Ginseng is an herbal plant that has been used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine. It can improve fatigue, performance, fertility, cognition, and even potentially prevent and fight cancer. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Read on to learn about how this ancient plant can improve your health.
What is Ginseng?
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 varietal [1, 2].
American ginseng is known for its stimulant properties and is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Native Americans have used it to relieve headaches and to treat fever and indigestion. It can boost mood, immunity, and cognition. Studies have also suggested that ginseng may even protect against cancer.
Common Types of Ginseng
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and is used 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 and shows promise in treating neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and stroke .
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) can 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 .
Active Constituents of Ginseng
The main active components of American ginseng are ginsenosides. Over thirty ginsenosides have been isolated, which can be classified into several groups :
- 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
Health Benefits of Ginseng
1) Improves Sexual Performance and Male Fertility
Ginseng is considered a tonic or adaptogenic that enhances physical and sexual performance and promotes vitality .
A meta-analysis of 7 studies (349 participants total) 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, 900 mg, 3x/day Korean red ginseng 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 but lowered prolactin levels in another study with 86 men .
Mechanism of Action:
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 .
2) Has Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Effects
In a study with 57 subjects, 3 or 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 82 people, 1 or 2 g/day ginseng extract decreased levels of markers of oxidative stress, ROS, and malondialdehyde. 2 g enhanced glutathione reductase activity and total glutathione content. However, supplementation did not change total antioxidant capacity, catalase, SOD, or peroxidase activities .
In another study with 18 people, 20 g/day Korean red ginseng extract reduced exercise-induced inflammatory response and creatine kinase activity .
Finally, in a trial with 30 people, 60 mg/kg/day Korean red ginseng supplementation after chemotherapy treatment reduced inflammatory cytokines .
3) May Improve Cognitive Function in Alzheimer’s
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, in a second study with 40 Alzheimer’s patients, taking 4.5 g/day for 24 weeks of heat-processed ginseng improved cognitive function and behavioral symptoms. Lower dosages improved some Alzheimer’s symptoms as well .
4) May Improve Heart Health
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 .
Supplementation with 3 g/day of red ginseng decreased total and LDL cholesterol levels as well as artery thickness in a study with 72 people .
However, in a study with 80 people, 3 g/day Korean red ginseng did not improve artery stiffness .
Similarly, in a study of 48 people, 4.5 g/day Korean red ginseng did not affect blood pressure, lipid profile, oxidized LDL, artery stiffness, or fasting blood sugar levels .
5) May Help Diabetes and Blood Sugar/Insulin Levels
A review of 16 studies determined that ginseng slightly improved fasting blood glucose of both diabetics and non-diabetics but stated more studies are needed because it’s possible that different ginseng types have different effects [26, 27].
Healthy people taking 3-9 g American ginseng had 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 [28, 29, 30].
In a study with 36 people, non-insulin dependent diabetics given 100 or 200 mg of ginseng had lower fasting blood sugar levels and body weight. The 200 mg treatment improved HbA1c. Interestingly, the placebo also reduced body weight .
In another study of 42 people, fermented red ginseng supplementation, 2.7 g/day, lowered blood glucose levels and increased insulin levels following meals. However, ginseng did not change fasting glucose, insulin, or lipid levels .
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 .
6) May Improve Brain Function and Mood
In a trial of 27 healthy adults, 200 mg of G115, a ginseng supplement, boosted performance on a math task and reduced mental fatigue .
In a study with 36 people, 100 or 200 mg of ginseng enhanced mood .
In a trial, 30 people taking 200 mg of G115 experienced improvement in a mental task with less mental fatigue. Interestingly, 400 mg did not have this effect .
Another trial of 30 people had mixed results. Those taking 200 mg of G115 had a slower response on a mental task but 400 mg improved mood and performance on a mental task .
However, neither 200 or 400 mg G115 affected mood in a study with 83 people .
7) May Improve Fatigue
Enzyme-modified ginseng extract treatment decreased fatigue severity in a study of 52 people .
Similarly, 2 g/day of ginseng for 8 weeks improved cancer-related fatigue in a study with 364 participants. 800 mg/day, improved fatigue, well-being, and overall quality of life in another study of 30 people [40, 41].
A meta-analysis of 4 different studies with a total of 429 participants found that although ginseng seemed to reduce fatigue, more clinical data needs to be collected .
8) May Improve Immune Function
In a trial with 227 people, those who took 100 mg of a 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, a type of immune response .
Those taking red ginseng powder during chemotherapy treatment had a higher 5-year disease-free survival and overall survival rate in a study with 42 people .
However, a review study stated that more data are needed on the effect of ginseng on immune function .
9) May Help Menopausal Symptoms
Some menopausal women experience various sexual symptoms such as impaired sexual function. Supplementation with 3 g/day of Korean red ginseng extract improved sexual arousal in a trial of 32 women. However, the treatment caused vaginal bleeding in 2 people .
Supplementation with 3 g/day of red ginseng improved menopause symptoms in a trial with 72 women .
However, in a study of 384 women, ginseng slightly reduced feelings of depression and improved well-being but did not affect menopause symptoms .
10) May Help ADHD and Learning
Korean red ginseng, 2 g/day, reduced the inattention and hyperactivity scores in a study with 70 people) .
Ginseng treatment increased the learning performance for impaired rats and may improve spatial cognitive impairment .
11) Anti-Cancer Effects
A meta-analysis of 9 studies found that ginseng consumption was related to a decreased risk of developing cancer and that this effect was not specific to a particular organ .
In a study of 643 people, 1 g/week of red ginseng extract reduced the risk of developing non-organ-specific cancer, but only in the male subjects .
Another study found the consumption of certain types of ginseng but not others were associated with decreased risk of certain cancers (lip, oral cavity, pharynx, esophageal, stomach, colorectal, liver, pancreatic, laryngeal, lung, and ovarian) .
In mice, panaxydol, a compound found in ginseng, increased cancer cell death .
Ginseng root extract reduced the number of skin tumors in mice compared to mice not treated with ginseng .
12) Weight Loss
Ginseng therapy was associated with increased psychological performance and mood, and decreased body weight and fasting blood glucose in patients with newly diagnosed non-insulin-dependent diabetes .
However, in a study with 36 people, 100 or 200 mg/day ginseng did not affect body weight because both the treatment groups and the placebo group 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 had reduced body fat mass gain, improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity .
Animal and Cellular Studies
The following studies were conducted only on animal models and/or on cell lines.
13) Brain Inflammation
In mice, Panax ginseng reduced symptoms of autoimmune brain inflammation (by suppressing pro-inflammatory genes IFNG, IL-17A, and TNF) .
American ginseng protects the brain against brain inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress, and HPA axis activation in sleep-deprived mice .
Ginseng may improve motor function recovery after a spinal cord injury by reducing inflammation in mice .
14) Stress Response
Ginseng treatment helps with physical performance and increases resistance to stress and aging by affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which increases elevated plasma corticotropin and corticosteroid levels .
15) Alcohol Toxicity
Ginseng and seabuckthorn increased enzymes (ADH and ALDH) that break down alcohol in mice with acute alcohol intoxication, which helps lessens the effects in the brain .
Side Effects and Drug Interactions
As a stimulant, ginseng may cause nervousness and/or sleeplessness, as well as high blood pressure, anxiety, vomiting, and diarrhea in high doses.
Symptoms of excessive ginseng use include mastalgia (breast pain), skin reactions, and vaginal bleeding .
Ginseng may interact with ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers, blood thinners, stimulants, MAOIs, and morphine.
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