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  • Gingko nuts good for coughs, asthma

    This staple ingredient in popular Chinese desserts strengthens the lungs and kidneys.

    WHAT IT IS: Popular Chinese desserts such as orh nee (yam paste) and cheng tng (soup with longans, barley, agar strips, lotus seeds and sweet syrup, served either hot or cold) share a common ingredient – gingko nuts.

    These nuts represent silver ingots and are believed by the Chinese to herald prosperity.

    The nuts are also a common feature in sweet dessert soup drunk during the Chinese New Year, in the hope that people's lives will be sweet in the new year.

    This fruit is from the gingko tree, which is found in areas with acidic soil and good drainage, such as the Zhejiang province in eastern China, and harvested during autumn, said Ms Lim Sock Ling, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner at Bao Zhong Tang TCM Centre.

    They are available with or without shells here.

    Ms Lim said gingko nuts with shells should have a sheen and feel full and heavy when handled.

    One can also buy the gingko nuts without shells, usually vacuum-packed or canned, and they should be pale yellow if they are of good quality, she added.

    The white shells and thin outer skins of gingko nuts are removed before cooking.

    A 100g packet of gingko nuts with shells costs $0.40 and a 250g packet of gingko nuts without shells costs $1.50 at some medical halls here.

    HOW TCM USES IT: The bittersweet gingko nut is considered neutral in nature.

     The nut is thought to move through the meridians of the kidneys and lungs. Meridians are channels in the body through which qi (vital energy) travels. A good flow of qi in the body is needed for good health.

     The gingko nut is used to address qi deficiency in the kidneys and lungs, which typically manifests as a chronic cough.

     The kidneys and lungs are believed in TCM to govern the movement of qi in the body, Ms Lim said. She added that coughing is a forceful action from the upper thorax (chest), which depletes qi and, in turn, disrupts its circulation in the body.

     People with this area of deficiency are prone to developing asthma. The characteristic breathing difficulties are due to the abnormal upward flow of qi, Ms Lim added.

     The bitterness of gingko nuts is believed to have a downward action on qi, thus countering the detrimental effects of asthma.

     TCM practitioners believe that asthma is common in children because their kidneys are still developing. As their kidneys strengthen with age, their asthma also improves, Ms Lim said.

     Herbs with an astringent property, such as gingko nuts, are used to arrest abnormal discharge from the body. These problems include urinary frequency, night-time urinary incontinence and heavy vaginal discharge, Ms Lim said.

     WHO IT IS FOR: People suffering from asthma, or those battling phlegm-laden coughs for prolonged periods.

     The herb is commonly prescribed for those with inherently weak constitutions – hence weak kidneys – and the elderly, who are prone to qi deficiency of the kidneys.

     Ms Lim advised children and adults to consume no more than seven and 10 gingko nuts in a day respectively.

    WHO SHOULD AVOID IT: People who are on anti-clotting medication such as aspirin and warfarin, should consume gingko nuts with care because they have an increased risk of bleeding, Ms Lim said.

    She cautioned that the nuts are poisonous when raw or eaten in large quantities. Convulsions or loss of consciousness may result.

    She also said some people may be allergic to the chemicals in the sarcotesta, which is the outer fleshy coating of the ginkgo nuts, so disposable gloves should be worn when handling gingko nuts for cooking.

    WHAT RESEARCH HAS SHOWN: A 2010 article in the journal BMC Geriatrics reported on the results of the use of gingko nuts in people with different forms of dementia – Alzheimer's disease, and vascular or mixed dementia.

    Vascular dementia – usually caused by strokes – is one of the most common forms of dementia.

    Mixed dementia is a condition in which characteristics of more than one type of dementia occur simultaneously.

    The systematic review of nine controlled trials involving more than 2,300 patients showed that taking gingko nut extracts for a period of up to 52 weeks led to a statistically significant improvement in cognition for patients with Alzheimer's disease and vascular or mixed dementia.

    Still, the five authors from two universities in Germany concluded that "it is difficult to assess if the moderate effects of gingko on cognition and ADLs (activities of daily living) make a difference to the patients in the long run".

    The article also noted that problems such as mild gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches, dizziness or allergic skin reactions have occasionally been reported during consumption of the gingko nut extract.

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