Showing posts with label ginseng root studies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ginseng root studies. Show all posts

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is Ginseng Good for You?

In our increasingly expanded world of dietary options, many exotic and foreign herbs are entering our lexicon and even our diets.  One of those you may have heard of – ginseng – has grown in popularity around the globe.  Hardly a new discovery, Asian Ginseng has been a part of eastern Asian diets for more than 5,000 years, prized for its rejuvenating powers, and is considered by the Chinese as one of their most important medicines.  American ginseng has influenced local and international diets – Chinese in particular – since its discovery 300 years ago. 

Should ginseng take root in your diet?  Quite likely.  Is it safe to consume? Maybe, with certain considerations regarding quantity, frequency, and the health needs of the individual.  Let’s take a closer look at this gnarled and fascinating root, both its health benefits and risks.

What is ginseng?

Until uprooted, the prized ginseng plant is unassuming in appearance, looking like a low-lying, small, leafy plant.  The fat, fleshy, and gnarly shape of the root, however, is telltale.  The ginseng plant can be found growing deep in the forests of the Northern Hemisphere, primarily in the eastern half of North America and in eastern Asia.  There are 11 known species of ginseng, mostly variations of the Asian ginseng, such as the popular Korean red ginseng and Oriental Ginseng.  Primarily it is the ginseng root that is prized for its health benefits.

Are all Ginsengs alike?

No. In fact, one herb, Siberian Ginseng, is not in the ginseng genus at all.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not even consider Siberian Ginseng (also called eleuthero or Eleutherococcus senticosus) to be a true ginseng. 

Of the true ginsengs, there are different varieties, including Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).  Both have been widely studied in recent years due to ginseng’s most valued health benefits.

One significant chemical element that defines the true ginsengs is the ginsenosides – a unique compound found only in ginseng, theorized as the responsible element behind the herb’s claimed medicinal properties.  In clinical research ginsenosides appear to show significant potential benefits for humans.
American Ginseng
American ginseng has often been associated with, or taken for, its adaptogenic qualities (adaptogenic herbs increase our ability to adapt to environmental and internal stresses), for strengthening of internal organs, for stress reduction, and to improve general health.   American ginseng medicinal claims made by its proponents include relief from dry skin conditions, headaches, depression, high blood pressure, and anemia.
Asian Ginseng
By comparison, Asian ginseng is valued by many for its stimulating and rejuvenating qualities.  It has traditionally been used in China, Korea, Russia, and Japan to treat heart disease, kidney and liver problems, nervous system disorders, male sexual potency, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, and rheumatism.

Ginseng Research

While it is noteworthy that ginseng has such a revered history for treatment of ailments, is there any scientific evidence to support these claims?  For certain ailments, yes. Not all its treatment claims have been verified, and some of the studies are only preliminary, piquing interest among those in the medical and scientific communities, but requiring more thorough research before being fully accepted. That said, there is a growing body of evidence of ginseng's health benefits.  A few examples related to cancer:
  • There have been several population studies in Asia supporting the belief that certain substances in ginseng could prevent cancer. 
  • In a 2001 study "Anticarcinogenic effect of Panax ginseng” published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science, both white ginseng and red ginseng were shown to to reduce the incidence of cancer.
  • Research at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center found that Ginseng improved survival rates and quality of life after a diagnosis of breast cancer. 
  • This Chinese study found positive benefits from red ginseng in reducing gastric cancer relapses.
  • A recent laboratory study suggests other potential anti-cancer benefits from ginseng.
  • A Mayo Clinic study showed that cancer patients struggling with fatigue benefited from ginseng.

Studies and data supporting other health benefits of ginseng:

  • A 2002 double-blind study of Korean ginseng found that 60 percent of its study participants found positive benefits from conditions of impotence and male erectile dysfunction.  As well, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology published study results that support the value of red ginseng in treating erectile dysfunction.
  • American ginseng is presently being tested in clinical trials for its value in improving HIV-related fatigue.  This follows up on a study showing benefits for HIV patients when Korean red ginseng is combined with traditional antiretroviral therapy.
  • Research performed at the Medical School of Nantong University in China, suggests that ginseng may be able to improve cognitive function and general thinking ability.  Supporting this belief, the Journal of Dairy Science, reported positive results from a study on fortifying milk with ginseng to improve cognitive function.
  • This study reported in 2010 suggests that ginseng may increase lifespan.
  • This article compiles results from six different preliminary studies, collectively showing that Korean red ginseng may be useful in reducing hypertension, attention deficit disorder, high blood sugar problems, erectile dysfunction, and in treating certain types of cancer, heart problems, dementia, high cholesterol, and kidney damage and high cholesterol.
  • Another study suggests that the fatty alcohols in ginseng appears to have antibiotic properties
As you can see, ginseng has been and is being thoroughly studied. But before you jump on the ginseng bandwagon, you should be aware of…

Ginseng Risks

For all its potential benefits, you need to be aware of the following potential problems or risks in adding ginseng to your diet.
  • Most studies show that, while short-term use of ginseng is generally safe safe for most of us, some reports show potential negative side effects when used continuously for long periods of time.
  • Ginseng can increase the risk of bleeding if you are also taking drugs that affect blood clotting.
  • Asian ginseng in particular has the potential to lower your blood sugar levels. Therefore those with diabetes may experience problems if they are already using medicines that lower blood sugar.
  • Some people have experienced side effects from taking ginseng. These include sleep problems, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, allergic reactions, menstrual irregularity, breast tenderness, bleeding, blurred vision, palpitations, irritability, dry mouth, increased body temperature, decreased appetite, eczema, diarrhea, and high blood pressure.
  • Certain antidepressants should not be taken with ginseng.
If you experience any of these reactions, discontinue taking ginseng.  As with any complementary health additives to the diet, it is important to let your healthcare providers know to ensure coordinated care.

How to Take Ginseng

The ginseng root is prepared by drying it. Ginseng is then processed and made available in many forms including as a tablet, capsule, powder, tea, candy, candy, facial lotion ingredient, and even as a chewing gum ingredient. 
For more information on ginseng, you can watch this fascinating video on The History of American Ginseng.  Other useful resources include the articles Asian Ginseng at a Glance from the NIH, American Ginseng Overview from WebMD, and Medline Plus National Institute for Health: Ginseng.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer