Botanical medicine has aided our survival as a species since the early days. Archaeological evidence supporting the use of medicinal plants can be dated to almost 60,000 years ago, a time during the Paleolithic age defined by our rudimentary stone tools.
Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists once argued that it was this use of tools that separated us from our more primitive cousins, though even that theory has developed.
Archaeological evidence is one thing, but the first written account appears on a Sumerian clay slab from Nagpur that dates back to 5,000 years ago.
Contained in the writings were 12 recipes that were a combination of over 250 medicinal plants, many of which are still used to this day.
With the almost exponential evolution of modern technologies, it is far easier today to understand what makes an herb work as well. No longer do we need to question the mechanism of action, and by extension, the safety or risk of interactions. This is where ancient medicines, like the leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree, find their way in the modern world. They are considered to be some of the oldest trees with many found at temples thought to be 1,000 years old, if not more! The reason they've flourished for so long is their natural resistance against all kinds of pests and environmental conditions.
If you think we're reaching beyond the science, consider that six ginkgo trees located only 1 to 2 kilometers from the blast site of the 1945 explosion of the atom bomb over Hiroshima survived. While they suffered a bit of charring, they still stand to this day despite almost all other living things in the area perishing during or soon after the blast.
This resilience isn't surprising as the species dates back over 200 million years, meaning it has overcome countless struggles, and will surely continue facing many more long after humans are gone.
There are a host of active ingredients within the leaf including terpene ginkgolides, flavonoids and ginkgolic acid. Due to its affinity for cerebro-vasculature, its use is well-established for cognitive issues or memory concerns in countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Austria and Germany. The herbal monograph released by medical authorities in Germany noted ginkgo was approved in the treatment of vertigo, disturbed arterial and cerebral blood flow and helping to strengthen the circulatory system. More recent monographs including that from the British Herbal Compendium and the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy echo these claims.
Clinical data including randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials show groups receiving an extract of Ginkgo performing significantly better on objective measures like the Short Cognitive Performance Test and the Neuropsychiatric Inventory. A lot of these studies were conducted in those with mild to moderate dementia or those with suboptimal blood flow. All of this points to its use as a brain booster in helping to support short-term memory and concentration. This might be due to its ability to increase nitric oxide which helps open the blood vessels, though most research supports its use over 24 weeks or 6 months before you see maximum benefit.
Due to the influence of its compounds on blood vessels, we often see a warning that Ginkgo interacts with anti-coagulants, despite no strong evidence of clinically relevant side effects reported with standardized extracts used in clinical studies. Though it is always best to consult your primary care provider should you have any questions regarding interactions.
With the use of ginkgo accelerating due to an aging population, how do we keep up?
A.Vogel produces between two and 10 metric tons of fresh ginkgo each year, from nurseries spread throughout Germany, Switzerland and France. These fresh leaves are harvested around August when the active compounds are most highly concentrated before they undergo extraction and packaging.
So, if you're walking into a room and forgetting why you're there, it might be time to walk into a nearby health store or pharmacy and pick up some Ginkgo.
European Medicines Agency: EMA/HMPC/321095/2012 - Assessment report on Ginkgo biloba L., folium. https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/herbal-report/draft-assessment-report-ginkgo-biloba-l-folium_en.pdf, January 2014.
Major, Randolph T. "The ginkgo, the most ancient living tree: the resistance of Ginkgo biloba L. to pests accounts in part for the longevity of this species." Science 157.3794 (1967): 1270-1273.
Petrovska, Biljana Bauer. "Historical review of medicinal plants' usage." Pharmacognosy reviews 6.11 (2012): 1.
Savaskan, Egemen, et al. "Treatment effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761® on the spectrum of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." International psychogeriatrics 30.3 (2018): 285-293.
Wu, Yu‐Zhou, et al. "Ginkgo biloba extract improves coronary artery circulation in patients with coronary artery disease: contribution of plasma nitric oxide and endothelin‐1." Phytotherapy Research: An International Journal Devoted to Pharmacological and Toxicological Evaluation of Natural Product Derivatives 22.6 (2008): 734-739.
Yang, Guoyan, et al. "Ginkgo biloba for mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry 16.5 (2016): 520-528.