With a battery of bioactive compounds, this eastern adaptogen prevents fatigue, improves physical performance, and gives the immune system a big boost. Is Siberian ginseng the right supplement for you? Read on to find out.
What is Eleuthero?
Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is an herb with the scientific names Eleutherococcus senticosus or Acanthopanax senticosus. Around the world, it may also be called Ciwujia, Shigoka, Goka, Ezoukogi, or Kan Jang (when combined with green chiretta). It is a staple of traditional medicine in the far east, especially in China, Korea, and eastern Russia [R, R, R, R, R, R].
According to these traditions, eleuthero is an adaptogen: a substance that keeps the body functioning normally under stress [R].
Eleuthero belongs to the same plant family as Asian and American ginseng (Araliaceae). However, Asian and American ginseng both belong to a different genus further up the botanical tree called Panax, while eleuthero belongs to Eleutherococcus. Being a distant cousin of these other ginsengs, eleuthero contains a different set of bioactive compounds [R].
Snapshot of Eleuthero
- Prevents mental and physical fatigue and improves function under stress
- Improves memory and protects the brain
- May prevent insulin resistance
- Boosts the immune system
- Lowers inflammation
- May fight cancer
- May kill cold and flu viruses
- May improve symptoms of menopause
- Considered very safe to use in healthy adults
- Possible drug interactions
- A limited body of research
The roots, berries, and leaves of eleuthero each contain multiple bioactive compounds. The specific compounds in each part of the plant may be different, and so their health benefits may also vary. Most studies on the health benefits of eleuthero focus on the root and bark [R].
Eleuthero berries contain high levels of antioxidant and cancer-fighting compounds; they are also high in important minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. These berries have long been added to fermented wines in China and Russia [R].
The most important bioactive compounds in eleuthero belong to a chemical family called eleutherosides; these are eleutherosides A through E. Of these, the ones with the greatest effect are eleutherosides B (syringin) and E [R].
These two compounds may be responsible for eleuthero’s anticancer and anti-diabetic effects [R].
Sesamin is an active compound that was first discovered in sesame seeds. Sesamin from eleuthero may help protect nerve and brain cells from damage. Sesamin may also improve liver function and reduce cholesterol [R, R].
Researchers isolated isofraxidin from eleuthero bark and consider it may have the potential to fight liver cancer [R].
Ursolic acid is found in many different plants, including eleuthero. It can be taken as a supplement and is reported to decrease inflammation, fight cancer, prevent diabetes, protect the heart, and lower cholesterol. Researchers are currently investigating its anticancer effects [R, R, R].
1) Prevents Fatigue
Many people who supplement with eleuthero do so for its energy-boosting effects. Eleutherosides activate AMPK, which speeds up the metabolism and breaks down fats to produce energy. Eleuthero may also activate BDNF, which increases the brain’s ability to grow and adapt to change [R, R, R].
2) May Reduce Stress
Eleuthero supplementation can help decrease negative responses to stress and promote faster recovery from stress. In animal studies, it increased mental function and decreased the time needed to recover from stressful events such as forced swimming, sleep deprivation, or moving to a new environment [R, R, R].
Eleuthero may activate BDNF, which helps the brain adapt to change. Eleutherosides increase AMPK, which boosts energy and helps us keep going when we’re stressed and tired. Sesamin, a less abundant compound, also protects the body against inflammation and tissue damage. Finally, eleuthero activates HSP70 and increases the body’s resistance to tissue damage. Added together, these effects likely explain eleuthero’s anti-stress effects [R, R, R, R].
This health benefit is somewhat controversial. Some studies suggest that eleuthero sometimes increases and sometimes decreases the stress response. Others suggest that no anti-stress benefit exists at all [R, R].
This controversy may be explained by its hormetic effects. Hormesis is an innate enhancement mechanism our bodies carry – it’s when a mild temporary stressor triggers a shift to higher performance. It can prep the body, making it stronger for what’s to come, increasing its resilience to the same and other stressful stimuli. Adaptogens like eleuthero are experienced as such mild hormesis-triggering stressors [R].
Still, further research will be required to shine a light on whether and to what extent eleuthero supplements are effective at fighting stress.
Eleuthero extract is an antioxidant: it reduces free radicals and supports cellular health. Several compounds in eleuthero extract bind to and neutralize free radicals, preventing oxidative stress and cellular damage [R].
Alcohol hangover puts a lot of stress on the body and causes symptoms like exhaustion, dizziness, and nausea. Eleuthero extract may help the body return to normal function and reduce symptoms during a hangover, based on data from one intriguing human study [R].
3) Improves Athletic Performance
In the short term, exercise suppresses the immune system and increases serotonin production in the midbrain. Increased serotonin in the midbrain decreases how often dopamine neurons fire, which makes exercise more taxing and can increase the required recovery time [R, R, R].
In human athletes, eleuthero improves several markers of performance. It increases the amount of time each athlete can maintain an effort; it increases maximum heart rate, a measure of exercise intensity; it decreases glucose and increases free fatty acids in the blood during exercise. As a result, eleuthero may improve a process called glycogen sparing: shifting your fuel from carbs to fats [R, R].
However, these potential benefits are controversial. Some researchers insist that the studies on eleuthero’s effects on athletic performance suffer from design flaws [R].
4) Improves Memory
In a study of 30 elderly people being treated for high blood pressure, eleuthero supplements modestly improved brain function [R].
In animals with Alzheimer’s disease, high doses of eleuthero improved memory and learning. Eleutherosides B and E increased acetylcholine in the hippocampus region of rat brains, thereby improving communication between neurons [R, R].
High levels of stress damage the brain’s ability to learn, form new memories, and retrieve existing memories. The stress-reducing effects of eleuthero may help restore memory deficits when these deficits are caused by stress [R, R].
5) Improves Symptoms of Diabetes
Eleuthero extract may improve blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and fatty acid levels – all of which help prevent diabetes. In diabetic mice, eleutheroside E promoted the function of the pancreatic cells that make insulin, reduced blood glucose levels, and reduced insulin resistance. Eleutheroside B also normalized blood sugar, insulin, and other disease markers in diabetic rats [R, R, R].
All told, eleutherosides have potential as a herbal remedy for diabetes; however, human studies are lacking. Future research will determine if eleuthero can prevent or improve diabetes in people.
6) Boosts the Immune System
Eleuthero improves the function of the immune system. In animal studies, supplementation with eleuthero root extract increased the production of molecules called immunoglobulins G and M (IgG and IgM). IgG and IgM bind to pathogens like viruses and bacteria, flagging them for destruction. This process protects the body from infection and disease [R].
Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that suppresses the immune system. During exposure, cadmium builds up in the spleen and decreases the number of white blood cells in this organ. The more cadmium is built up, the fewer white blood cells are found in the spleen, and the weaker the immune system becomes. In mice, eleuthero extract reversed the effects of cadmium poisoning and cleared cadmium from the spleen [R].
7) Reduces Inflammation
Within four hours of taking eleuthero, healthy women had reduced swelling in their lower legs. Eleutheroside E appears to activate a receptor called Tie2, which stabilizes lymph vessels and improves the function of the lymphatic system [R].
Cyclooxygenase 2, or COX-2, is an enzyme that increases inflammation and pain. Commonly used NSAIDs mainly work by blocking it. The extract of eleuthero fruit activates an enzyme called heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1), which blocks COX-2 and thereby reduces inflammation [R, R, R].
Familial Mediterranean Fever
Familial Mediterranean Fever, or FMF, is a genetic condition that causes episodes of inflammation marked by fever, pain, and redness of the skin. In combination with other herbs, eleuthero may reduce the symptoms of FMF in children [R].
8) May Fight Cancer
Eleuthero and its bioactive components may fight cancer in a few different ways. It may prevent healthy cells from mutating and becoming cancerous cells; when researchers exposed healthy bacteria to cancer-causing poisons, eleuthero extract dropped their mutation rate by more than half. Eleuthero extract may also protect cells from mutations due to radiation exposure, but this effect is small [R, R].
As a whole, this herb’s immune-boosting effects support the body’s defenses against cancerous cells. What’s more, chemotherapy seriously damages the immune system, leaving people at risk of infection for months afterward. Eleuthero extract increases immune function in healthy people and in people with cancer; it may reduce these long-term infection risks and help the body fight off a malignant tumor [R, R].
More directly, eleuthero extract reduced the growth and increased the death rate of human stomach, lung, and throat cancer cells in a lab setting. Furthermore, eleuthero blocks estrogen receptors and may actively fight estrogen cancers like breast cancer. However, these effects are still highly uncertain, they only point to a possibility based on the cell-based studies [R, R, R].
Researchers have also recently used eleuthero to synthesize a silver nanoparticle that increases oxidative stress and selectively kills cancer cells. This natural-source nanoparticle was more effective than either a commercial silver nanoparticle or Cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug [R].
9) Kills Viruses
Traditional practitioners use eleuthero extract for viral infections, including the common cold and flu. Researchers infected human lung cells with influenza virus, which causes the flu, and treated half with eleutheroside B1; these cells produced far less of the virus [R, R].
One study suggests that eleuthero may kill RNA viruses like those that cause the cold and flu, but not DNA viruses like herpes. In combination, eleuthero’s antiviral and immune-boosting effects could make it a good option for some infections. Supplementing with eleuthero may help your body fight off the common cold and flu, but this has yet to be tested in humans [R].
10) May Help with Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease causes damage and degeneration in the basal ganglia region of the brain. This degeneration leads to the movement problems typical of people with Parkinson’s disease. Eleuthero may help prevent these symptoms: in animal studies, whole extract and isolated compounds like sesamin protected nerve and brain cells from damage and death. This protective effect is likely caused by eleuthero’s ability to increase dopamine levels in the brain. More research is required; this health benefit has not yet been studied in humans [R, R, R, R].
11) May Prevent Osteoporosis
Eleuthero may be used to maintain bone mineral density, especially in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. In a study of Korean women, eleuthero supplements increased osteocalcin, a hormone that increases bone-building activity. However, this study did not find direct, significant increases in bone mineral density [R].
In a rat study of osteoporosis, eleuthero bark extract prevented losses in bone mineral density. More research is required to determine whether eleuthero effectively maintains bone mineral density in humans [R].
12) Countering Estrogens
Eleutheroside E is a mild to moderate anti-estrogenic compound: that is, it acts against the effects of estrogens. In a study using human cancer cells, eleuthero extract and eleutheroside E significantly decreased estrogen receptors [R, R, R].
This effect may be beneficial or harmful, depending on the population. High levels of estrogens may increase cancer and stroke risk, but low estrogen worsens brain function and may increase the risk of heart disease [R, R, R, R].
Although this herb is also suggested as an option to reduce “estrogen dominance”, there’s no solid research to back up its anti-estrogen effects in women, nor are there enough data to support the vastly over-hyped theory of estrogen dominance [R, R].
Note that almost all studies showing eleuthero’s anti-estrogenic effects use cancer cells. We currently do not know if it has the same effect in people’s bodies when they take Siberian ginseng supplements.
13) Prevents Mosquito Bites
Essential oil from eleuthero leaves stops mosquitoes from biting. The complete oil is about three-quarters as effective as DEET at preventing mosquito bites; an isolated compound called α-bisabolol is as effective as DEET. Only one study has ever been performed on the potential insect repellent property of eleuthero; further research is required [R].
Summary of Health Effects & Mechanisms
Eleuthero’s mechanism of action is extremely complex because it contains an abundance of active compounds. Each compound may have unique effects, and these effects may add up or counteract each other.
Eleutherosides may activate AMPK, an important “switch” in energy metabolism. AMPK reduces fat storage and increases insulin sensitivity. Through AMPK, eleutherosides may be able to restore insulin signaling in people with diabetes [R, R, R, R].
Heat Shock Protein Activation
Eleuthero may increase heat shock proteins like HSP70 and HSP72. This could help explain its ability to reverse the effects of stress: heat shock proteins protect cells and keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise damage or kill them [R, R].
Eleuthero extract increases catecholamines (especially dopamine and norepinephrine) in the parts of the brain responsible for managing stress. The exact way it influences their levels and activity is unknown, but this mechanism may underlie eleuthero’s mental health benefits [R, R, R].
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is a protein active in the hippocampus of the brain. It helps nervous tissue grow and reorganize itself, and it protects the brain from damage. Low BDNF is linked to depression and anxiety. Eleuthero increases BDNF in the hippocampus, which could explain its reputation as a brain-boosting supplement [R, R].
Research connecting eleuthero and BDNF is extremely new. Only two studies have ever tested these effects – one cell study in 2013 and one rat study in 2018 – and while both have shown promising benefits, we cannot yet say that eleuthero will activate BDNF in humans [R, R].
Sirtuin 3 Activation
Sesamin activates a protein called sirtuin 3, or SIRT3, which regulates energy metabolism and prevents cell death. Through SIRT3, sesamin may protect tissues from inflammation and death after an injury [R, R, R].
Safety & Side Effects
Overall, eleuthero is generally regarded as safe. In mice, it takes an extremely high dose to cause death (over 25 g per kg of body weight). If translated to humans, an average adult would have to eat more than 1.5 kg of dry root for it to be dangerous [R].
Eleuthero has very few side effects. Rarely, people taking eleuthero in combination with other herbal supplements may experience sleepiness, cold extremities, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, or heart palpitations [R, R, R].
Children and Pregnant Mothers
Eleuthero, in combination with other herbs, appears to be safe for children with Familial Mediterranean Fever. Healthy children would probably tolerate eleuthero well, but people should probably avoid giving supplements to children unless a doctor recommends it [R].
The safety of eleuthero for pregnant women is also unclear. Some research suggests that eleuthero may protect against birth defects caused by alcohol, but this has only been studied in rats. Eleuthero is probably safe during pregnancy, but it’s always better to be cautious. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor before supplementing eleuthero [R].
Possible Disease Interactions
Consult your doctor if you are concerned about the potential side effects and safety of a supplement.
Eleuthero has both immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties, but its effects on autoimmune disorders are largely unknown. A combination of eleuthero and Andrographis paniculata, called Kan Jang, acts in synergy to suppress autoimmune disease pathways [R].
While this effect may be beneficial in theory, the interaction with drugs used for autoimmune diseases is unknown. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease like lupus, Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease, talk to your doctor before supplementing with Siberian ginseng.
CYPs are liver enzymes that break down drugs and toxins and remove them from the body. Eleutherosides block two of these enzymes, CYP2C9, and CYP2E1; any compound that these enzymes metabolize will take longer to break down and get rid of [R, R].
This enzyme breaks down dozens of drugs, including NSAIDs like ibuprofen, diabetes drugs like tolbutamide and glyburide, blood pressure medication like losartan, anticoagulants like warfarin, and many others. Eleuthero may increase the effects of these drugs [R].
This enzyme breaks down alcohol, some anesthetics, acetaminophen (Tylenol), some industrial toxins, theophylline, chlorzoxazone, and others. Eleuthero may increase the effects of these drugs and toxins [R].
CYP Interactions Summary
- NSAIDs like ibuprofen
- Diabetes drugs like tolbutamide and glyburide
- Blood pressure medication like losartan
- Anticoagulants like warfarin
- Some anesthetics
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Some industrial toxins
Note that many of these interactions have not specifically been tested. Furthermore, this is not an exhaustive list of drugs broken down by CYP2C9 and CYP2E1. Always check with your doctor before supplementing with eleuthero if you are taking other medication.
Pay especially close attention and consult your doctor before supplementing if you take any of the following:
Digoxin is a drug prescribed to treat problems with heart rhythm. Although reports of this interaction are rare, eleuthero may dangerously increase the effect of digoxin. Some of eleuthero’s active compounds may have similar mechanisms and effects to digoxin; rather than increasing digoxin levels, eleuthero may simply add to its effects. Do not supplement with eleuthero if you are taking digoxin [R, R].
Hexobarbital is a sedative drug. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was widely used to induce anesthesia before surgery. Hexobarbital is quite dangerous and much less common today. Some research suggests that eleuthero could more than double the effect of hexobarbital. If you choose to take eleuthero supplements before any kind of surgery, it is very important to tell your doctor [R, R].
Lithium and Eleuthero
In a study of Chinese teenagers with bipolar disorder, researchers combined either eleuthero extract or fluoxetine (Prozac) with the teens’ lithium treatment. For a similar degree of benefit, people who took eleuthero with lithium had fewer side effects than those who took fluoxetine with lithium. The mechanism of this combination is unknown [R].
More research is needed to determine if this combination is safe and beneficial. If you’re taking lithium and/or SSRIs, talk to your doctor before supplementing.
Limitations and Caveats
Eleuthero is an ancient part of traditional medicine in eastern Asia, but its involvement in modern science is fairly new; Soviet scientists conducted some promising studies before 1990, but many of these have yet to be repeated.
Of the existing research pool, many studies focus on single isolated compounds or on herbal combinations like Kan Jang. Eleuthero extracts can also be produced from bark, root, leaves, or berries, and the differences between these extracts have yet to be fully explored.
Some of the studies mentioned above suffer from design flaws or small sample sizes. Much of the available research comes from cell studies (especially cancer cell studies), with fewer live animal studies and even fewer human trials. Finally, even the human studies may be flawed: the dosage of Siberian ginseng varied wildly, and in some “no effect” studies, participants took tiny doses of eleuthero.
Eleuthero and its active compounds may increase and decrease the expression of a wide variety of genes. These genes are involved in carbohydrate metabolism, cell-to-cell communication, and small molecule biochemistry [R].
In a study of human cancer cells exposed to eleuthero extract, the following genes had increased expression [R]:
- Several G-protein-coupled receptors (GPRs) that receive signals from outside of a cell: GPR111, GPR128, GPR 148, and GPRC6A.
- GRM6, which produces metabolic glutamate receptor 6. This protein helps you see in low light; mutations at GRM6 can cause congenital stationary night blindness [R].
- PDE4D, which produces an enzyme that degrades the messenger molecule cAMP. Mutations at PDE4D can increase susceptibility to stroke and cause problems in the bones, brain, and hormones. Note that in healthy people, eleuthero may decrease PDE4D [R, R].
- PIK3C2G, which produces a protein that regulates cell division. This gene may be involved in type II diabetes [R].
- PLCB1, which produces a protein that helps send and receive signals between brain cells. Mutations at PLCB1 can cause infantile epileptic encephalopathy [R].
- SERPINA1, which produces a protein that blocks certain enzymes in certain parts of the body, including the lungs. Mutations in SERPINA1 can cause lung damage as an enzyme called neutrophil elastase breaks down tiny air sacs called alveoli [R].
- HSPA1B produces a type of heat shock protein that protects cells against damage during periods of stress [R].
- FOXA1 produces a protein called forkhead box A1, which controls the expression of some proteins in the liver [R].
Eleuthero may help people with mild deficiencies in these genes, but none of these effects have yet been studied in healthy animals or people.
In a study of human cancer cells exposed to eleuthero extract, the following genes had decreased expression [R]:
- Several GPRs that receive signals from outside of a cell: GPR17, GPR37, GPR65, GPR101, and GPR112.
- ADCY2, which produces a protein that activates the messenger molecule cAMP [R].
- PLCD4, which produces a phospholipase C enzyme that activates two messenger molecules. PLCD4 is often increased in cancer cells [R].
- CETP, which produces cholesteryl ester transfer protein, which is involved in cholesterol metabolism. This protein transfers molecules from HDL (the “good” cholesterol) to LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). Blocking CETP may reduce bad cholesterol levels in the blood and increase lifespan [R, R].
- ESR1, which produces one type of estrogen receptor. Estrogen is important for female sexual development and reproduction; however, when estrogen or its receptors are too high, it can cause breast cancer and osteoporosis [R].
- Three of the SERPINB genes: SERPINB2, SERPINB4, and SERPINB9. All of these genes are often expressed in cancer cells and may help cancers survive and grow [R].
- HTR3D, which produces a part of the serotonin receptor 5-HT3 [R].
Eleuthero may help people with high expression of these genes, but none of these effects have yet been studied in healthy animals or people. Some of these genes are common in tumor cells and may help explain the anti-cancer effects of eleuthero extract.
Catechol-O-methyltransferase, or COMT, is an enzyme that breaks down dopamine and other catecholamines. People with different levels of COMT activity may respond differently to eleuthero [R].
The COMT gene has an important SNP called V158M (rs4680), which changes the effectiveness of the COMT enzyme. People with two copies of the A allele have the least COMT activity and the highest dopamine; these people belong to the “worrier” type. People with two copies of the G allele have the most COMT activity and the lowest dopamine; these people belong to the “warrior” type. Many people also fall somewhere in the middle of this scale [R].
Eleuthero increases available dopamine in the basal ganglia; this effect may help neutralize the effects of high COMT activity. People with the “warrior” type may possibly benefit more from eleuthero supplements [R].
Familial Mediterranean Fever
Familial Mediterranean Fever, or FMF, is a genetic condition that has been successfully treated with a combination of immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory herbs including eleuthero [R].
People with FMF have a mutation in the MEFV gene. MEFV produces a protein called pyrin, which probably helps control and stop inflammation in healthy people. There are more than 80 different MEFV mutations that cause FMF; the most common is M694V (rs61752717). People with two copies of the G allele at this SNP will develop Familial Mediterranean Fever and may benefit from eleuthero extract [R].
Supplementation & Dosage
Eleutherococcus bark, root, leaves, and berries all contain bioactive compounds, but most supplements are derived from the root. Siberian ginseng root is readily available in capsule and powder form; traditional herbalists also brew a tea from the leaves. Essential oil from Siberian ginseng may have health benefits and prevent mosquito bites, but it is difficult to find.
There is no standardized dosage for eleuthero because the extract is not standardized and different studies may use different parts of the plant. Most extracts are made from Eleutherococcus root, which is considered very safe to consume [R].
And although megadoses of eleuthero root might not be harmful, this doesn’t mean they’re necessary – or desirable. When you add a new supplement and dosage has not yet been standardized through research, it’s best to start low and build up over time. People with mild to moderate fatigue may benefit from as little as 2 – 4 g/day, equivalent to 2 – 3 mg of eleutherosides. Other American sources recommend 6 – 12 g of dried root per day, and some Chinese sources recommend 9 – 27 g of dried root per day [R].
Online reviews for eleuthero are overwhelmingly positive. Many people, including some with chronic fatigue syndrome, claim to have much more energy after taking eleuthero supplements. Others said that Siberian ginseng supplements reduced their brain fog and helped them feel more alert.
Some people prefer not to take the supplement every day for weeks and weeks at a time, but to cycle it over several months. These people take the supplement for a few weeks, stop taking it for the next few weeks, and start again. They claim to feel much better when they periodically give themselves a break from the supplement.
Some people claim that it took one to three months for the supplement to have a noticeable effect. Most people who stuck to the supplement for a few months eventually felt good results. Others complained that it was too difficult to find high-quality Siberian ginseng.
Purchasing eleuthero from a reliable source will minimize the risk of consuming a mislabelled product. The eleuthero root products below come from companies with some of the best track records regarding quality control and testing.
Eleuthero, also called Siberian ginseng, is an East Asian shrub with promising bioactive compounds in its root, bark, leaves, and berries. Its major chemical components are eleutherosides.
Eleuthero activates AMPK, which can prevent fat buildup and increase energy. It also activates protective mechanisms that help cells survive stress and increases dopamine release. Plus, it may also activate a protein called BDNF, which supports learning and memory.
Through these mechanisms, eleuthero prevents fatigue, reduces stress, improves physical performance, improves memory, prevents insulin resistance, boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation, may fight cancer, and helps kill viruses. Eleuthero may also help with Parkinson’s disease, prevent osteoporosis, and lower estrogens. Finally, an isolated compound from eleuthero may be an effective mosquito repellent.
Eleuthero is a safe supplement, most often available as a root extract capsule. People may respond differently to different doses of eleuthero. Practitioners suggest starting at about 2-4 g of eleuthero supplement per day; older Chinese sources recommend up to 27 g of the dried root.