The ginkgo biloba tree is known for its resilience and hardiness, and for good reason – it is the oldest living tree species known to man. It's said that a ginkgo tree can live for as long as 1,000 years, with heights reaching up to 120 feet.1 Thus, it should come as no surprise that this plant can have healing benefits, too.
Today, ginkgo biloba ranks as one of the top-selling herbal remedies,2 with a long history of medicinal use for various illnesses and health problems. Get to know more about ginkgo biloba – how it works, what's the best way to take it and other health considerations before using this supplement.
What Is Ginkgo Biloba?
Also known as the maidenhair tree, ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest trees on Earth, having said to have been in existence for 350 million years.3 In fact, it's often referred to as a "living fossil," as it has continued to thrive even after major extinction events.4
The ginkgo biloba tree is the only surviving species from the Ginkgoaceae family.5 The name is said to come from the Japanese words "gin" and "kyo," which means "silver" and "apricot" respectively, which refers to the ginkgo fruit's resemblance to apricots.6
Ginkgo biloba is native to Asia, particularly in China, Korea and Japan. In fact, some ginkgo trees in China are said to be 2,500 years old.7 This plant is also believed to have thrived in Europe and North America during ancient times, but after the Ice Age, all the wild ginkgo trees in these areas were destroyed.8
The ginkgo tree is known for being tough and hardy – it can even thrive in polluted environments, such as urban roadsides and large modern cities.9 The plant has short branches and fan-shaped leaves, which change colors during fall.
However, ginkgo fruits are inedible, emit an unpleasant scent (reminiscent of rancid butter10) and have inner seeds that may be poisonous.11 Today, organic ginkgo biloba supplements are widely available, and is sold either in liquid extract, capsule or tablet form. The extract is made from the dried leaves of the plant.12
Ginkgo Biloba's Uses for the Body: Its Mechanism of Action
Although it has been popularly utilized in Chinese medicine for more than 5,000 years, it is only recently that researchers are uncovering what components account for ginkgo biloba's many uses and benefits. According to the book "Prescription for Herbal Healing," written by Phyllis A. Bach:13
"Ginkgo increases the body's production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a compound that is the main source of energy at the cellular level. This activity has been shown to boost the brain's metabolism of glucose for energy and to increase its electrical activity."
Particularly impressive are the flavonoids in ginkgo, called ginkgolides, which are said to have an effect on even the smallest microcapillaries, leading to widespread benefits on all of the body's organs, especially the brain.14 Ginkgo biloba is also known for its antioxidant abilities, brought on by ginkgolides as well, and is said to prevent platelet aggregation inside arterial walls to keep plaque from forming.15
Take a Look at Some of Ginkgo Biloba's Health Benefits
So what exactly is ginkgo biloba good for? According to research, taking ginkgo biloba supplement may help improve:
✓ Memory and thinking — Some research suggests that ginkgo may offer improvements in memory, speed of thinking and attention among healthy adults.16 In fact, it is touted as a "brain herb" that may have potential benefits for people suffering from dementia.17
✓ Eye health — Ginkgo may help prevent macular degeneration and glaucoma by deactivating the platelet-activating factor (PAF), which is necessary for growth of new capillaries, and increasing circulation within the eye, supplying more oxygen to the retina.18
One small study found that people with glaucoma had improvements to their vision after taking 120 milligrams of ginkgo daily for eight weeks.19
✓ Reproductive health and sexual function — One of ginkgo biloba's benefits for men is its potential for helping treat impotence. It enhances nitric oxide's effects, allowing more blood to flow into the penis to help maintain erection during sexual intercourse.20
✓ Anxiety — According to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, people with generalized anxiety disorder experienced better anxiety relief after taking ginkgo biloba, compared to those who took a placebo.21
✓ Raynaud's syndrome — This is an illness that triggers episodes of numbness and cold due to a decrease in the blood supply to the fingers and toes (earlobes, lips and nose may also be affected), triggered by stress or cold temperatures.22 A study said that ginkgo biloba may reduce the number of episodes in patients who have this illness.23
✓ Skin and hair health — The rich antioxidant content of ginkgo biloba can help eliminate free radicals that can cause wrinkles and other signs of aging. Extracts of this herb are also used in hair care products to keep your tresses strong, long and shiny.24
Ginkgo Biloba Studies Claim It May Benefit Dementia and Alzheimer's Patients
There have been numerous research conducted on the effectiveness of ginkgo biloba for certain health conditions, and one of the most widely studied claims is its potential effects for degenerative illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer's disease. According to WebMD, this herb may halt the progression of dementia symptoms, especially if the condition is brought on by atherosclerotic vascular disease.25
Initially, ginkgo was thought to improve blood flow going to the brain, but recent findings reveal that this herb may actually give protective effects to nerve cells against Alzheimer's as well.26 One study, for example, found that EGb 761, a ginkgo biloba extract, may be clinically effective in treating Alzheimer's dementia.27
Another research supported this claim, saying that the extract was safe to use and may help stabilize and improve cognitive and social functioning of dementia patients for between 6 to 12 months.28 However, there's still conflicting evidence on whether it can have the same cognitive effects on healthy adults.
Ginkgo Biloba May Have Side Effects
There are individuals who reported having mild upset stomach and mild headaches that last a day or two after taking ginkgo biloba. Some who took large doses experienced nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, restlessness and dizziness. Finnish physicians also reported that their patients experienced orthostatic hypotension, a sudden loss of blood pressure when standing up, after using ginkgo for several days.29
In addition, the leaves of this herb contain long-chain alkylphenols, which have allergenic properties. If you are allergic to poison ivy and other plants with alkylphenols, do not take ginkgo.30
Take Note: Listen to Your Body When Using Ginkgo Biloba
As with any supplement, it is important that you listen to your body when using ginkgo biloba. It may offer potential benefits, but if your body is exhibiting unpleasant symptoms while using this supplement, then you may be better avoiding it or finding another alternative. Seek your physician's advice should any of the symptoms above occur.