Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as ginkgo, is one of the oldest tree species on earth, discovered 250 million years ago during the Jurassic period. The ginkgo tree (also known as the maidenhair tree) has retained the same form over millions of years; its tenacious nature gained it the title of ‘living fossil’. The ginkgo tree has beautiful fan-shaped, green colour leaves, and the leaves will turn into gold colour in autumn. It can be seen in temples or shrines, parks and roadsides of Japan, China and Korea.
Ginkgo is not just a plant or tree for decoration but possesses excellent health benefits. Ginkgo nuts, the fruits of the ginkgo tree, locally called ‘bai guo’ or ‘bak gor’, have been used in culinary for thousand of years. Ginkgo’s medicinal value was recorded in Chinese ancient pharmacopoeia—Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing and Ben Cao Gang Mu. The nuts of Ginkgo biloba are commonly consumed for food, but it is the leaves that hold their vast medicinal value. Therefore, modern research focuses on ginkgo leave extract.
Let’s explore the goodness of ginkgo!
A rich source of antioxidants
Ginkgo biloba leaves extract is rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals (chemical compounds in plants). There are two main phytochemical classes responsible for ginkgo health benefits: flavonoids (flavone glycosides) and terpenoids (terpene lactones).
Flavone glycosides in ginkgo are derivation of quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin; while terpene lactones consist of ginkgolide A,B,C and bilobalide. These compounds act as an antioxidant in ginkgo, helping us fight the free radicals formed in the body from metabolism or various chemical reactions in the body cells. UV light and environmental pollution also cause free radicals to form.
Ginkgo can protect the body cells, nerves and blood vessels from free radicals damage (oxidative stress). Oxidative stress could cause cell ageing and even cell death.
The ginkgo trees in Hiroshima, Japan, survived the atomic bombing in 1945, and they still bloom and bear fruit every year to this day. This is evidence of ginkgo’s ability to neutralise radiation!
How do antioxidants help in combating health issues?
Clinical trials mostly use standardised ginkgo leaves extract, standardising it to 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones.
The flavone glycosides exhibit a vasodilation effect by relaxing the muscle walls of the blood vessels (arteries and capillaries). By this mechanism, ginkgo increases blood flow to body parts. At the same time, terpene lactones have shown an inhibitory effect in platelet aggregation, which is interpreted as potential benefits in reducing blood viscosity, blood clotting and vascular disease prevention.
With ginkgo’s ability to increase blood flow and thin the blood, the blood circulation throughout the body also becomes smoother and improved. This would improve many health issues from poor blood circulation, such as hand and feet numbness, tiredness, dizziness, headache and poor memory.
As mentioned above, ginkgo protects the nerves by its antioxidant activity to prevent oxidative damage. Substantial evidence also showed that ginkgo exhibits a neuroprotection effect by suppressing the inflammation of the nervous tissues within the brain and spinal cord. Findings showed that neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and neuroinflammation are linked.
Now, let’s explore the health benefits of ginkgo by body parts!
Hands and feet
Numb and cold hands and feet
Our hands and feet are usually the first body parts to show signs of poor blood circulation. Reduced blood flow to the hands and feet may cause numbness and feel much colder than the rest of the body. The other common symptoms of poor blood circulation are tingling, soreness, pain and muscle cramp.
Raynaud’s disease is a disorder of the blood vessels that causes the blood vessels in the fingers and toes to narrow when you are cold or emotionally stressed. When this occurs, blood can’t reach the skin’s surface, and the affected areas turn white and blue. A small trial showed that ginkgo effectively reduces the number of Raynaud’s attacks per week.
Some people may experience pain, cramp or numbness in their calves or thighs while walking or exercising. The discomfort goes off after a small rest but returns after they resume the activity. This condition is called intermittent claudication, the most common symptom of peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) happens when plaque buildup on the walls of blood vessels causes them to narrow. Ginkgo biloba extract, which acts as a vasodilation agent, was reported to help improve the pain-free walking distance of people with intermittent claudication. Therefore, it may use for symptomatic relief in intermittent claudication.
Peripheral neuropathy is nerve damage due to prolonged high blood sugar. It happens in people with diabetes and causes leg pain. Some studies have shown that ginkgo has a neuroprotective effect, relieving nerve pain by repairing damaged nerves.
Arthritis and gout
A study examined the effect of ginkgo in anti-inflammation on cartilage specimens taken from patients with osteoarthritis. The outcomes showed ginkgo’s ability to suppress inflammation and inhibit cartilage degradation, suggesting the potential of ginkgo as adjuvant therapy for osteoarthritis.
Another clinical study found that ginkgo plus celecoxib (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAID) used to treat the pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis significantly reduces inflammatory markers in patients with knee osteoarthritis.
Gout is a type of arthritis that happens when too much uric acid in the blood accumulates in the joints in crystal form and results in pain. An animal experiment showed ginkgo reduced joint swelling and some inflammatory markers. Despite the above positive results, scientific evidence of ginkgo as a therapeutic agent for arthritis is still limited, mainly in the preliminary stage.
Dizziness and difficulty in concentrating
Our brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrient to function. If the brain cells are not getting enough oxygen and nutrients due to insufficient blood supply, dizziness, headache, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, or poor memory may happen.
The benefits of Ginkgo biloba in brain protection and memory enhancement have been proven by various studies. Cognitive decline in the non-demented elderly group using Ginkgo biloba extract is reported to be lower in a 20-year cohort study.
A study published in the Journal of Neurology and Neurophysiology showed the combined effects of piracetam (a medicine that works as a cognitive enhancer) and ginkgo in helping to prevent cognitive decline.
Supplementation of Ginkgo biloba extract at 240mg per day can stabilise or slow down the progress of cognitive decline after consumption for about six months. With ginkgo supplementation, fewer adverse events, such as tinnitus, vertigo, and headaches, were reported.
Another study from the Journal of Stroke and Vascular Neurology found that Ginkgo extract and Aspirin treatment can alleviate cognitive and neurological deficits after acute ischemic stroke without increasing the incidents of vascular events. This means ginkgo is helpful in ischemic stroke recovery.
Anxiety and depression
Ginkgo biloba supplementation is beneficial in alleviating anxiety, depression, stress and fatigue. A recent study published in the Medicine Journal explored the effect of Ginkgo biloba extract as an adjuvant treatment for 136 elderly patients with depression and obtained good results.
Another study evaluated the effect of ginkgo extract in relieving anxiety with different concentrations, 240mg and 480mg, on 107 patients with a generalised anxiety disorder or adjustment disorder. Both concentrations of ginkgo reported significant changes, where the high dose group marked the highest reduction in anxiety scores.
Asthma, bronchitis and COPD
Ginkgo biloba has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for hundreds of years to relieve asthma and cough. In recent years, the effects of ginkgo on asthma and other respiratory diseases have started to gain scientific evidence. Ginkgo can suppress or reduce inflammatory cells in asthmatic airways and thereby relieve airway inflammation, attributed to the active compounds in ginkgo, flavonoids and terpenoids.
Besides this, the ginkgo supplement has also been found to help reduce mucus production and allergic reaction, leading to airway constriction or narrowing. A clinical research in China formulated a ‘Lung Support Formula’ containing several herbal extracts (ginkgo, ginseng, cordyceps, etc.), vitamins and minerals. One hundred elderly patients with respiratory symptoms participated in this study. The result showed that the use of this formulation led to significant improvements in respiratory symptoms and is well-tolerated in short-term use among older adults.
Vestibular (inner ear)
Tinnitus and vertigo
Tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ears, is the sensation of hearing a ringing, buzzing or hissing noise in the ears. In comparison, vertigo is a feeling of dizziness, imbalance, or a sensation that the surrounding is spinning.
Tinnitus and vertigo are both inner ear problems and are very closely related. Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that leads to tinnitus and vertigo. With the ability to improve circulation or enhance blood flow to the inner ear and brain, Ginkgo biloba was found to have a similar effect as betahistine (a medication used to treat Meniere’s disease), but ginkgo has fewer side effects. Patients receiving a daily dosage of 120-240mg Ginkgo biloba extract for tinnitus experienced positive results.
Our eyes need nutrients and oxygen to function; therefore, keeping healthy microcirculation in the eyes is essential. High blood glucose tends to damage the capillaries and develop diabetic retinopathy. Symptom of diabetic retinopathy includes black spots in your vision.
Ginkgo biloba’s antioxidant, neuroprotective, and blood flow-improving properties make it an attractive candidate for the prevention of diabetic retinopathy.
A study from Italy showed that the intake of Ginkgo biloba extract could reduce the progression of diabetic retinopathy. Another study showed that Ginkgo biloba extract effectively improved retinal capillary blood flow rate in type 2 diabetes patients with retinopathy after taking it for three months.
Glaucoma is one of the major eye disorders and might lead to blindness. Limited studies have been conducted on glaucoma so far. A small study found Ginkgo biloba improves retinal blood flow and visual field in normal tension glaucoma. More studies are required to evaluate the effect of ginkgo on glaucoma.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is one of the types of sexual dysfunction; it is generally called impotence. The main cause of this condition is blocked blood flow to the penis. Stress and anxiety are among the causes of ED.
The body produces stress hormones when you are stressed, and the hormones will make your heart beat faster, increase blood pressure and narrow the blood vessels. Without sufficient blood flow to the penis, a man cannot achieve an erection.
Ginkgo is one of the traditional aphrodisiacs to help improve sex drive and sex performance. Researchers indicated that Ginkgo biloba enhances the effects of nitric oxide, which helps relax artery walls, allowing more blood flow into the penis, thus helping men get an erection. In addition to helping men, Ginkgo biloba can also help women sexually by increasing lubrication and libido.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Premenstrual syndrome is the symptoms women may experience before their periods, such as mood swings, breast tenderness, bloating, headache and tiredness.
A few studies showed that ginkgo decreased the severity of symptoms of PMS, particularly breast tenderness. One study recorded a 23% reduction in the severity of symptoms. In Chinese medicine, PMS and menstrual pain are thought to be caused by poor microcirculation.
Reduced blood flow to the heart system can result in dangerous health effects. Chest pain is caused when the heart muscles do not receive sufficient oxygenated blood, and toxic wastes are built up. Do not ignore this warning sign!
If the heart arteries are blocked, the heart muscles die, and a heart attack may follow. Ischemic heart disease (caused by narrowed heart arteries) is the number one killer in Malaysia!
Ginkgo has shown the ability to protect the heart through its blood flow enhancement, blood clot prevention, antioxidation and anti-inflammation effects.
Ginkgo products are not all created equal
The rich antioxidant content, circulation enhancement, neuroprotection and anti-inflammation properties in ginkgo make it unique with a broad spectrum of health benefits. Ginkgo has become one of the top botanical ingredients or health supplements in the US, European and Asian countries. According to market research in the US, the Ginkgo biloba extract market revenue is projected to hit around USD15.26 billion by 2028.
Ginkgo biloba leaves extract is rising in popularity. However, not all products are the same. Make sure the Ginkgo biloba you are taking uses young, fresh ginkgo leaves and has less ginkgolic acid (which may cause allergic reactions). The quality of ginkgo products determines safety and effectiveness, so choosing the right ginkgo product is crucial.
Lastly, despite the tremendous scientific studies, some of it is still in the preliminary stage. We must remember that health supplement serves the purpose of health maintenance, disease prevention and adjuvant therapy; it is advisable not to replace your medication with Ginkgo products.