Tough Tree

The hardy ginkgo may help keep older brains in the game.

By Kelly Maguire

April 2008

Hiroshima, August 1945: A ginkgo tree less than a mile from the explosion center when the atomic bomb fell was the only organism to survive the blast. When rebuilding the ravaged temple, the Japanese adjusted their new sacred place around the ginkgo in a protective U-shape design. “No more Hiroshima” is now engraved on the indestructible tree, along with people’s prayers for peace.

Ginkgos are not only resilient, but also long-lived—China has one that’s 3,500 years old. They are grown worldwide for their natural resistance to fire, disease, insects, pollution and radiation, in addition to their beautiful, fan-shaped leaves. And the ginkgo’s red-orange fruit is popular as a delicacy in Korea, Japan and China.

Ginkgo biloba has been used therapeutically for millennia. The Chinese employed an extract of the tree’s fruit to treat lung diseases and an astringent taken from the nut as a topical wash (Institute for Traditional Medicine 12/07). Scientific interest in the ginkgo is now focused on the potent antioxidants called flavoglycosides found in its leaves. These are thought to explain this ancient herb’s reputation as a brain sharpener.

The Smart Herb

The use of ginkgo has long been associated with improvements in cognitive function and memory. Researchers believe these benefits stem from the fact that ginkgo increases blood flow, which means that extra oxygen and nutrients can reach the brain. In one study, taking supplemental ginkgo on a regular basis reduced the risk of developing mild memory loss by 68% in healthy older people without pre-existing problems (Neurology 10/01).

“One of the most pressing public health problems facing our society is the rapidly growing number of people who, due to their age alone, are at high risk of developing dementia,” says Hiroko Dodge, a researcher at Oregon State University. Ginkgo has long been suspected of ameliorating dementia symptoms and slowing the disorder’s progression. Research conducted at the UCLA

Neuropsychiatric Institute found significant improvement in verbal recall among a group of individuals with age-associated memory impairment who took ginkgo for six months (Society for Neuroscience 11/03).

Ginkgo has also been linked to improved memory in people with MS who have cognitive impairment. In a survey of nearly 2,000 MS patients, 39% found the herb to be beneficial. “It has been shown to be of benefit in Alzheimer’s, but we did not know if it would work for MS,” says Jesus Lovera, PhD, of the OHSU School of Medicine.

More Good Ginkgo News

Ginkgo may help lower the risk of ovarian cancer—the most deadly of all gynecological malignancies. One study found that taking it for six months or longer produced a 60% risk reduction (American Association for Cancer Research, 2/05 meeting). Other findings suggest that this herb could help treat peripheral circulatory problems, angina and heart attack, as well as reduce the risk of stroke. What’s more, ginkgo has been thought to have a positive influence on mood, vertigo, hearing disturbances, macular degeneration and depression.

Ancients always sensed the wonder within ginkgo. Symbolizing the unity of opposites and the changelessness of time, this venerable tree is now on the cutting edge of cognitive health—perhaps permanently bridging the gap between contemporary Western medicine and ancient Asian herbal healing.

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