Ginseng is an herbal plant that has been used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine. It’s claimed to improve fatigue, performance, fertility, cognition, and even prevent and fight cancer. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Read on to learn about how this ancient plant may improve your health.
Ginseng is an herbal plant found in North America and eastern Asia. There are many different types of ginseng, such as American ginseng, Korean red ginseng, Indian ginseng, and Siberian ginseng. American ginseng is a very popular variety [1, 2].
American ginseng is known for its stimulant properties and is used in traditional Native American medicine to relieve headaches and to treat fever and indigestion. Research suggests it may boost mood, immunity, and cognition.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is commonly used in traditional Native American medicine for relaxation and to combat fatigue. It is also thought to regulate hormones, relieve stress, and stimulate the immune system .
Asian ginseng, also called red or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), is sometimes considered the opposite of American ginseng. It is thought to stimulate the nervous system and enhance cognitive performance. Preliminary research suggests it may help with neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and stroke .
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) may help with fatigue and boost the immune system, much like Asian ginseng. However, Siberian ginseng is not a true ginseng because it comes from a different family of plants .
- Protopanaxadiol-type, including Rb1, Rc, Rb2, Rd, Rg3, and Rh2 ginsenosides
- Ginsenosides protopanaxatriol-type, including Rg1, Re, Rg2, and Rh1 ginsenosides
- Oleanolic acid-type, such as Ro ginsenoside
Ginseng is considered a tonic or adaptogenic that enhances physical and sexual performance and promotes vitality .
A meta-analysis of 7 studies and 349 people found that Korean red ginseng was effective in treating erectile dysfunction. However, the total sample sizes and the quality of the studies were too low to draw definitive conclusions. Thus, more rigorous studies are necessary .
In a study of 45 men with erectile dysfunction, Korean red ginseng (900 mg, 3x/day) boosted overall sexual performance. 60% of the patients had improved erections, making ginseng an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. In another study with 90 men, it had the same efficacy rate but 30% of the placebo group also saw improvements [8, 9].
Similarly, 1000 mg, 2x/day also improved erectile dysfunction in a study of 86 men .
Panax ginseng extract supplementation increased both sperm count and sperm motility, total and free testosterone, DHT, FSH, and luteinizing hormone while lowering prolactin levels in another study with 86 men .
The existing evidence suggests that ginseng may help with erectile dysfunction and fertility issues. You may discuss with your doctor if it may help in your case.
Several components of ginseng, maca, ginkgo, arginine, and yohimbine, all appear to help sexual function by promoting the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow to and within the penis .
In a trial with 227 people, those who took 100 mg of a Korean red ginseng extract (G115) along with their flu vaccine were less likely to get a cold or the flu. The ginseng group also had higher levels of natural killer cell activity .
Those taking red ginseng powder during chemotherapy treatment had a higher 5-year disease-free survival and overall survival rate in a study on 42 people. In another trial on 96 people with lung cancer, ginseng carbohydrates enhanced the immune function by increasing Th1 cytokines (IFN-gamma and IL-2) while reducing Th2 cytokines (IL-4 and IL-5) [17, 18].
Although limited, the evidence suggests that ginseng boosts immune function and may help prevent infections. Discuss with your doctor if it may help in your case.
Enzyme-modified ginseng extract treatment decreased fatigue severity in a study on 52 people .
A meta-analysis of 4 different studies with 429 healthy participants found that ginseng may reduce fatigue. However, the authors concluded that additional studies on larger populations were needed to confirm their results .
Similarly, 2 g/day of ginseng for 8 weeks improved cancer-related fatigue in a study with 364 participants. A much higher dose (800 mg/day) improved fatigue, well-being, and overall quality of life in another study of 30 people with this condition [21, 22].
In another study with 90 people, 2 g/day improved chronic fatigue, possibly due to its antioxidant properties .
Again, limited evidence suggests that ginseng may help decrease fatigue, especially in people with cancer. You may use it for this purpose if your doctor determines that it may be helpful.
A meta-analysis of 9 studies and over 300,000 people found that ginseng consumption was associated with a decreased risk of developing cancer. The effect was not organ-specific .
In a study of 643 people, 1 g/week of red ginseng extract was associated with a reduced risk of cancer, but only in men .
Another study with almost 4,000 people found the consumption of different types of ginseng was associated with decreased risk of certain cancers (such as lip, mouth, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, lung, stomach, colorectal, liver, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer) .
All in all, the existing evidence suggests that ginseng consumption is associated with a decreased incidence of many cancer types. You may discuss with your doctor if ginseng may help you prevent cancer.
Note, however, that the studies dealt with associations only, which means that a cause-and-effect relationship hasn’t been established. The fact that a lower incidence of cancer was observed in people consuming high amounts of ginseng doesn’t necessarily mean that its compounds prevent cancer. Complex disorders like cancer always involve multiple possible environmental and genetic factors that may vary from one person to another.
Importantly, the studies by no means suggest that ginseng helps treat cancer. Never take ginseng (or any other supplements) in place of proven anticancer therapies.
In a study with 61 Alzheimer’s patients, both 4.5 and 9 g/day of Korean red ginseng improved cognitive function, which continued to the 2-year follow-up .
In another study with 61 people, treatment with 9 g/day (but not 4.5 g/day) Korean red ginseng improved some symptoms of Alzheimer’s .
Similarly, taking 4.5 g/day for 24 weeks of heat-processed ginseng improved cognitive function and behavioral symptoms in another study on 40 Alzheimer’s patients. Lower dosages improved some Alzheimer’s symptoms as well .
An herbal formulation with Korean red ginseng and ginkgo (Memo) reduced cognitive decline in 66 people with mild cognitive impairment .
Although promising, the evidence to support this health benefit is a bit limited. You may try ginseng as an add-on therapy for Alzheimer’s or other conditions with cognitive decline if your doctor determines that it may be helpful in your case. Never use ginseng in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.
In a study with 57 people, 3-6 g/day of Korean red ginseng increased superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity, with the higher dose also increasing glutathione peroxidase and catalase activity. Both doses also decreased oxidized LDL cholesterol levels .
In a study with 71 women, 3 g/day red ginseng increased SOD activity but had no effects on the levels of glutathione peroxidase (another antioxidant enzyme) and 8-hydroxydeoxyguanosine (a marker of oxidative stress) .
In a study with 82 people, 1-2 g/day ginseng extract decreased levels of markers of oxidative stress, ROS, and malondialdehyde. The higher dose enhanced glutathione reductase activity and total glutathione content. However, supplementation did not change the total antioxidant capacity or the activities of the antioxidant enzymes catalase, SOD, and peroxidase .
In another study with 18 people, 20 g/day Korean red ginseng extract reduced exercise-induced inflammatory response and creatine kinase activity. A much higher dose (60 mg/kg/day) after chemotherapy treatment reduced inflammatory cytokines in another trial on 30 people [36, 37].
To sum up, limited evidence found antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in ginseng extracts. Further clinical research should investigate how to use it therapeutically.
In a study with 50 heart attack patients, 3 g/day red ginseng following heart surgery increased circulating angiogenic cell action (cells that make new blood vessels) and reduced inflammation levels, indicating improved blood flow .
In a trial of 17 healthy people, 3 g Korean red ginseng improved artery stiffness but did not change blood pressure .
However, 3 g/day Korean red ginseng did not improve artery stiffness in a study on 80 people .
Similarly, 4.5 g/day Korean red ginseng did not affect blood pressure, lipid profile, oxidized LDL, artery stiffness, or fasting blood sugar levels in another study on 48 people .
Because the evidence is based on a few, small clinical trials with mixed results, we cannot conclude for certain that ginseng helps prevent heart disease. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed to shed some light on this potential health benefit.
A review of 16 studies determined that ginseng slightly reduced fasting blood glucose of both diabetics and non-diabetics but pointed out that the different ginseng types may differ in their effectiveness, making it necessary to conduct more clinical studies [43, 44].
Healthy people taking 3-9 g American ginseng improved sugar clearance from the blood. In a study with 13 people, 3 g Korean red ginseng improved post-meal sugar levels. 200 or 400 mg of a ginseng supplement, G115, also improved glucose levels in a trial of 30 people [45, 46, 47].
In another study of 42 people, fermented red ginseng supplementation (2.7 g/day) lowered blood glucose and increased insulin levels following meals. However, fasting glucose, insulin, and lipid levels remained unchanged .
However, 3-8 g/day Korean red ginseng extract or 250-500 mg/day ginsenoside Re failed to improve insulin sensitivity and the function of the cells that make insulin (beta-cells) in a study of 15 people .
Similarly, 4.5 g/day Korean red ginseng did not affect fasting blood sugar levels in a study of 48 people .
A review of two studies determined that consistent ginseng consumption had no effect on blood sugar control in healthy individuals .
Again, the mixed results make it difficult to draw conclusions about the potential benefits of ginseng in diabetics. Further clinical research is needed to clarify its effects on blood sugar and insulin.
In a trial on 27 healthy adults, 200 mg of a ginseng supplement (G115) boosted performance on a math task and reduced mental fatigue. In another trial, 30 people improved mental performance and experienced less fatigue after taking 200 mg (but not 400) of this supplement [52, 47].
A similar trial of 30 people had the opposite result: those taking 200 mg of G115 had a slower response on a mental task, while 400 mg improved performance on this task and mood .
However, neither 200 nor 400 mg G115 affected mood in a study on 83 people .
Taken together, the mixed results of the few studies make it difficult to establish the effects of ginseng on cognitive function and mood for certain.
Supplementation with 3 g/day of red ginseng improved menopause symptoms in a trial with 72 women. The same dose improved sexual arousal, which is often impaired in menopausal women, in another trial on 32 women [40, 56].
However, ginseng only slightly reduced feelings of depression and improved well-being but did not affect menopause symptoms in a study of 384 women .
Three multiherbal complexes with ginseng improved menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, or reduced sexual arousal in postmenopausal women, but the specific contribution of ginseng is unclear [57, 58, 59].
To sum up, there is insufficient evidence that ginseng improves menopausal symptoms. Larger, more robust clinical trials testing ginseng alone are needed.
Two small clinical trials cannot be considered sufficient evidence to support the use of Korean red ginseng in people with ADHD. More clinical trials on larger populations are needed to confirm these preliminary results.
However, in another study on 36 people, both the ginseng-treated and the placebo groups lost weight .
In older obese mice, fermented red ginseng improved insulin sensitivity relative to reduced body weight .
Chinese ginseng-fed obese mice had decreased fat cell production and body fat mass gain, as well as improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity .
Again, there is insufficient evidence to claim that ginseng helps lose weight. Further clinical research is warranted.
No clinical evidence supports the use of ginseng for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Ginseng improved motor function recovery after a spinal cord injury by reducing inflammation in mice .
Ginseng treatment may help with physical performance and increase resistance to stress and aging by causing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to increase blood corticotropin and corticosteroid levels, as seen in animal and cell-based studies .
This list does not cover all possible side effects. Contact your doctor or pharmacist if you notice any other side effects.
Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. In the US, you may report side effects to the FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088 or at www.fda.gov/medwatch. In Canada, you may report side effects to Health Canada at 1-866-234-2345.
As a stimulant, ginseng may cause nervousness and/or sleeplessness, as well as high blood pressure, anxiety, vomiting, and diarrhea in high doses.
Supplement/Herb/Nutrient-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let them know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.
Ginseng may interact with ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, blood thinners, stimulants, MAOIs, and morphine.