Health Benefits of Ginseng
What started as a Chinese medicine used to promote health and longevity, ginseng (Panax ginseng) is now popping up in more mainstream food items. The ginseng product market now includes tea blends, bottled soft drinks, adaptogen powders and even candy and chewing gum.
Learn more about ginseng's health benefits and potential side effects, plus where to buy it and if you should start taking it.
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What Is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a group of plants with about 12 species belonging to genus Panax under the family Araliaceae. The name Panax is derived from the Greek word for panacea or cure-all. Ginseng contains many compounds thought to have functional properties. Among these, ginsenosides (ginseng saponins), which vary among the different species of ginseng as well as among the different parts of the plant, are the most significant and widely researched. Many of the pharmacological properties of ginseng have also been attributed to their polysaccharides and polyacetylenic alcohols.
Since the 1960s, ginseng has been the subject of myriad scientific studies. The diversity of pharmacological properties now attributed to ginseng suggest that it has unique and complex biological activities. Ginseng can influence the metabolism of a single individual cell, as well as act on whole organs or body systems. The mechanisms of action of ginseng are therefore diverse and often somewhat unclear.
Both American and Asian ginseng may be viable treatments for fatigue in people with chronic illnesses. In one pilot study looking at ginseng supplementation and cancer-related fatigue in 290 patients for an eight-week period, over twice as many patients on ginseng perceived a benefit compared to people given a placebo (learn more about 4 more natural energy-boosting foods).
Ginseng also shows potential benefits on cognition and mood. In one double-blind study on young and middle-aged healthy volunteers, daily ginseng supplementation for 8 days improved calmness and also helped with abstract thinking and math questions.
There's also evidence suggesting that ginseng can improve cognitive performance in patients with Alzheimer's disease, but results are inconsistent. Some studies show that bioactive compounds in ginseng may play a role in reducing beta-amyloid levels in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's.
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Animal models suggest ginseng may also help quell pain, including arthritis-associated pain, as well as combat inflammation and boost immunity.
Health Benefits of Ginseng for Men
Studies have shown positive outcomes of ginseng supplementation on erectile dysfunction (ED). In one double-blind study, 60 patients presenting with mild or mild to moderate ED were administered 1 gram ginseng per day, with 66.6% reporting improvement.
Another study on male mice given one isolated ginsenoside (Rg1) showed increases in serum testosterone concentration, suggesting potential upswings in libido.
Health Benefits of Ginseng for Women
The future of research on ginseng's benefits for menopausal women seems promising, however current findings are inconclusive. One systematic review suggested ginseng might have a positive impact on sexual function and arousal in menopausal women. However, the results failed to show specific effects on vasomotor symptoms, hormones, biomarkers and endometrial thickness.
The researchers noted low evidence for these findings due to unclear risk of bias—the women self-reported the positive impacts—which could have been from the ginseng or a placebo effect. Moreover, the studies were small and not sufficient to draw firm conclusions.
Potential Side Effects
Ginseng appears to be generally safe, and no serious adverse effects have been reported. One animal study tested 500 mg per kilogram of body weight and found that doses up to 5,000 mg were well tolerated, suggesting that ginseng is safe even at very high doses. Something to note, however, is that both the optimum dose and the ideal form of ginseng are currently unknown. Clinical trials comparing dosages or forms of ginseng have yet to be published. Women should not take ginseng during pregnancy and nursing. And people with health conditions, especially those with diabetes and those taking anticoagulants, are advised to discuss ginseng supplements with their doctor before use.
How Is Ginseng Sold?
Although the term ginseng is used loosely to define many different herbs, Asian ginseng is the most prevalent form sold in the United States. The common preparation of ginseng is ginseng root, which is traditionally thought to be the most medicinal part of the plant. However, newer research has shown positive outcomes from the ginseng berry too, which may contain even higher amounts of ginsenosides than the root.
In the U.S. market, ginseng is available as a liquid extract, or in tablets, capsules or powders. Fresh and dried ginseng root is also available in certain health-food stores, and can be added to brewed tea, soup broths and even baked goods. The ginseng product market is also expanding to now include bottled teas and soft drinks, candies and mints.
Bottom Line: Should You Add Ginseng to your Diet?
Ginseng certainly shows promise as a therapeutic agent for a wide range of conditions.
However, like all herbal remedies, ginseng supplements can be mixtures of multiple pharmacologically active ingredients. When considering adding any complementary or alternative medicine to your regimen, be sure to consult your doctor first. To experiment with ginseng root at home, purchase the whole root intact and try it in homemade teas or soups. Beyond its potential health benefits, its zesty flavor and aromatic edge will warm you from the inside out.