THE TREE OF LIFE
new research on Gingko biloba excites science
A tree that dinosaurs fed on, a tree that grows 30m tall and lives for a thousand years, may hold secrets to a longer and healthier life. The last of its kind, Gingko biloba is the oldest surviving relic of a time long past. IAN WISHART reports on its growing use as a medical must-have
It was a throwaway reference that turned up while researching retinal damage for this issue’s blue light story, but it’s funny how diverting down a rabbit hole can lead to a whole new paradigm.
The reference suggested the herbal extract gingko biloba, and more specifically the purified pharmaceutical extract EGb-761, may have a protective effect against retinal damage to your eyes caused by light exposure.
EGb-761? This magazine has written about that extract before in its alt.health pages. It’s probably better known by its trade name, Tebonin, prescribed worldwide as a treatment for tinnitus, vertigo and other conditions. Now eye health as well.
The implications are serious. As the lighting feature shows, the massive growth in exposure to high intensity white and blue light from our current crop of computer screens, smartphones, tablets LED TVs, LED house lighting and CFL energy ‘efficient’ lightbulbs, may be pushing us towards blindness by our seventies – an increasingly dark prospect in every sense of the word.
There’s no magic potion that will instantly cure or remove the threat, and wearing yellow sunglasses while watching TV or working in an office may be the best thing you can do, even if it is a crime against fashion, nonetheless the latest Tebonin study bears some thinking about because it suggests you could slow down the speed of eye degeneration.
The key lies in the anti oxidant properties of Tebonin:
“The anti-oxidant action of EGb-761 is due to its flavonoid glycosides, which can scavenge oxygen free radicals and lipid peroxides,” it reports, which is a technical way of saying the extract helps mop up some of the causes of retinal degeneration that are a by-product of light exposure. “Thus, EGb-761 can protect against light-induced retinal damage.”
The idea that taking a supplement could be a major weapon in the fight against eye strain and degeneration caused by light emitting electronics is one plus, but once you venture down the Tebonin rabbit hole you find others.
For possibly the same reasons that it protects against light damage in the eyes, Tebonin is now being tested as a possible anti-aging product for the skin. Because of ethical issues involving such a test on humans, given the skin cancer risk, Chinese researchers used lab mice and a culture of human skin cells in two separate experiments with Tebonin over a period of months. They wanted to find out whether topical application of the purified gingko biloba extract on the skin could protect against sun and UV light damage. The results were astounding.
“The signs of photoaging or photodamage, such as coarse wrinkle formation, epidermal hyperplasia, and elastic fiber degeneration, markedly reduced with the topical application of EGb-761. Western blot and ELISA revealed that the activation of MMP-1 in cultured fibroblasts markedly diminished after pretreatment with EGb-761.”
The research team’s conclusion: “topically applied EGb-761 may be a promising photoprotective agent.”
For those wondering how so many scientific studies can be plucked out of the ether, gingko biloba is one of the most widely studied herbs in the world for medicinal purposes, and it was the German pharmaceutical giant Schwabe’s patenting in the 1960s of the purified extract EGb-761 that catapulted that research. Now, rather than having to eat a ton of the herb, a purified, concentrated sample could be delivered to patients in small but effective doses. As one study this year called it, EGb-761 is “the gold standard” for gingko biloba extracts, and that’s why it is used in clinical trials and studies.
Of 25 Gingko biloba products on the market and tested by a major medical journal, only Tebonin, the EGb-761 extract, passed all five of the test requirements. Ten brands didn’t meet any requirements and the rest didn’t pass more than three out of five requirements.
The more researchers look, the more they discover, such as its important role not just in protecting the brain, but helping to restore mental agility after a stroke, for example. Worldwide, stroke is the leading medical cause of disability, and is the third-ranked cause of death:
“Recent studies on the mechanisms of action of this extract have unravelled a host of other effects, many of which are not related to its anti-oxidant effects. This has broadened the scope of EGb 761 beyond the traditional realm of neuroprotection to the restorative and recovery potential for stroke therapy.
“A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled and randomized clinical study for the first time recommended the use of G. biloba in stroke recovery. Gingko biloba (120 mg daily) treatment for 4 months following an ischemic stroke significantly reduced NIHSS in stroke patients compared to the placebo group (Oskouei et al., 2013)”
The way Tebonin works to protect the brain is interesting. For decades, scientists believed brain damage was irreversible, that neurons could not be repaired. In more recent times, new research has disabused them of that notion. It’s now clear that neurons can grow back in the right conditions, and EGb-761 has been clinically found to assist in that. The implications for stroke recovery are obvious, but researchers have recently discovered that many of us suffer from undetected “micro-strokes” that over a period of time slowly reduce our cognitive function.
The possible use of Tebonin as a dietary supplement to help reduce your risk of hidden microstrokes is being explored, but given its role in the bigger version, an ounce of prevention now may be a worthy investment in the future.
“EGb 761 enhances neurogenesis,” reports the study, which is the medical way of saying it boosts the growth of new brain cells.
“Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability and poses excruciating economic and societal burdens (Go et al., 2014). Therapies aimed at post-stroke recovery may help curb the rising cost of healthcare and are therefore highly sought after. To treat complex neurodegenerative diseases, polypharmacology is a well sought strategy, and natural products, particularly extracts, can offer a treasure of potential drug leads that could someday change the way we think of neuro-regeneration and the use of medicinal plants.”
Other studies have concentrated on the way it boosts mental cognition, possibly by helping increase blood flow to the brain. It has, reported one study, the “ability to alleviate neuropsychiatric conditions and to boost cognitive functions. It produces antidepressant effect (Rojas et al., 2011), and protects against neuronal damage.”
To understand why so much scientific and medical attention is now focusing on Tebonin, you only have to look at the way science is calling it a health tonic in one tablet:
“Ginkgo biloba L. (Ginkgoaceae) has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Extracts from G. biloba leaves (EGb 761) have been documented to possess a broad spectrum of pharmacological properties, including neuroprotective effect, anticancer, cardioprotective, stress alleviating, memory enhancing effects, potential benefits against tinnitus, geriatric complaints, and psychiatric disorders.”
In the same way that Vitamin D is proving to have a major effect on health, the Gingko biloba extract is vitamin D’s herbal counterpart. The Chinese have records of using Gingko biloba to treat stroke, asthma and lung problems for aeons. They were lucky they still had access to the plant. It’s the oldest surviving relic of its family, more than 200 million years on the planet. It pre-dates T-Rex by about 130 million years. Some call it the tree of life, others “a living fossil”.
If you’re wondering why anyone should pay attention to a “herbal remedy” for cognition, rather than writing about the best that medical science can offer, have a look at the response from medical science – ‘we can’t help you’:
“Conventional Western medicine cannot prevent cognitive decline, leaving many consumers turning to alternative treatments, such as nutritional therapies. Total [US] sales of dietary supplements, including those touted to enhance cognition, were estimated at over US$30 billion in 2010.”
In other words, if you are hoping your local GP can give you a medication to keep your brain in tip-top condition, they can’t. That’s why research into vitamin D and EGb-761 Tebonin has become cutting edge – supplements are the only game in town.
A 2014 study finding mirrored an earlier result:
“Mix and Crews investigated the 6-week effect of Ginkgo biloba extract (180 mg/day of EGb 761) compared to placebo on cognitive functioning in 48 healthy elderly (55 years of age and above) participants. The participants on Ginkgo biloba extract significantly improved on the SCWT (i.e., a task assessing speed of processing abilities) at follow-up compared to participants on placebo.”
Like all scientific studies, sometimes there are conflicts in the results, which may be related to doses or other factors. Vitamin D studies, for example, have consistently shown little health benefit from low dose vitamin D at New Zealand’s recommended daily intake of 200IU. When you get up to doses of ten times that, 2000IU or more, the Vitamin D studies show massive impact on breast cancer and heart disease. There’s a similar effect at play in Gingko biloba research. The study cited above used a dose of 180mg/day and found a positive effect. Another study with the dosage at 40mg/day found no benefit.
In one research study, scientists compared the brain function and reaction time of a group of women in their late teens, with a group of women in their late forties. After six weeks’ treatment with Tebonin, the reaction times of the older women in the memory tests had significantly improved, and their brain patterns returned to the type of patterns seen in young women.
Good for your eyes, for mental cognition, for getting rid of ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and vertigo/dizziness, helps with anti-ageing of the skin, boosts your chances of recovery from a stroke or perhaps preventing one, plus it may help fight cancer. Had the dinosaurs known what we now know, could they have avoided extinction? Now there’s a question to get your cognitive gear around.
 “Effect of EGb761 on light-damaged retinal pigment epithelial cells,” Zhou et al, Int J Ophthalmol. 2014; 7(1): 8–13. Published online Feb 18, 2014. doi: 10.3980/j.issn.2222-3959.2014.01.02
 “EGb-761 prevents ultraviolet B-induced photoaging via inactivation of mitogen-activated protein kinases and proinflammatory cytokine expression,” Chen et al, Journal of Dermatological Science, Volume 75, Issue 1, July 2014, Pages 55–62
 “Pharmaceutical quality of different Gingko biloba brands,” Kressman et al, Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 2002, 54: 661-669
 Raghavan A, Shah ZA. Repair and regeneration properties of Ginkgo biloba after ischemic brain injury. Neural Regen Res 2014;9:1104-7
 Abdulmumin A. Nuhu., Ginkgo biloba: A ‘living fossil’ with modern day phytomedicinal applications. J App Pharm Sci. 2014;4(03):096-103
 “Neuroprotective Effect of Ginkgolide K against H2O2-Induced PC12 Cell Cytotoxicity by Ameliorating Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Oxidative Stress,” Ma et al, Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin Vol. 37 (2014) No. 2 p. 217-225 http://dx.doi.org/10.1248/bpb.b13-00378
 “A double-blind, randomized clinical trial of dietary supplementation on cognitive and immune functioning in healthy older adults”, Lewis et al, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014, 14:43 doi:10.1186/1472-6882-14-43
 Mix JA, Crews WD Jr: An examination of the efficacy of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb761 on the neuropsychologic functioning of cognitively intact older adults. J Altern Complement Med 2000, 6:219-229
 Solomon PR, Adams F, Silver A, Zimmer J, DeVeaux R: Ginkgo for memory enhancement: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2002, 288:835-840.
 Ginkobiloba Extract Improves Working Memory Performance in Middle-Aged Women, Sakatani et al, Oxygen Transport to Tissue XXXVI Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology Volume 812, 2014, pp 295-301