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    Ginkgo: Where East Meets West

    Excerpted from
    Gingko Biloba: An Herbal Foundation of Youth For Your Brain
    By Glenn S. Rothfeld, M.D, M.Ac., Suzanne LeVert

    Millions of Americans have decided to jump on the growing ginkgo biloba bandwagon. Some do so after reading about the herb's properties in a magazine or a book like this one. Others begin taking it after their doctors or other health care practitioners recommend it. But just what is ginkgo, and can it help you? Those are the two main questions we'll answer for you in this book.

    First, it's important for you to understand that, even though you might have heard of ginkgo only recently, it's been used as medicine for centuries. In addition, there have been almost 300 modern scientific studies performed to date that verify its safety and efficacy in treating a wide range of diseases and conditions, including:

    • Asthma and allergies
    • Memory loss and poor concentration
    • Alzheimer's disease
    • Headache
    • Depression
    • Heart disease
    • Peripheral vascular disease
    • Impotence
    • Premenstrual syndrome
    • Vision problems, including macular degeneration
    • Tinnitus (ringing of the ears)
    • Dizziness and other balance problems

    How can one herb act on so many different parts of the body and alleviate so many different conditions? That's what we'll explain in more depth in Chapter 2. For now, let's take a look at where ginkgo came from and how modern medicine has begun to take note of its remarkable effects.

    The "New" Promise of Ginkgo

    In October 1997, headlines in newspapers around the world proclaimed a medical breakthrough. The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association had just published the remarkable results of a study on the effects of a new treatment for Alzheimer's disease, a devastating brain disorder that strikes thousands of the elderly every year. Researchers concluded that this new treatment appeared to stabilize and, in 20 percent of cases, actually improve the functioning of 309 Alzheimer's disease patients-better statistics than those for any medication yet developed. Many studies now being conducted in laboratories around the world are designed to evaluate this remarkable finding and determine just how powerful a remedy ginkgo really is. The initial results are very encouraging.

    What does this new treatment consist of? Did a pharmaceutical company create a new synthetic drug? Did it employ some high-tech ingredient or method just developed?

    Hardly. The substance "discovered" in 1997 to treat Alzheimer's disease is ginkgo biloba, an herb used as medicine for centuries. In fact, a story about ginkgo biloba appears in one of the first medical texts ever written, Pen T'sao (The Great Herbal) in 2,800 B.C., foreshadowing the twentieth-century breakthrough. According to the text, China's first emperor, Shen Nung, had a vision in which a voice whispered that the ginkgo tree standing outside his window would "restore the minds of friends and relatives." Shen Nung instructed his staff to pick some leaves and create a tea, which he then served to those people around him with memory or concentration problems. Within weeks, every one of those afflicted had regained much of their lost mental capabilities.

    And so we've come full circle. As we head toward the new millennium, scientists are reaching back into the past to find more effective ways to treat human disease. They are also increasingly looking to the East, to the countries and cultures of Asia, which continue to maintain approaches to health and disease very different from our own. Asians also look to us for our remarkable technological advances in the same field. In our increasingly interdependent world, the merging of our philosophies is proving beneficial in a variety of respects, and no more so than in the area of health and medicine.

    The scientific focus on ginkgo biloba and the increasing use of this herb are the latest examples of this trend. Used for centuries in China, Japan, and other Asian countries as a medicinal herb effective in the prevention and treatment of a wide variety of conditions, ginkgo biloba is now one of the most widely prescribed formulas in Europe. Doctors in Germany and France dispense more than 1.5 million prescriptions every week to patients suffering from memory loss, lack of attention, depression, circulatory disorders, and other conditions. In 1997 alone, annual sales of ginkgo surpassed $500 million in these countries, and sales are beginning to soar on this side of the Atlantic as well.

    The Living Fossil

    Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and shallow seas and murky swamps covered the continents, ginkgo biloba trees dotted the landscapes of both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. These deciduous trees with their short branches and pale green two-lobed leaves shaped like nubby fans were as at home in the largely unpopulated Mesozoic era 200 million years ago as they are today in crowded late-twentieth-century cities. Often called the "living fossil" because of its remarkable duration-it remains the world's oldest living species of tree-it's no wonder that Steven Spielberg insisted that ginkgo trees appear in his blockbuster movie Jurassic Park!

    Found throughout the United States today, where it is also known as the maidenhair tree, the ginkgo biloba decorates college campuses, front lawns, office complexes, and city streets. You've probably seen ginkgo trees yourself: They grow to be about 100 feet tall and are pyramidal in shape, with slender upright branches that spread wider at the top. The leaves have a distinctive shape: Each one has two lobes divided by a deep notch. The ginkgo is deciduous, which means that its leaves change color with the seasons. In the autumn, they turn a lovely buttery yellow before falling to the ground in winter.

    The tree is remarkably resilient, able to withstand infection by disease, infestation by insects, and destruction by pollution and other man-made toxins. In fact, a ginkgo was the only tree to survive the 1945 atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima, and remains as part of a shrine that marks that disaster.

    Indeed, it took an environmental cataclysm the magnitude of the Ice Age to threaten the ginkgo tree, almost wiping it out in North America and Europe. Ginkgo trees continued to thrive in China and Japan, however, where they were considered sacred, and where their medicinal powers were discovered and preserved. Folklore has it that ginkgo trees survived because the priests and priestesses considered them guardians of Chinese temples, and therefore blessed with strength and immortality.

    For centuries, the Chinese used ginkgo not only as a tonic for the brain, but also as a remedy for asthma, bronchitis, and certain parasitic diseases. Chinese herbal texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries note the use of roasted ginkgo seeds as an aid in digestion, and recommend soaking ripe ginkgo fruit in vegetable oil for 100 days before using it as a treatment for tuberculosis. Leaves were boiled to make a tea to treat diarrhea, and to make a lotion to apply to skin affected by frostbite, freckles, and sores. In Japan, herbalists discovered that the coatings of the seeds contained a powerful natural insecticide, and placed them between the pages of books or near scrolls to protect their valuable papers from insect infestation.

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