Principal Proposed Uses
Probably Ineffective Uses
There are three different herbs commonly called ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) , American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) , and Siberian “ginseng” ( Eleutherococcus senticosus ) . The latter herb is actually not ginseng at all and is discussed in a separate article .
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, Panax ginseng 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 adaptogen .
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.
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.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Ginseng?
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Cold and Flus
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Several studies have found indications that Panax ginseng might enhance mental function . However, the specific benefits seen have varied considerably from trial to trial, tending to make the actual cognitive effects of ginseng (if there are any) difficult to discern.
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Panax quinquefolius P. quinquefolius
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Impotence (Erectile Dysfunction)
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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!
Panax ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
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.
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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.
Journal of the American Medical Association Panax ginseng
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- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 08/2013 -
- Update Date: 08/22/2013 -