Ginkgo — Ancient Medicine, Modern Medicine

It is a rare musical work or book that captures the imaginations of such
a diverse group of people that it crosses over from the category it is meant
for into another. Ginkgo, a medicinal herb from an ancient Chinese tree
is such a phenomenon. In Europe it has become one of the most prescribed
medicines among medical doctors, herbalists, acupuncturists, and many other
kinds of health professions.

Medical doctors and traditional herbalists often use radically different
medicines–a doctor might prescribe xanax or valium for mild anxiety or
nervousness, an herbalist the herb valerian, and a naturopathic doctor,
a homeopathic remedy or hydrotherapy. But the phenomenon is that for disorders
such as brain dysfunction, depression, mental weakness or confusion, loss
of memory, ringing of the ears and many other ailments, the physician, naturopath
and herbalist might all prescribe the same medicine–ginkgo.

Although not as well-known in this country as in Europe, ginkgo can presently
be found in natural food stores everywhere, and in clinical practice both
here and abroad in the form of a highly concentrated extract of the leaves.


The ginkgo tree is considered one of the world’s oldest living things and
was first named Ginkgo biloba because of its 2-lobed fan-shaped leaves.
The trees not only live to be over 1,000 years old, attaining a massive
size, they have been around on planted earth for at least 2 million years.
The fossil record shows that ginkgo lived in forests throughout several
parts of the world including North America. In fact, one of the most extensive
fossil forests can be seen on the banks of the Columbia river along the
Oregon-Washington border.

Why has this tree survived when all others have died out? Modern tests show
it to be remarkably resistant to insect damage, virus or bacterial infection,
as well as modern chemical pollution which is why it is such a successful
street tree in many parts of the world. Observers of the ginkgo phenomenon
feel that it is ginkgo’s beauty though, that has brought it into the modern
age. As many legends tell, the trees were planted around temples by priests
and priestesses because of their magnificent stature and delicate beauty.
Thus they have been perpetuated and brought into the modern age.

The healing traditions of ginkgo were recorded from thousands of years
ago when the seeds were used in medicinal preparations to strengthen the
kidneys, improve digestion and help strengthen people who were recovering
from many kinds of illnesses. The seeds were often added to popular dishes,
considered both delicious and healing. The following recipe comes from 5
generations of Chinese families–I learned of it during a meal in the country’s
first medicinal herb restaurant, the Emperor in San Francisco.

Cook 1 cup of rice in 2 cups of water until tender. Cook 1/2 cup of ginkgo
nuts (available from Chinese food stores or ethnic sections in many natural
foods stores or supermarkets) in enough water to cover them until tender.
Add the ginkgo water to the rice and blend until creamy, add the ginkgo
nuts and blend a little until the nuts are partly chopped, then heat the
porridge until hot and serve forth in a porcelain pot. Flavoring spices
such as cinnamon, nutmeg or allspice can be added, if desired.

This delicious treat–the nuts are sweet, slightly bitter and astringent–makes
a good dessert with all the healthful properties of the traditional ginkgo
nut, which can help expel mucous from the respiratory tract, benefiting
asthma or other respiratory ailments where there is wheezing and help strengthen
a weak bladder when there is frequent urination–having to get up in thee
night to visit the bathroom According to traditional Chinese medicine, the
nuts are highly nutritious, but should not be used on a continual basis–and
should not be used raw.

Modern studies

Although the nuts have the longest history of use in Traditional Chinese
Medicine, it is the leaves that excite modern scientific interest. The Germans,
with their penchant for analyzing the constituents and activity of natural
substances, discovered, developed and brought the leaf medicine from ginkgo
into the modern age. In the 1950s, researchers from Wilmar Schwabe, a company
making highly-researched products from medicinal plants became interested
in the chemistry of ginkgo and isolated several compounds which they found
to be active in biological systems. A highly purified extract was developed
and experimentation began in clinical situations to support the preliminary
laboratory results. Over the last 35 years, hundreds of tests in both laboratory
and clinic have proven without a doubt that ginkgo extract is a veritable
treasure-trove of active compounds displaying an amazing array of activity
on important body systems. Ginkgo is helping to counteract some of the more
unsolved human ailments such as ringing in the ears (tinnitis), visual disturbances
due to retina damage, and especially circulation and brain disorders.

First and foremost, ginkgo is a preparation for the health problems that
can develop during the aging process–it is a medicine for middle-age and
older. This is the application for which it is prescribed, having become
one of the most successful drugs in Germany and France and other parts of
Europe. In the U.S., ginkgo products have been available in most natural
food stores for 2 or 3 years, but are just now becoming known as a memory
and mental clarity-promoting herb. The full range of its amazing benefits
may still await discovery.

Many herbalists feel that it is a matter of time until ginkgo is accepted
as a remedy of major importance not only among natural practitioners, but
in the allopathic medical community as well. And herein lies not only promise
of great benefit for reducing suffering and disease, but a possible problem.
(statement from Mark?). Will ginkgo be available in the future as a prescription
drug, or will it continue to be available widely, as today, in natural food
stores and herb shops as a health supplement? Drug or supplement is an interesting
question and one that needs to be resolved because it is one that may determine
the fate of many natural remedies, such as evening primrose seed oil, which
is already under fire because the studies show without doubt that it is
effective, not unlike the studies on ginkgo.

Although ginkgo has been shown to posses many interesting properties, and
an exploration of the available literature can be bewildering in its complexity,
these can be boiled down to a few of the most interesting and important
effects on the body and the major areas of practical application for everyday
health problems. To summarize, ginkgo is primarily an important remedy for
aging and the elderly–for restoring proper function and preventing degenerative
changes in important parts of the body. The most profoundly affected organs
of the body are the eyes, brain, blood vessels and cardiovascular system,
but beneficial effects on the organs of hearing and sight must also be mentioned.

Active Constituents

These major physiological effects are thought to be due to several groups
of active chemicals or constituents, specifically, flavonoid-like compounds,
such as quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin, and complex molecules called
terpenoids, most importantly, ginkgolides A, B, C, J, M and one bilobalide
(which are unique to ginkgo). Many commercial products are standardized
(proven to be at a certain level in each batch) to 24% of the flavonoids–which
may be the most desirable form in which to take ginkgo when a strong, consistent,
highly purified product is needed. As a mild, but more wholesome, daily
supplement, the liquid extract may be the product of choice. Both kinds
of extracts are widely available.

Although scientists enjoy quantifying and pinning down exactly what minute
effects these compounds have on the biological processes of the body for
standardization or consistency of activity, and for advancement of our general
knowledge of how the body works, herbalists take a more simple and traditional
approach. Here, anecdotal and practical experience, as well as a long history
of use is of primary interest. Important too, is how a particular remedy
will affect an individual, which might have a different effect than with
another individual with a different kind of constitution. Obviously, both
approaches have something to offer–both pure science and humanistic person-oriented

Practical Uses

An important question to the reader of this article is obviously, what can
ginkgo do for me? Clinical trails with human volunteers are going on now
throughout Europe, with new studies being reported regularly. Many previous
studies, performed over the last 15 years or so show that ginkgo is most
useful in the following areas:

  • protection against free-radicals
  • improvement of circulation of the legs and brain in the elderly, help
    in preventing cardiovascular disease and improvement of vessel tone and
    blood characteristics
  • protection against loss of mental powers, helping mental clarity, memory,
    and concentration
  • increasing blood, oxygen and energy supplies to the brain
  • ringing in the ears, vertigo, and dizziness
  • protection against retina damage and vision loss due to free-radical
  • may offer protection against environmental toxins (pesticides and herbicides)
    and general stress support
  • PAF-acether inhibitor, possibly counteracting toxic shock and reducing
    symptoms of asthma, and other common allergic or immune-based disorders
  • has shown short-term memory enhancing ability, in both young and old

Ginkgo & Memory

Two clinical studies show improved memory function in human volunteers.
In the first,

a double-blind clinical study, showed that large doses of ginkgo extract
can increase performance on memory tests. The authors of the study concluded
that ginkgo extract enhanced the speed of retrieval (of information) from
short term memory. A single dose of 600 mg was given to the volunteers.1

In the second test, eight healthy female volunteers took part in a double-blind,
cross-over trial comparing the effects of Ginkgo extract on short-term memory
with placebo (9). Some of the subjects were given ascending doses (120,
240, 600 mg) of the extract and some the placebo. After a battery of tests,
including “critical flicker fusion test”, “choice reaction
time” and the “Sternberg memory scanning test”, it was found
that the short-term memory of only the subjects receiving the Ginkgo extract
“was very significantly improved”. The authors conclude
by saying, “These results differentiate Ginkgo biloba
extract from sedative and stimulant drugs and suggest a specific effect
on memory processes”

These studies do not lead to the conclusion that one should take very high
doses of ginkgo extract to increase the ability to remember , but rather,
it suggests that a more moderate dose may have a cumulative effect generally
benefitting memory.

In short, ginkgo may be the ideal herbal support to counteract some of the
most common conditions associated with the aging process and of many environmental
stressors, to which we are all subject.

To summarize, the main point to remember is that ginkgo, with regular use,
can help increase and maintain the blood supply to the very small vessels
of the body, the capillaries. These vessels nourish all the tissues of the
body, but most importantly the brain, extremities, skin, eyes, the inner
ear, the heart and other vital organs.

Ginkgo may be the first herb that “comes to mind” for many of
these increasingly common health problems.

The above article was taken partly from the soon to be published book on
ginkgo, GINKGO–THE MIND AND CIRCULATION HERB by Christopher Hobbs, published
by Botanica Press, available in many natural food stores.


1. Subhan, Z. & I. Hindmarch. 1984. The psychopharmacological effects of
Ginkgo biloba extract in normal healthy volunteers. Int. J. Clin. Pharm.
4: 89-93.

Michel, P.F. & D. Hosford. 1988. Ginkgo biloba: from “living fossil”
to modern therapeutic agent. in P. Braquet (ed.) 1988. Ginkgolied
– Chemistry, Biology, Pharmacology and Clinical Perspectives.
J. R. Prous. pp. 1-8.

Bensky, D. and A. Gamble. 1986. Chinese Herbal Medicine. Seattle:
Eastland Press.

Shih-Chen, L. 1578. Pen Ts’ao. Translated and reasearched by F.P.
Smith and G.A. Stuart, published under the title Chinese Medicinal Herbs.
San Francisco: Georgetown Press, 1973.

Perry, L.M. 1980. Medicinal Plants of East and Southeast Asia. Cambridge:
The MIT Press.

Boralle, N., et al. 1988. “Ginkgo biloba: a review of its chemical
composition.” Ginkgolides – Chemistry, Biology, Pharmacology and
Clinical Perspectives
, P. Braquet, ed. Barcelona: J.R. Prous Science

Braquet, P. 1988. “The ginkgolides. From Chinese pharmacopeia to a
new class of pharmacological agents: the antagonists of platelet-activating
factor.” Braquet, op. cit

Drieu, K. 1985. Multiplicity of effects of GInkgo biloba extract: current
status and new trends. Agnoli, et al., eds. Effects of GInkgo
Biloba Extract on Organic Cerebral Impairment
. London: John Libbey & Co.

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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021