The ginseng has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The name "ginseng" refers to both American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), which have a somewhat similar chemical makeup. Siberian ginseng or Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), on the other hand, is an entirely different plant and does not contain the same active ingredients. Both Asian and American ginseng contain ginsenosides, which researchers think are the active ingredients.
Like American ginseng, Asian ginseng is a light tan, gnarled root that often looks like a human body with stringy shoots for arms and legs. Traditionally, herbalists thought that because of the way ginseng looks it could treat many different kinds of ailments, from fatigue and stress to asthma and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng was often combined with other herbs. It was frequently used to bring long life, strength, and wisdom to those who took it.
Ginseng is sometimes called an "adaptogen," a substance that is supposed to help the body better cope with stress, either mental or physical. There is no scientific evidence of adaptogens, but ginseng has been studied for several conditions, and it is one of the most popular herbs in the United States. Many of the studies of Asian or Korean ginseng have used combinations of herbs, so it's not always possible to say whether ginseng alone did any good. Research on Asian ginseng has included the following:
Immune system health
Asian ginseng is believed to boost the immune system, possibly helping the body fight off infection and disease. Several clinical studies report that Asian ginseng can improve the function of the immune system. Studies have found that ginseng seems to increase the number of immune cells in the blood, and improve the immune system's response to a flu vaccine. In one study, 227 participants received either ginseng or placebo for 12 weeks, with a flu vaccine given after 4 weeks. The number of colds and flu were two-thirds lower in the group that took ginseng.
Asian ginseng seems to be an antioxidant. Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, substances which can damage DNA and are thought to contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Preliminary studies suggest Asian ginseng may improve the symptoms of heart disease in humans. It also may decrease "bad" LDL cholesterol levels and raise "good" HDL cholesterol.
Its effect on blood pressure is more complicated. Some studies have found it seems to lower blood pressure, while others find it causes blood pressure to rise. That had led some people to wonder if ginseng may increase blood pressure at usual doses but lower it when doses are higher. Until researchers know for sure, you should not take ginseng if you have high blood pressure unless your doctor tells you it's OK.
Type 2 diabetes
Although American ginseng has been studied more for diabetes, both types of Panax ginsengs may lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. However, in a few studies it looked like Asian or Korean ginseng raised blood sugar levels. Some people think that the ginsenosides in American ginseng might lower blood sugar while different ginsenosides in Asian ginseng could raise blood sugar levels. Until more is known, you should not take ginseng if you have diabetes without your doctor's strict supervision and monitoring.
People who take ginseng often say they feel more alert. Several studies report that Asian ginseng may slightly improve thinking or learning. Early research shows that Asian ginseng may improve performance on such things as mental arithmetic, concentration, memory, and other measures. Some studies have also found a positive effect with the combination of Asian ginseng and Ginkgo biloba.
Most of the studies have found that ginseng does improve mental performance, but they have measured different kinds of mental function, making it hard to know exactly what the effects of ginseng are. For example, one study found that people who took ginseng increased their ability for abstract thought, but didn’t have any changes in their reaction time or concentration levels.
There have been a number of studies using Asian ginseng for athletic performance in humans and laboratory animals. Results have been mixed, with some studies showing increased strength and endurance, others showing improved agility or reaction time, and others showing no effect at all. Even so, athletes often take Asian ginseng to boost both endurance and strength. Asian ginseng was also found to reduce fatigue in a study of 332 people.
Stress and well-being
Asian ginseng is sometimes called an "adaptogen," something that helps the body deal with stress, whether physical or mental. While that can be difficult to study, there is some evidence that ginseng (both Asian and American types) can improve quality of life -- although quality of life can be hard to measure, too.
A study of 501 men and women living in Mexico City found improvements in quality of life measures (energy, sleep, sex life, personal satisfaction, well-being) in those taking Asian ginseng. Another well-designed study found that people who took a nutritional supplement with ginseng said they had better quality of life than those taking the same supplement without ginseng.
Asian ginseng is widely believed to boost sexual performance, but there aren't many studies to back this up. In animal studies, Asian ginseng has increased sperm production, sexual activity, and sexual performance. A study of 46 men has also shown an increase in sperm count as well as motility. Another study in 60 men found that Asian ginseng increased sex drive and decreased erection problems.
Individual reports and animal studies indicate that Asian ginseng may slow down the rate at which Alzheimer's gets worse, and improve memory and behavior. Studies of large groups of people are needed.
Several studies suggest that Asian ginseng may reduce the risk of some types of cancers. In one observational study, researchers followed 4,634 people for 5 years and found that those who took ginseng had lower risk of lung, liver, pancreatic, ovarian, and stomach cancer. But the study could not say for sure that other factors -- including healthy eating habits – weren’t responsible for the lower risk of cancer. And it found that taking ginseng as few as 3 times a year led to a dramatic reduction in cancer risk, which is hard to believe.
A number of studies have found that Asian ginseng seems to slow down or stop the growth of tumors, although researchers aren't yet sure how it might work in humans. More research is needed.
There have been only a few studies of ginseng for menopausal symptoms. Two well-designed studies evaluating red Korean (Asian) ginseng suggest it may relieve some of the symptoms of menopause, improving mood -- particularly feelings of depression -- and sense of well-being. The ginseng was used along with a vitamin and mineral supplement. But another double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 384 women found no effect.
The ginseng plant has leaves that grow in a circle around a straight stem. Yellowish-green umbrella-shaped flowers grow in the center and produce red berries. Ginseng has a taproot that looks a little like the human body, with 2 "arms" and 2 "legs." Wrinkles around the neck of the root tell how old the plant is. Ginseng is not ready to be used as medicine until it has grown for about 6 years. Asian or Chinese and Korean ginseng are the same plants, but grown in different areas. American ginseng is a relative in the same species, native to North America.
What's It Made Of?
Asian ginseng supplements are made from the ginseng root, and the long, thin offshoots, called root hairs. Both Asian or Korean and American ginseng contain ginsenosides, saponins that are ginseng's active ingredients. In addition to ginsenosides, Asian ginseng also contains glycans (panaxans), polysaccharide fraction DPG-3-2, peptides, maltol, B vitamins, flavonoids, and volatile oil.
White ginseng (dried, peeled) or red ginseng (unpeeled root, steamed before drying) is available in water, water-and-alcohol, or alcohol liquid extracts, and in powders or capsules. Asian ginseng root is also available for making decoctions (boiling the root in water)
Be sure to read the label carefully so that you are purchasing the type of ginseng that you want. If you are looking for Asian ginseng, make sure you buy Korean, red, or Panax ginseng. If you are looking for American ginseng, you should buy Panax quinquefolius. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which is sometimes called Siberian ginseng, does not have the same active ingredients as Asian or American ginseng.
How to Take It
Ginseng is not recommended for use in children.
Asian ginseng comes in a variety of forms and is often used in combination with other herbs or nutrients. Talk with an experienced health care practitioner to find the right dose for you.
In healthy people who want to increase physical or mental performance, to prevent illness, or to improve resistance to stress, Asian ginseng should be taken in cycles. For example, take every day for 2 - 3 weeks, then stop for 3 weeks, then start back.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Asian ginseng may cause nervousness or sleeplessness, particularly if taken at high doses or when combined with caffeine. Other side effects are rare but may include:
- High blood pressure
- Breast pain
- Vaginal bleeding
To avoid hypoglycemia or low blood sugar, even in people without diabetes, take Asian ginseng with food.
People with high blood pressure should not take Asian ginseng products without the close supervision of their doctor. People with low blood pressure, as well as those with an acute illness, should use caution when taking Asian ginseng.
People with bipolar disorder should not take ginseng, because it may increase the risk of mania.
People with autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Crohn’s disease, should ask their doctors before taking Asian ginseng. Theoretically, Asian ginseng may boost an already overactive immune system.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take Asian ginseng. Asian ginseng may cause vaginal bleeding.
Women who have a history of breast cancer should not take ginseng.
Stop taking Asian ginseng at least 7 days prior to surgery. Asian ginseng may act as a blood thinner, increasing the risk of bleeding during or after a procedure.
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use Asian ginseng without first talking to your health care provider:
ACE inhibitors (blood pressure medications) -- Asian ginseng may interact with angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors used to lower high blood pressure. These medications include:
- Captopril (Capoten)
- Benazepril (Lotensin)
- Enalapril (Vasotec)
- Lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril)
- Fosinopril (Monopril)
- Ramipril (Altace)
- Perindopril (Aceon)
- Quinapril (Accupril)
- Moexipril (Univasc)
- Trandolapril (Mavik)
Calcium channel blockers (heart and blood pressure medications) -- Asian ginseng may change the effects of certain heart medications, including calcium channel blockers. These medications include:
- Amlodipine (Norvasc)
- Diltiazem (Cardizem)
- Nifedipine (Procardia)
Blood-thinners (anticoagulants) -- Asian ginseng may increase the risk of bleeding especially if you already take blood-thinners such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), or clopidogrel (Plavix).
Caffeine -- Ginseng may make the effect of caffeine stronger, possibly causing nervousness, sweating, insomnia, or irregular heartbeat.
Diabetes medications, including insulin -- Ginseng may lower blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar.
Drugs that suppress the immune system -- Asian ginseng may boost the immune system and may interact with drugs taken to treat an autoimmune disease or drugs taken after organ transplant.
Stimulants -- Ginseng may increase the stimulant effect and side effects of some medications take for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin).
MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) -- Ginseng may increase the risk of mania when taken with MAOIs, a type of antidepressant. There have been reports of interaction between ginseng and phenelzine (Nardil) causing headaches, tremors, and mania. MAOIs include:
- Isocarboxazid (Marplan)
- Phenelzine (Nardil)
- Tranylcypromine (Parnate)
Morphine -- Asian ginseng may block the painkilling effects of morphine.
Furosemide (Lasix) -- Some researchers think Asian ginseng may interfere with Lasix, a diuretic (water pill) that helps the body get rid of excess fluid.
Other medications -- Asian ginseng may interact with medications that are processed by the liver. If you take any medications, ask your doctor before taking Asian ginseng.
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Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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