Last Updated on March 20, 2020
Gingko Biloba – The Long, Controversial History
The seeds and leaves of the Gingko Biloba tree are valued internationally for major health benefits, but the ancient tree provides another, less tangible service to humans. If you feel your ego getting a little too large, consider the timelessness of the Gingko tree. Fossils from as far back as 200 million years ago show us that the tree has remained relatively unchanged—even as giant species died out and the world around it warmed and cooled, and eventually transformed into something completely unrecognizable to the world back then.
Gingko’s primary dispersers—the large mammals charged with digesting the tree’s seeds, thus planting more Gingko trees—went extinct, so the theory goes. Yet humans wouldn’t let the tree die along with the dinosaurs, and took it upon themselves to preserve the tree and spread it from coast to coast. This was, perhaps, in part due to the tree’s health benefits.
The Gingko tree has benefited massively from the human race. While claims of the tree benefiting humans have existed for thousands of years, the findings are complex. Let’s take a deeper dive into this top-selling supplement.
Gingko’s uses and history
Gingko is most well-known for being a cure-all of sorts for the brain, boosting mental agility and memory. These benefits stem from Gingko’s flavonoids, powerful antioxidants, and its terpenoids. Terpenoids improve circulation by dilating blood vessels and making platelets less “sticky.” If you have clogged veins, that issue needs to be resolved—and this ancient tree could help.
While Eastern medicine relies upon the seeds of the Gingko tree, Western medicine tends to extract the substances used in Gingko supplements from the leaves. Consequently, the majority of studies on Gingko’s benefits and uses have been conducted using the Gingko’s leaves.
People mostly take gingko supplements because the extract is believed to improve blood flow to the brain, possibly translating to health benefits. Studies have provided mixed results on the use of Gingko supplements on Alzheimer’s patients. While the supplement doesn’t prevent Alzheimer’s, it can prevent the progression of certain cases of dementia, typically when the dementia is a result of circulatory issues. It is also typically used to ease anxiety and, in women, alleviate the symptoms of PMS.
But the supplement’s brain benefits are contested in other studies, which have found Gingko ineffective in slowing the progression of dementia in elderly patients. Gingko’s circulatory benefits are recorded in other studies, with evidence that the supplements can have an easing effect on some pain caused by clogged arteries. The supplements are also used to prevent high-altitude sickness, but the evidence on this remains mainly anecdotal.
Besides the supplements derived from Gingko leaves, the only other way to ingest Gingko is through the nuts. This can be dangerous if eaten raw, although plenty of city dwellers actively collect the nuts from neighbor’s trees to snack on. The supplements are considered much safer, though it’s not recommended to take them if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Certain users suffered side effects like headaches, heart palpitations, GI issues and dizziness.
Gingko’s controversies, explained
The FDA was called on for further action by the Center for Science in the Public Interest because of a lack of quality control in Gingko supplements. After the CSPI conducted tests on various Gingko supplements and found that 6 out of 10 contained fillers and failed to meet quality standards, it claimed that as many as 70% of Gingko supplements commonly sold might have been chemically adulterated. That’s enough to make any supplement user wary.
But the center wasn’t just talking about supplements; it also attacked the effectiveness of the actual ingredient, only upping the ambivalence surrounding Gingko’s health benefits. While any supplement intended to improve mental health is notoriously hard to scientifically measure, the center warned consumers that the supplements were useless and potentially unsafe based on the findings of a 2012 study conducted across the U.K.
The American Botanical Council didn’t agree with the finding. Its chief science officers argued that the CSPI failed to acknowledge high-quality Gingko supplements on the marketplace. The scientists conclude that many claims made against Gingko supplements are generalized and exaggerated. Wherever you fall in the debate, it’s undeniable that these criticisms acknowledge a universally agreed-upon truth: the benefits of Gingko supplements are widely unsubstantiated and at best, conflicting.
Between the contradictory results in studies of Gingko’s effectiveness, potential toxicity to various groups and interference of many common medications, it’s best to proceed with caution. Like many supplements, Gingko can also decrease the effectiveness of various medications, ranging from Xanax to anticonvulsants, so research and a doctor’s advice is warranted before moving forward.
Despite much anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of gingko supplements, this widely studied ancient tree is still full of unknowns. Talk with your doctor before taking a gingko supplement, and choose a reputable brand to minimize your risks.