Ginseng has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat conditions ranging from stress to cancer. Today it is one of the most popular herbal remedies in the West.
What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a gnarled root with stringy shoots that contains ‘ginsenosides’ which are active ingredients that are believed to help treat conditions such as fatigue and stress.
There are two different types of ginseng - the American version (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) which both comprise similar chemicals. Siberian ginseng (or Eleuthero) is a completely different plant which does not have the same properties.
Ginseng supplements are made from the ginseng root and root hairs. Ginseng is generally sold as ‘white ginseng’ which means it is dried and peeled, or ‘red ginseng’ which is unpeeled and steamed before drying and comes available in water, water and alcohol, as an alcohol liquid extract or in powders or capsules.
Asian ginseng is often labelled as: Asia, Korean, Red or ‘Panax ginseng’, while American ginseng may say ‘Panax quinquefolius’.
Why do I need Ginseng?Asian ginseng is believed to boost the immune system. Some studies have shown that people who take a daily supplement of ginseng have fewer and less severe colds and an increased number of immune cells in the blood.
Ginseng is also thought to have antioxidant properties which means it helps rid the body of free radicals which are associated with increased risk of diseases such as cancer.
Many people take ginseng because it gives them a mental boost. Early research suggests Asian ginseng can improve mental functions such as memory and concentration.
Studies also imply that Ginseng may reduce fatigue and improve general well-being. In one study men and women who took ginseng reported more energy, better sleep, better sex and more personal satisfaction. Many men take ginseng to increase sperm production and sexual performance. Some studies do suggest that it may be beneficial in improving erectile dysfunction.
In a recent study from the Mayo Clinic in the USA, American ginseng was found to reduce fatigue in cancer patients.*
There is also some evidence that ginseng may lower the risk of some types of cancers and may slow tumour growth but more research is needed.
Can too much Ginseng be harmful?
Some studies have found that ginseng lowers blood pressure, but others have found the opposite. As the evidence is unclear, anyone with high blood pressure would be best to avoid ginseng until more is known.
The evidence is similarly mixed for diabetes. In some studies ginseng seems to lower blood sugar but in others it seems to raise it. It may be that Asian and American ginseng behave differently, but until more is known diabetics are advised to consult their doctor before considering ginseng.
In high doses ginseng may cause anxiety and sleeplessness, it may also cause vomiting and headaches. It may also increase the risk of mania in people with bipolar disease.
In addition, you should not take ginseng a week before surgery as it may thin the blood and increase your risk of bleeding during or after the procedure.
Ginseng is generally taken in cycles - for example you take it for three weeks, then rest for three weeks and then restart again.