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Improves tinnitus, relieves Alzheimer's symptoms, reduces inflammation caused by asthma and allergies, fights stroke damage, eases multiple sclerosis outbreaks, lessens peripheral vascular disease and Raynaud's symptoms

Talk about late bloomers! Ginkgo, the oldest living tree species on earth, has been used medicinally by the Chinese for some 4,000 years. Yet only in the last two decades have Western medical researchers found evidence that ginkgo may offer hope for a host of age-related problems. Ginkgo trees, also known as maidenhair trees, are often planted on city streets. The tree's fruit smells awful when decomposed and can cause skin irritation, but the almondlike seed within is prized as a commodity in Asian markets.

It is the ginkgo's pretty, fan-shaped leaf, not its foul fruit, that excites scientists these days. Although little known in this country outside of health food stores, a concentrated extract of the plant has been the number-one prescription drug in Germany, where it is used to help asthma and circulation problems. And unlike many plant-based therapeutic agents, "ginkgo preparations have been extensively tested in people, not just in animals and test tubes," says Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Powerful Medicine

What's in ginkgo extract, and what can it do? The active constituents include unique compounds called ginkgolides. One of these compounds, ginkgolide B, has been shown to suppress a clot-promoting substance in the human body called platelet activating factor, or PAF. Since PAF is a key player in body processes such as allergic inflammation and asthma, the disease-fighting potential of ginkgo is intriguing. This and other substances in ginkgo extract have shown various benefits for the ills of old age, especially those resulting from decreased blood supply to the brain and other parts of the body. These effects are believed to stem from ginkgo's ability to dilate arteries and capillaries, the tiny blood vessels that nourish the body's tissues.

Perhaps most exciting is ginkgo's potential for improving short-term memory loss and depression in elderly people. "The research on ginkgo and Alzheimer's disease is producing extremely good results in France and Germany," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. "It seems that the earlier you catch the disease, the greater the chances that you can reverse it by taking ginkgo extract."

The extract has also reduced symptoms of peripheral vascular disease and Raynaud's disease, two painful conditions involving impaired circulation in the feet and hands. And "there are many clinical studies showing it can reduce tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, which affects many older people," according to Dr. Farnsworth.

German research performed on laboratory rats confirmed previous evidence that ginkgolide B may minimize the devastation of stroke. And a French study on humans showed that it may even allay bouts of multiple sclerosis.

Rx: Going Ginkgo

Remember, though, the only well-demonstrated benefits of ginkgo have been from a concentrated extract, not from the leaves themselves. Such extracts are available in the United States, and they are labeled as food supplements, not drugs, in accordance with U.S. regulations. Regular use of such products is widespread in Europe, according to Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal.

Ginkgo extract is generally considered safe, says Dr. Tyler, although it has been noted to cause some generally mild side effects, including restlessness and digestive upset. If you experience such symptoms, he advises, discontinue use. And since ginkgo also affects the body's clotting mechanism, Dr. Tyler warns, use it cautiously if you take anti-clotting medications, including aspirin, or have a clotting disorder.

Dr. Tyler also warns against ginkgo hype aimed at older folks. "While ginkgo has apparently been effective in treating ailments associated with decreased cerebral blood flow in old age," he says, "claims that ginkgo extract will 'reverse the aging process' and increase longevity are, of course, unproven."

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