner ear. On the other hand, both of these can be caused by any number of other medical issues. Ginkgo biloba sometimes helps with both these problems.

Cautions and Interactions

Ginkgo has anticoagulant effects; therefore it ought to be used only under professional supervision if you are taking anticoagulant drugs of any type. Because ginkgo has effects on brain chemistry, the same applies to mind-affecting drugs such as antidepressants and tranquillisers. Finally, ginkgo biloba has an effect of the activity of various liver enzymes which are part of the body’s system for clearing out drugs and poisons. Because of this, it is probably a good idea to consult a pharmacist at the very least before taking ginkgo biloba, if you are taking any drugs at all.


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