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Ginkgo Biloba

One Reason to Save Plants

As we develop more and more of our lands, we run the risk of destroying countless plants. Ginkgo biloba provides one of many reason why we should be careful.

The Pacific yew tree and the Ginkgo biloba tree have two things in common: They contain agents that may be able to help us fight disease and have had a brush with extinction; the yew tree right now, and the ginkgo thousands of years ago.

The Pacific yew tree provides us with taxol, a cancer-fighting drug. The tree's unique properties were first discovered in the 1960s due to plant screenings at the National Cancer Institute, and in l979 Dr. Susan Horwitz, a scientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, came upon taxol's ability to prevent cancer cells from multiplying. In 1990, because of extensive logging operations, the American Cancer Institute asked for some type of protection for the tree. The government turned them down; however, in March 1990, the Forest Service agreed to stop the needless burning of cut trees until the bark could be stripped for taxol production. In 1992, the FDA approved Bristol-Myers Squibb's naturally derived Taxol for ovarian cancer (and later breast cancer) and has recently approved its semisynthetic taxol.

The ginkgo tree faced its trial thousands of years ago, and by a force much stronger than man: the ice age. There were once some 15 types of ginkgo trees growing around the world, but only one type survived the glaciers' visit. It thrived along the shores of the Yangtze River of China, and about 1000 years ago, it was carried to Japan. Today, the wild ginkgo is believed to be extinct and has only survived due to its ornamental plantings at ancient temples. This domestic tree is now found throughout the world, in part due to its ability to survive the worst the world can throw at it--drought, pollution, urban settings--you name it, it survives.

Like the Pacific yew, the ginkgo's fan-shaped leaves contain substances that are useful in the treatment of disease: flavonoids (ginkgoflavonglycosides) and terpenoids (terpene molecules unique to ginkgo such as ginkgolides and bilobalide). And also like the Pacific yew, one of the tree's active agents (ginkgolgide B) was isolated and synthesized (at Harvard University in 1988). This is where the similarities end, however. Pharmaceutical companies are not rushing in to continue the work, although ginkgo extract is a huge market in Europe--$280 million a year in Germany alone. After all, you cannot patent a tree. The yew tree is dying out, and with it the ingredients. The ginkgo is alive and well. Why bother researching something readily available that you cannot patent?

Worth the While

The extract derived from ginkgo leaves could well be a horn of plenty, medically speaking. Up to 1993, some 400 scientific reports had been published. These include in vitro and in vivo studies as well as clinical applications. Ginkgo has been studied for many different reasons, among them its effect on circulation and oxygenation, its antioxidant abilities, and its inhibition of PAF (platelet activating factor).

Ginkgo appears to stimulate circulation by working to make blood vessels and red blood cells more flexible, thus making it easier for blood to wind its way around the body. This increased circulation may also be one reason why ginkgo has shown results in improving memory (the brain needs more oxygen than any other organ in our body) and preventing blood clots.

Ginkgo is also recognized as an antioxidant. Antioxidants fight free radicals, which are "renegade molecules" that damage cells and contribute to cardiovascular disease, aging, some forms of cancer, arthritis, and other health conditions. According to Jos Kileijnen and Paul Knipschild in the British medical journal The Lancet, "In vitro studies have shown the G biloba extract has free-radical scavenging properties." They go on to state that the flavonoids found in ginkgo (quercetin, kaempferol, and rutin) seem to be responsible for the antioxidant properties.

Finally, one of ginkgo's terpenoids--ginkgolide B--appears to interfere with platelet activating factor (PAF). PAF has been implicated in asthma, graft rejection, and other immune disorders.

Today, Ginkgo is one of the most frequently prescribed drugs in Europe. In 1988, more than 5 million prescriptions were written for ginkgo in Germany alone, where it is licensed for the treatment of cerebral dysfunction with, for example the following symptoms: difficulties of memory, dizziness, tinnitus, headaches, and emotional instability with anxiety. Research continues to explore how ginkgo can help us (see the box on page x for a short bibliography on ginkgo).

Although in the United States and the United Kingdom almost 25 percent of the active components of currently prescribed medicine continue to be developed from plants, only 10 percent of the estimated 250,000 flowering plants have been examined for medicinal potential. Sixty thousand species will probably be extinct by 2050. If even a few of the species reveal the breadth of uses that ginkgo has, it would be well worth the while to begin looking harder at the natural world around us.

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Further Reading

Hofferberth, B. 1994. "The efficacy of EGB 761 in patients with senile dementia of the Alzheimer type, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on different levels of investigation." In Human Psychopharmacology 9, pp. 215-22.

Kleijnen, Jos, and Paul Knipschild. 1992. "Ginkgo Biloba." In The Lancet, Vol. 340, No. 8838 (Nov. 7, 1992).

Christen, J., J. Constentin, and M. Lacour, eds. 1992. Effect of Ginkgo Biloba Extract on the Central Nervous System. Available from ABC Books. ISBN 2-906077-28-3

Ferrandini, C., M.T. Droy-Lefaix, and Y. Christen. Ginkgo Biloba as a Free-Radical Scavenger. Available from ABC books. ISBN 2-906077-36-4.

"Herb that turns the clock back." In Prevention, July 1995.

"How much do you know about ginkgo biloba?" by Rob McCaleb. In Better Nutrition for Today's Living, May 1994.

"Ginkgo: circulation herb" by Rob McCaleb. In Better Nutrition for Today's Living, Feb. 1993.

"Health of the ages: the ginkgo way" by Anthony J. Cichoke. In Total Health, Oct. 1993.

"Ginkgo biloba relieves some vascular problems." In Better Nutrition for Today's Living, Nov. 1993.

"Ginkgo biloba improves memory impairment." In Better Nutrition for Today's Living, Dec. 1993.

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