Whether you’re deep into marathon training or hit the ground running a little too eagerly pursuing those #NewYearNewYou goals, muscle soreness happens to the best of us. While soaking in an Epsom salt bath can work wonders, there’s another secret weapon worth having in your back pocket: ginkgo biloba.
Never heard of it? Ginkgo biloba comes from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, which originally hails from China. It’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries because of its many healing benefits—including, yes, muscle soreness. “One of ginkgo biloba’s functions is working as a blood invigorator,” says TCM expert, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, and IN:Total Wellness founder, Simone Wan. “It increases blood circulation and can especially help with joint and muscle injuries and soreness.” Basically, boosted blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, helping speed their recovery.
But that’s not the only benefit it offers up. Keep reading for every ginkgo biloba benefit, potential risks, and ways to incorporate the herb into your diet.
Other ginkgo biloba benefits
1. It may be good for your brain. As Wan explains above, ginkgo biloba increases blood flow in the body—and this includes your brain, which is key for keeping the mind sharp and healthy.
However, research is notoriously mixed on the subject. While a 2017 review of studies found that ginkgo biloba could improve cognitive function for people with dementia, a 2012 meta-analysis found no evidence to prove that the supplement gives any kind of brain benefit for healthy people. (And a very large 2009 clinical trial found the same.) So…take all brain-boosting claims with a grain of salt.
2. It may improve kidney health. Because of its antioxidant content, researchers have found it boosted kidney function in rats. When they gave the rats the herb, it was able to protect their bodies from the effects of toxic heavy metal particles better and faster than rats who had no ginkgo biloba.
3. It may help lower inflammation. “Blood has many healing qualities to it, including bringing healing nutrients and oxygen to damaged cells,” Wan explains. “Gingko increases blood circulation, so the blood flow helps lower inflammation in certain areas of the body, specifically the lower back, knees, and brain.”
4. It could help with anxiety. If you go to a TCM expert, don’t be surprised if he or she recommends upping your ginkgo consumption. “The gingko leaf has an astringent quality and brings heat from the upper part of the body downward,” Wan says. “If you think of anxiety as your heart on fire, think of gingko as a fire extinguisher shooting coolness downward.”
However, Wan says this one herb shouldn’t be considered a cure-all for anxiety. “Anxiety should also be treated by nourishing the heart, not just extinguishing the fire,” she says. Some other herbs she says can help: rhodiola rosea, schisandra fruit, and radix bupleuri, a few herbs she uses in a blend specially crafted to reduce anxiety. And of course, therapy, lifestyle changes, and traditional medications (if needed) should also be a part of your treatment arsenal.
5. It may help with your headaches. Some small studies have backed up the effectiveness at using ginkgo for migraines in women, and it’s been used as a TCM-approved remedy for headaches for a long time. So if your go-to remedies aren’t helping, this might be one to consider.
6. It could make PMS less awful. As if all the above benefits weren’t reason enough to consider consuming more ginkgo, the herb could also lessen PMS symptoms, both with cramps and mood. It worked in a small, randomized, double-blind study, which is very promising.
Potential risks of ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba is generally considered to be safe for people, but there are some potential risks to be aware of. According to the Mayo Clinic, gingko can cause side effects like dizziness, headaches, constipation, and heart palpitations.
And it’s not for everyone. “Women who are pregnant, have heavy blood flow during their periods, or have chronic diarrhea should not use this herb,” Wan says. “The herb can increase circulation in the lower part of the body’s organs…[so] it may also cause extra bleeding or worse yet, an early miscarriage.” Per the Mayo Clinic, the supplement may also interfere with drugs used to treat anxiety (like Xanax), diabetes, and blood clotting.
Another thing to keep in mind: A major 2013 report from the National Toxicology Program found that gingko biloba was associated with liver cancer in mice, and thyroid cancer in rats and male mice. The study looked at just rodents, not humans, so that doesn’t mean that ginkgo is automatically going to cause cancer (especially given that the animals were given super-high doses of ginkgo biloba that don’t reflect how most people consume it). But it is something certainly to be aware of when you consider taking the supplement.
How to consume it
The first step: Talk to your doctor to ensure that it won’t interfere with any existing conditions or medications that you are taking. If they give you the green light, there are a few ways to go about taking it.
Because it’s a leaf, ginkgo biloba is commonly ground up and used in a blend with other beneficial herbs. It’s not unusual to find it in a tea blend or powder, which you can add to hot water to make your own tea, or add to your morning smoothie. It’s also available in tincture form, so if you can add a dropper’s worth to your smoothie, coffee, tea, or food that way, too. Or if you’re just looking for the least complicated route, you can take it as a supplement.
While ginkgo biloba isn’t as trendy as some of the other anti-inflammatory agents, like moringa and turmeric, it does have the potential to give your whole bod a boost. It’s yet another ancient practice that has (mostly) withstood the test of time.
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