Often referred to as a living fossil, the Ginkgo biloba tree dates back more than 100 million years, making it one of the oldest living botanicals on the planet. (8) Instantly recognizable by its distinctive fan-shaped leaves, the ginkgo tree not only provides shade but the leaves have been used as medicine since at least 1509 AD. (19) Originally used by traditional Chinese physicians to enhance circulation and memory, modern research has found that this unique herb provides a wide range of health benefits. Today, Ginkgo biloba has proven so versatile and effective, it’s become one of the top five best-selling herbal supplements in the world. (19)
The secret behind the benefits of Ginkgo biloba
Commonly known as the maidenhair tree because its leaves are similar in shape to the maidenhair fern, research shows that much of ginkgo’s medicinal benefits can be attributed to its flavonoid and terpenoid content. (15)(31) Studies suggest that these two bioactive compounds are responsible for the herb’s underlying health benefits. (31) Specifically, ginkgo:
- Acts as an antimicrobial agent (27)
- Helps mitigate inflammation (5)(21)
- Inhibits platelet-activating factor (31)
- Is a powerful antioxidant with free radical-scavenging activity (27)
- Relaxes the lining of blood vessels (the endothelium) (31)
- Stabilizes membranes (31)
Did you know? Ginkgo contains numerous important flavonoids and terpenes, including kaempferol, phenolic acids, proanthocyanidins, quercetin, ginkgolides, flavonoid glycosides, and bilobalides, that are responsible for its medicinal actions. (38)
The health benefits of Ginkgo biloba
Best known for its ability to boost brain function and help prevent cognitive decline, Ginkgo biloba has been found to confer a variety of health benefits from head to toe.
Feeling stressed and anxious? Ginkgo biloba may help. According to findings in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, a standardized ginkgo extract reduced both blood pressure and salivary cortisol in a group of healthy young people after just one dose. (20) Ginkgo may also help older people suffering from anxiety. A trial that involved 107 elderly people with generalized anxiety disorder and cognitive decline found that those taking the herb experienced less anxiety. (34) These findings held up during a more recent double-blind multi-center trial of 160 seniors with mild cognitive impairment. Among the participants taking ginkgo, 78.8% experienced less anxiety and an improvement in cognitive performance compared to just 55.7% of those taking a placebo. (13)
2. Blood flow
Coronary artery disease (CAD)—defined as damage to the body’s major arteries—is the most common type of cardiovascular disease. (17) One of the primary features of CAD is reduced blood flow, typically due to atherosclerosis which narrows and stiffens arteries. (7)(11) Studies show that Ginkgo biloba relaxes arteries and improves blood flow throughout the body. Two randomized, placebo-controlled studies conducted in China found that ginkgo supplementation significantly improved blood flow in people with CAD. (36)(37)
Other research shows that the herb may modestly improve pain and walking distance in those with peripheral artery disease. This suggests improved blood flow to the arteries in the legs. (12)
3. Cognition and memory
The ability to improve memory is one of ginkgo’s biggest claims to fame—and with good reason. Research suggests that Ginkgo biloba may protect neural cell membranes from free-radical damage and reduce amyloid beta toxicity, thought to be a key factor in Alzheimer’s disease. (3)(29) In one study of 404 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, a proprietary form of Ginkgo biloba known as EGb 761 improved cognition, neuropsychiatric symptoms (e.g., aggression, apathy, depression), and functional abilities in both types of dementia. (18) A more recent meta-analysis of four clinical studies involving 1,628 people with dementia also reported that ginkgo improved the behavioral and psychological symptoms of the disease. (30)
Ginkgo may also be effective for preventing cognitive decline. One retrospective analysis of data collected over 20 years found that elderly people without dementia who took ginkgo showed less long-term cognitive decline than those who did not. (2) Another double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial that appeared in the journal Human Psychopharmacology reported that the healthy participants who took Ginkgo biloba for six weeks experienced an improvement in memory and cognition. (22) However, not all studies have found benefit and more research is needed to confirm ginkgo’s cognitive capabilities. (9)(33)
4. Premenstrual syndrome
There is some evidence that Ginkgo biloba may help to alleviate the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). During one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 85 college-aged female participants were given either 40 mg of ginkgo three times per day or a placebo from day 16 of their menstrual cycle to day 5 of their next cycle over the course of two consecutive cycles. Among those taking the ginkgo, the severity of symptoms dropped by 23.68% in the ginkgo group and only 8.74% in the control group. (24)
Imagine constant ringing or buzzing in your ears. This is what people with tinnitus experience every day. One review of three clinical trials found that a standardized Ginkgo biloba supplement (EGb 761) was more effective than a placebo for reducing the symptoms of tinnitus. (32) Another study found that pairing standardized ginkgo with hearing aids improved symptoms in a group of patients with both tinnitus and hearing loss. (26). However, studies using other non-standardized forms of the herb did not find any benefit. (10)(16)(28)
About 76 million people worldwide suffer from glaucoma, a sight-robbing group of eye diseases that can lead to blindness. (1) A small four-week placebo-controlled, randomized trial found that taking 80 mg of Ginkgo biloba twice per day increased blood flow to the eyes in patients with normal tension glaucoma—a form of the disease that results in optic nerve damage. (25) Other research points to the herb’s potential to protect against age-related macular degeneration thanks to its ability to quench free radicals, prevent platelets from clumping together, and improve blood flow to the eyes. (4)
Did you know? Ginkgo biloba may increase the skin’s moisture content while also potentially reducing roughness and wrinkles when applied topically via a cosmetic cream. (6)
Forms of Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo is commonly available as an oral tablet, capsule, extract, or tea. Most ginkgo extract is in the form of EGb 761, which is standardized to include 6% terpenoids and 24% flavonoid glycosides. (23)
Is Ginkgo biloba safe?
Ginkgo biloba is generally considered safe and well-tolerated at recommended dosage amounts. (23) However, some people can experience mild side effects including allergic skin reactions, constipation, gastrointestinal upset, headache, and heart palpitations. (37)
The herb can interact with a number of pharmaceuticals including blood thinners like warfarin, some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac or Zoloft, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. (23)(35) Always check with your health care practitioner before taking Ginkgo biloba or any supplement, especially if you are also taking medications.
The bottom line
Ginkgo biloba has a long history of medicinal use thanks to its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory actions. Studies show that it’s effective for improving cognition, memory, and mood in those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The herb also enhances circulation, which supports both cardiovascular and eye health. Other studies suggest that ginkgo may benefit several other health conditions.
If you’re a patient thinking of adding Ginkgo biloba to your supplement routine, check with your health care practitioner to make sure it’s appropriate in your specific situation.
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