GinsengPanax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius
There are three different herbs commonly called ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng
, American ginseng
, and Siberian “ginseng”
Asian ginseng is a perennial herb with a taproot resembling the shape of the human body. It grows in northern China, Korea, and Russia; its close relative, Panax quinquefolius , is cultivated in the United States. Because ginseng must be grown for 5 years before it is harvested, it commands a high price, with top-quality roots easily selling for more than $10,000. Dried, unprocessed ginseng root is called white ginseng, and steamed, heat-dried root is red ginseng. Chinese herbalists believe that each form has its own particular benefits.
Ginseng is widely regarded by the public as a stimulant. According to everyone who uses it seriously, though, that isn't the right description. In traditional Chinese herbology,
was used to strengthen the digestion and the lungs, calm the spirit, and increase overall energy. When the Russian scientist Israel I. Brekhman became interested in the herb prior to World War II, he came up with a new idea about ginseng: He decided that it was an
The term adaptogen refers to a hypothetical treatment described as follows: An adaptogen should help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.
Perhaps the only indisputable example of an adaptogen is a healthful lifestyle. By eating right, exercising regularly, and generally living a life of balance and moderation, you will increase your physical fitness and ability to resist illnesses of all types. Whether there are any substances that can do as much remains unclear. However, Brekhman felt certain that ginseng produced similarly universal benefits.
Interestingly, traditional Chinese medicine (where ginseng comes from) does not entirely agree. There is no one-size-fits-all in Chinese medical theory. Like any other herb, ginseng is said to be helpful for those people who need its particular effects, and neutral or harmful for others. But in Europe, Brekhman's concept has taken hold, and ginseng is widely believed to be a universal adaptogen.
What Is Ginseng Used for Today?
If Brekhman is right, ginseng should be the right treatment for most of us. Modern life is tremendously stressful, and if an herb could help us withstand it, it would be a useful herb indeed. Ginseng is widely used for this purpose in Russia and Eastern Europe. However, the scientific basis for this use is largely limited to animal studies and human trials of unacceptably low quality.
There have been a few better-quality studies of various forms of ginseng for certain more specific purposes—strengthening immunity against colds and flus
The active ingredients in ginseng are believed to be substances known as ginsenosides. Ginseng low in ginsenosides may not be effective. However, different ginsenosides appear to have differing actions, and the exact mixture of the ginsenosides in a given ginseng product may play a large role in its efficacy.
Highly preliminary evidence suggests that
might help breast cancer
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Ginseng?
Numerous studies have evaluated the effects of oral
on animals under conditions of extreme
. The results suggest that ginseng increases physical endurance and causes physiological changes that may help the body adapt to adverse conditions.
Cold and Flus
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 323 people found meaningful evidence that an extract of American ginseng taken at 400 mg daily may help prevent the
In addition, two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies indicate that
may be able to prevent flu-like illness in seniors.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study suggests that
also help prevent flu-like illnesses.
On a much more theoretical level, two other studies found evidence that
increases the number of immune cells in the blood,
In preliminary double-blind studies performed by a single research group, use of American ginseng
appeared to improve blood sugar control.
In some but not all studies, the same researchers reported potential benefit with Korean red ginseng as well.
A different research group tested ordinary
and claimed to find it effective.
Several studies have found indications that
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 50 men found that 8-week treatment with a
extract improved ability in completion of a detail-oriented editing task.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 60 elderly people found that 50 or 100 days of treatment with
produced improvements in numerous measures of mental function, including memory, attention, concentration, and ability to cope.
In addition, three, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies evaluated combined treatment with
and ginkgo and found some evidence of improved mental function.
The evidence for
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 120 people found that
gradually improved reaction time and lung function over a 12-week treatment period among those 40 to 60 years old.
However, numerous studies have failed to find
effective. For example, an 8-week, double-blind trial that followed 60 healthy men in their 20s found no evidence of ergogenic benefit.
A double-blind study compared the effects of a nutritional supplement with and without
extract on the feeling of
A 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 120 people found improvement in general well-being among women aged 30 to 60 years and men aged 40 to 60 years, but not among men aged 30 to 39 years.
However, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 30 young people found marginal benefits at 4 weeks, and no significant benefits at 8 weeks.
Impotence (Erectile Dysfunction)
Two double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, involving a total of about 135 people, have found evidence that Korean red ginseng may improve
In an analysis combining the results of 6 controlled trials, researchers found some evidence for the benefits of Korean red ginseng. However, the small size and generally low quality of the studies left some doubts about this conclusion.
An observational study on ginseng and
The reported results were impressive. Those who used ginseng showed a 60% decrease in risk of death from cancer. Lung cancer and gastric cancer were particularly reduced. The more ginseng consumed, the greater the effect.
However, there is something a bit fishy about this study. Use of ginseng fewer than 3 times per year caused a 54% reduction in risk. It is difficult to believe that so occasional a use of ginseng could reduce cancer mortality by more than half!
The typical recommended daily dosage of Panax ginseng is 1 g to 2 g of raw herb, or 200 mg daily of an extract standardized to contain 4% to 7% ginsenosides. In one study of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) for diabetes, the dose used was 3 g daily. 49
Note : There are dozens of ginsenosides in ginseng. Because different ginsenosides have different effects, two different ginseng products with similar total ginsenoside content will not necessarily have similar efficacy. Unfortunately, current scientific knowledge does not allow us at present to make informed recommendations on which specific ginsenosides are useful for which conditions.
Ordinarily, a 2- to 3-week period of using ginseng is recommended, followed by a 1- to 2-week “rest” period. Russian tradition suggests that ginseng should not be used by those under 40. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these recommendations.
Ginseng appears to be nontoxic, both in the short- and long-term, according to the results of studies in mice, rats, chickens, and dwarf pigs. 52-55
Reported side effects are rare. There are a few case reports of breast tenderness, postmenopausal vaginal bleeding, and menstrual abnormalities associated with
Estrogen itself stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. Interestingly, in a test-tube study,
was again found to be non-estrogenic, and yet it nonetheless stimulated the growth of breast cancer cells.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that highly excessive doses of
can cause insomnia, raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, and possibly cause other significant effects. Whether some of these cases were actually caused by caffeine mixed in with ginseng remains unclear.
One double-blind study failed to find any effect on blood pressure.
One case report and one double-blind trial suggest that
can reduce the anticoagulant effects of Coumadin (warfarin),
Two reports indicate that combination treatment with
and antidepressant drugs may result in a manic episode.
There are also theoretical concerns regarding use of ginseng by people with diabetes. If it is true, as the preliminary studies discussed above suggest, that ginseng can in fact reduce blood sugar levels, people with diabetes who take ginseng might need to reduce their dose of medication. On the other hand, if certain types of ginseng have the opposite effect (as researchers hypothesize), this could necessitate an increase in medication. The bottom line: people with diabetes should only use ginseng under physician supervision.
In 1979, an article was published in the
Journal of the American Medical Association
claiming that people can become addicted to
and develop blood pressure elevations, nervousness, sleeplessness, diarrhea, and hypersexuality.
Chinese tradition suggests that
should not be used by pregnant or nursing mothers, and one animal study hints that ginseng use by a pregnant mother could cause birth defects.
Interactions You Should Know About
If you are taking:
- Antidepressants: Panax ginseng might cause manic episodes.
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Last reviewed April 2009 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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