Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree dating back 350 million years and native to China. The seeds of the ginkgo tree have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine for multiple ailments, including asthma and urinary problems. The tree itself, a deciduous conifer, has been cultivated in Europe since 1827, though it’s only relatively recently that parts, typically the leaves, have been used medicinally in the West.
The ginkgo tree provides an incredible example of the resilience and tenacity of much of the natural world. Trees just one or two kilometers from Hiroshima, Japan, were found to be growing well soon after the 1945 atomic bomb blast (1).
What Makes Ginkgo Biloba Useful?
So, we know that the ginkgo biloba tree has some history; but just because something is ancient doesn’t necessarily make it good for us. However, scientific research on the dried leaf extract of ginkgo biloba has established that although there are more than 40 compounds, there are probably only two biologically active components. The first of these is flavonoids — plant-based antioxidants which, in humans, can protect the nerves, blood vessels and eyes from oxidative stress.
The second group of compounds is ginkgolides, terpenoids which are specific to the gingko biloba tree. These have been shown to improve blood flow to most tissues and organs by dilating the body’s blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of platelets in the blood (2). The result may lead to improvements in cardiovascular health.
What are the Benefits?
In the last couple of decades, a lot of research has focused on the effect of ginkgo biloba extracts, particularly looking at their effects on the brain and more specifically focusing on the role of ginkgo and memory. The results of experiments show that taking ginkgo both in healthy subjects and in subjects with impaired cognition may be beneficial. This may be due to the combination of the flavonoids and the ginkgolides found in the leaves.
There is good evidence to support the use of ginkgo to aid in cognition and memory, particularly in those with dementia — Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia (3).
These beneficial cognitive effects carry over into healthy individuals, too. In a placebo-controlled study, those who took ginkgo produced a number of significant positive changes on the performance measures of the actively supplemented group in terms of cognition. For example, there was a dose-dependent improvement in the “speed of attention” with effects lasting up to six hours (4).
It is still to be determined how exactly ginkgo biloba exerts these effects. Among the suggested mechanisms are dilation of the blood vessels, which results in increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Some evidence also suggests an effect on specific signaling molecules in the brain that are normally involved in cognition.
In sum, there is an increasing amount of evidence to support the use of ginkgo biloba. What this means for you is more focus throughout the day — whether that be while you’re training or at work.