[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 76 – Learning About Ginkgo

learning about ginkgo

Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).

― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Ginkgo trees are one of the ancients, having been growing and flourishing since the Jurassic period, dating them to be in existence for 145.5 – 199.6 million years. That’s a really long time! Known as a “living fossil,” Ginkgo is the only living relative in the Ginkgoaceae family. With their ancient genes comes ancient medicine. The first known Chinese herbalist, Emperor Shen Nung is the author of the ancient medical/herbal text Pen T’sao Ching and Ginkgo is listed among one of many plants used 5,000 years ago.

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In traditional and modern day herbal medicine, the leaf of Ginkgo is used. The seed has been used as well but can be toxic, especially in large doses. Many people eat the seeds shelled and cooked with no adverse reactions. If you were to chew on a leaf of Ginkgo, you would notice it to be a bit sweet and bitter. While Ginkgo is neither warming or cooling (he is considered neutral), you would notice a drying effect from the leaf.

Nutritionally, Ginkgo leaf contains protein, calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, zinc, and vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), and B3 (niacin).

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Ginkgo also contains amino acids, benzoic acid, flavonoids (quercetin, rutin, ginkgolide, kaempferol), flavones (ginkgolic acid, sciaopitysin, ginkgetin, bilobetin, and more), bioflavonoids, terpenes (bilobalides, ginkgolides) and tannins.

Medicinally, Ginkgo is antibacterial, anticoagulant, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, brain tonic, cardiotonic, circulatory stimulant, circulatory tonic, decongestant, neuroprotective, rejuvenative, and a vasodilator.

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So, let’s take a look at what we can use Ginkgo for…

Ginkgo’s species name is biloba, or bi-lobed, referring to the leaves that are often two-lobed in appearance. We herbalists often consider that the plants tell us their medicinal uses through various characteristics, the language of the plants, so to speak. With Ginkgo, this language translates to parts of our body that contain two: the two sides of our brain, the two sides of our heart, our two ears, our two eyes, our two arms and legs, and our two lungs. It almost seems that there’s no part of our body that Ginkgo doesn’t have an effect on!

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Let’s break this down further starting with the brain. As a brain tonic, circulatory stimulant, and neuroprotectant, Ginkgo works to improve blood circulation and oxygen delivery to the brain which helps to improve mental functions such as memory, and problem solving. It has been found to be helpful for those suffering from vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease when introduced during the early stages. Those who have suffered from a stroke may find Ginkgo to be useful in stroke recovery. For those who suffer from migraines, some have found Ginkgo to provide relief and even prevent migraines from returning.

Ginkgo is often used for those planning a trip to high altitudes to prevent altitude sickness by helping to provide oxygen rich blood to the brain as well as thinning out the blood with his anticoagulant action (blood tends to thicken at high altitudes). It’s best to start taking Ginkgo regularly several days prior to a trip; James Duke recommends 120 milligrams daily. Children would want to take 1/4 – 1/2 the dosage depending on their age and weight.

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When it comes to our heart, Ginkgo is a cardiotonic, circulatory stimulant, anticoagulant, vasodilator and antioxidant. Taking Ginkgo regularly may reduce the risk of heart disease as well as lower blood cholesterol. Taking it a step further with our circulation, Ginkgo inhibits platelet activating factor (PAF), a substance that is released by various blood cells. PAF makes our blood stickier which in turn can cause blood clotting, inflammation and allergenic responses.

For the ears, Ginkgo has been able to relieve folks of tinnitus, a condition in which a person hears a ringing, buzzing, chirping, hissing or other sound in the ears when no external sound is present. Some forms of tinnitus and other hearing impairments may be caused by a lack of circulation in the brain, in which Ginkgo can be very effective in reversing.

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As we get older, our eyes start to wear out. Many older people get a painless, progressive disorder known as macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness. Ginkgo’s circulatory stimulant and antioxidant actions work together to help improve long-distance vision. Some studies are now indicating that Ginkgo may go as far as reverse damage to the retina. 

Our outer extremities, the arms and legs, often suffer from their own conditions relating to circulation. Calling on his circulatory stimulating actions along with his vasodilating actions, Ginkgo works to strengthen capillaries and blood vessels, assisting with varicose veins and broken capillaries. Ginkgo contains rutin, which is helpful as well. A disorder in the legs, known as intermittent claudication, is often caused by the narrowing of arteries in the legs, which causes pain in the calves after walking. Studies have shown Ginkgo to be effective in lowering cholesterol, which can cause the arteries to narrow, as well as improving the flow of blood through vasodilation, lessening the severity of intermittent claudication. Another circulatory disorder, Raynaud’s disease, often causes problems with hands and feet. Those suffering from Raynaud’s may have a loss of sensation along with frigid, stiff fingers and toes, generally more noticeable during cold temperatures. Again, Ginkgo works to increase circulation to the outer extremities, returning blood flow to the fingers and toes to decrease the issues. Ginkgo can ease feelings of coldness in our extremities and may improve the ability to walk further.

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One final pair in the body that is strongly effected by Ginkgo is our lungs. Ginkgo’s anti-PAF action helps to decrease allergic reactions which reduces bronchoconstriction and inflammation in the lungs which in turn eases chest tightness and wheezing from bronchial conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. We talked about PAF regarding the circulatory system, in the lungs, PAF can be released during immediate hypersensitive reactions in the lungs, which leads to bronchoconstriction.

Ginkgo can take time to show effects so be prepared to use it for at least 6 weeks. If using long term, you should take a 6 week break every 6 months.

Those who are anticoagulant or anti platelet medications should only use Ginkgo under the guidance of a qualified practitioner. Those who have excessive bleeding should also use caution with Ginkgo. The raw leaf may cause gastrointestinal discomfort, if this happens, discontinue use or seek out a standardized extract. Ginkgo has been known to interact with many medications such as blood thinners, thiazide diuretics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Photo credit: Jo Feterle of http://redskyapiary.com/

Photo credit: Jo Feterle of http://redskyapiary.com/

Ginkgo trees are fairly easy to grow but are very slow growing. If you can find a female tree (which can be hard to do as the rotting fruits smell awful to most), you can plant the seeds and they will grow. Most reputable nurseries will only sell female trees. If you are growing yours from seed, you have quite a long time to wait until the tree matures and produces seeds as it takes 20-40 years to reach maturity. The downside to growing the male is that they produce high allergen pollen. Use caution when touching the seeds, they can cause contact dermatitis similar to poison ivy. It’s best to wear gloves when harvesting them (see the recipe section for more information).

Leaves should be harvested when the Ginkgo leaves of autumn turn yellow. See the recipe section for information on harvesting.

Do you have Ginkgo growing in your area? Have you ever harvested it for medicine? Tell us all about your adventures with this wonderful tree!


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