Ginseng has been used for thousands of years. During that time, many claims have been made regarding its effectiveness as an adaptogen. Ginseng has been touted for its ability to fight fatigue, correct erectile dysfunction, reduce hypertension and blood sugar levels, and increase immunity. Yet, how accurate are these claims?
What’s In a Name?
The word ginseng derives from the Chinese ren-shen or jen-shen, meaning “essence of the earth with human form.”
Although many roots with tonic virtues have been called “ginseng,” only those of the Panax family are true ginsengs:
- Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng)
- Panax quinquefolium (American or Canadian ginseng)
- Panax notoginseng
- Panax pseudoginseng
When thinking about ginseng, the first health benefit that comes to mind is its ability to increase energy or fight fatigue. Ginseng does not effectively enhance physical performance in athletes, yet it may be useful for couch potatoes who need an extra boost of energy to get motivated.
The German Commission E has approved the use of ginseng: “As tonic for invigoration and fortification in times of fatigue and debility, for declining capacity for work and concentration, also during convalescence.”
In other words, if you are already at peak performance, ginseng will not make you any better. On the other hand, if your energy is at much less than optimum efficiency, ginseng may give you the boost you need to get up from that couch.
Works as an Aphrodisiac
Another traditional conception of ginseng is that it is aphrodisiac, improving or increasing libido. Whether a substance is aphrodisiac is a difficult question to study because desire, libido, and so-called performance are intricately linked with so many factors in life. It may be very difficult to separate actual effects from placebo effects. Up to now, only Korean ginseng has demonstrated a clinical effect on erection.
Reduces Blood Sugar
Diabetes is a new reason for using ginseng. Dr. Vladimir Vuksan and colleagues from the University of Toronto have been instrumental in this discovery. They first studied American ginseng and found it useful to reduce postprandial glycemia (high blood sugar after meals).
They then studied the components of the ginseng root and identified ginsenosides as the molecules responsible for reducing blood sugar. Finally, they studied Korean ginseng and also found it effective but with a slightly different action.
Although clinical studies supporting the effect of ginsengs on immunity are few, a new purified polysaccharide ginseng extract seems to be effective. Contrary to other ginseng extracts, this one contains no ginsenosides, only specific polysaccharides. Its effect is documented in numerous clinical studies that reveal its ability to reduce the number and intensity of colds and flu.
One of the main objections to the use of ginsengs is the ginseng-abuse syndrome. This so-called syndrome was described in 1979 after an anecdotal case report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, important information is missing from this report, including which product or products were used, the product analysis, and the specific dosage. The report says only that high dosages may trigger symptoms such as hypertension, agitation, nervousness, and insomnia. The cases reported are described in, among others, body builders who may have misused the ginseng.
A few studies on this topic take the opposite viewpoint. For instance, 3 grams daily of dried root (68.9 mg ginsensosides per gram) of American ginseng was found to have no effect on hypertension after 12 weeks.
Ginseng May Not Be for Everyone
A word of caution is in order. In the Chinese perception, ginsengs are hot herbs (with Asian ginseng being the hottest and American ginseng being not as hot) and, as such, they may amplify “hot temper” in people already prone to it. We all know someone who fits this description–the type A personality–and, more often than not, that person also has high blood pressure. Asian ginseng may not be a good choice for these people.
As you can see, age-old ginseng is still very contemporary. Science is only beginning to uncover all the facets of this wonderful root.