When I was very small, the tree at my parent’s house became sick and was cut down. I don’t exactly remember the great pine tree, but I remember it’s large, rotting stump, which was left as evidence of its towering existence on the lawn of our front yard. As a replacement, the city planted another tree in its place: a ginkgo tree.
What was once a disappointingly small, skinny sapling now towers over the two-story house, its trunk the diameter of my outstretched arms, an alarming reminder of the passage of time. I have always been fond of our ginkgo tree, with its delicate, fan-shaped leaves and its aire of exoticism, but I am developing an entirely new relationship with the plant as I begin to discover its array of clinical uses as well.
Native to China, Ginkgo biloba, or ginkgo trees are living fossils, dating back as far as 270 million years. Their leaves form beautiful green fans and contain a variety of medicinal properties.
According to Kerry Bone’s Herbal Compendium, ginkgo leaf is a good source of antioxidants, prevents and decreases the formation of plaques in the arteries and veins, increases circulation, helps improve memory and cognitive function and helps protect the nerves. Used medicinally for thousands of years in China, we are beginning to see a multitude of scientific studies evaluating the effectiveness of Ginkgo biloba for treating numerous neurological and circulatory conditions.
Claudication: A meta-analysis by Pittler in 2000 found that ginkgo extract improves claudication from peripheral artery disease, decreasing pain and increasing the amount of time and distance of pain-free walking for those who suffer from vascular leg pain.
Dementia: two meta-analyses, by Bornhoft et al in 2008 and Birks et al in 2002 found that ginkgo leaf extract showed significant benefit vs. placebo for improving cognition as evaluated by the Clinical Global Assessment and Activities of Daily Living in patients living with dementia. Heinen-Kammerer et al, 2005, published an RCT that concluded that ginkgo extra helped provide better quality of life for patients with dementia and their caregivers, slowed progression of disease and lowered treatment costs for dementia.
Memory and Mental functioning: Ginkgo has been used as a study aid for years. A small randomized control trial (RCT) published by Cieza et al in 2008 found that ginkgo leaf extract improved mental functioning in healthy patients. Another RCT by Rigney et al, 1999 found that ginkgo produced significant improvement when compared to placebo in benefiting short-term memory. A 2007 Cochrane review concluded that Ginkgo biloba shows promising evidence for improving cognition and memory function but that more research is needed to fully understand its effects.
Improved circulation: An RCT by Muir et al in 2002 found that ginkgo biloba reduced the number of attacks per week in patients with Raynaud’s syndrome. Huang et al, 2004, found that ginkgo improved blood flow in diabetic patients with retinopathy. Ahlemeyer et al, 2003 found that ginkgo leaf extract improved cerebral and arterial blood flow and helps dilate blood vessels, which is useful for patients with a history of strokes, memory impairment or high blood pressure. Wu et al, 2008 found that ginkgo extract improved coronary blood flow in elderly healthy adults, suggesting it may be useful in preventing age-related memory loss.
Mood: An RCT by Shubert et al, 1993 found small improvements in depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder treated with ginkgo extract vs. a placebo. More studies are needed to assess ginkgo’s impact on mood disorders.
PMS: Tamborini et al, 1993 found that ginkgo was effective for treating the congestive symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, such as breast distension. It also improved premenstrual neuropsychological symptoms.
Varicose veins: Ginkgo is widely used in combination with other herbs or non-herbal interventions for the treatment of varicose veins. However most studies conclude that more research is needed to decide whether or not it is effective as a therapy on its own.
Macular degeneration: According to a 2013 Cochrane review, two small trials have shown that ginkgo extract has benefit for improving vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration.
Other historical uses of Ginkgo, according to The Herbal Compendium, are treating asthma, dizziness of vascular origin, treating gangrene, promoting healing, treating ear-ringing (tinnitus), improving hearing loss, stroke and altitude sickness.
Before a big exam I often pop a few capsules of ginkgo extract to stave off brain fog and increase my performance. However, I was once told by a friend that placing my head to a tree before an exam would allow me to absorb the knowledge of all those who had been there before. And what better tree for that than a mighty, cognitive-enhancing ginkgo?
Bone, K. (2007). The Ultimate Herbal Compendium. Phytotherapy Press: Queensland.