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Asian ginseng

Ginseng has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The name "ginseng" refers to both American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), which are made up of similar chemicals. Siberian ginseng, or Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), is a completely different plant and does not have the same active ingredients. Both Asian and American ginseng contain substances called ginsenosides, which researchers think are the active ingredients.

Like American ginseng, Asian ginseng is a gnarled root that looks like a human body with stringy shoots for arms and legs. Long ago, herbalists thought that because of the way ginseng looks it could treat many problems, from fatigue and stress to asthma and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ginseng is often combined with other herbs.

Today, ginseng is sometimes called an "adaptogen," which is a substance that is supposed to help the body better cope with mental or physical stress. Scientists have not found any evidence that adaptogens exist. But ginseng has been studied for several conditions, and it is one of the most popular herbs in the United States.

Many studies of Asian or Korean ginseng have used combinations of herbs. So it is not always possible to say whether ginseng by itself produced the results. Research on Asian ginseng has included the following conditions:

Cold and flu

It has been said that Asian ginseng boosts the immune system, which might help the body fight off infection and disease. The best evidence is that it may help reduce your risk of getting a cold or flu. Studies have found that ginseng seems to increase the number of immune cells in the blood and improve the immune system's response to a flu vaccine. In one study, 227 people got either ginseng or placebo for 12 weeks, and got a flu vaccine after 4 weeks. The number of colds and flu were two-thirds lower in the group that took ginseng.

Two studies found that ginseng lowered the chance of getting a cold. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 323 people, those who took 400 mg of ginseng daily for 4 months had fewer colds. When they did get a cold, it was less severe and shorter than the colds of people who took placebo.

Heart health

Asian ginseng seems to be an antioxidant. Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, which are substances that can damage DNA and contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Preliminary studies suggest Asian ginseng may improve the symptoms of heart disease in people. It also may decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and raise HDL (good) cholesterol.

Asian ginseng's effect on blood pressure is more complicated. Some studies suggest it lowers blood pressure while others found that it causes blood pressure to rise. This has led researchers to question if ginseng increases blood pressure at usual doses, but lowers it when doses are higher. Until researchers know for sure, you should not take ginseng if you have high blood pressure unless your doctor tells you it is OK.

Type 2 diabetes

Although American ginseng has been studied more for diabetes, both types of Panax ginsengs may lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. However, in a few studies it looked like Asian or Korean ginseng raised blood sugar levels. Some people think that the ginsenosides in American ginseng might lower blood sugar while different ginsenosides in Asian ginseng could raise blood sugar levels. Until researchers know more, you should not take ginseng if you have diabetes without your doctor's supervision and monitoring.

Mental performance

People who take ginseng often say they feel more alert. Several studies report that Asian ginseng may slightly improve thinking or learning. Early research shows that Asian ginseng may improve performance on such things as mental arithmetic, concentration, memory, and other measures. Some studies have also found a positive effect with the combination of Asian ginseng and Ginkgo biloba.

Most of the studies have found that ginseng does improve mental performance. But they have measured different kinds of mental function. That makes it hard to know exactly what the effects of ginseng are. For example, one study found that people who took ginseng increased their ability for abstract thought. But it did not create any changes in their reaction time or concentration levels.

Physical endurance

There have been a number of studies using Asian ginseng for athletic performance in people and laboratory animals. Results have been mixed, with some studies showing better strength and endurance, others showing improved agility or reaction time, and others showing no effect at all. Even so, athletes often take Asian ginseng to boost both endurance and strength. Asian ginseng was also found to reduce fatigue in a study of 332 people.

Stress and well-being

Asian ginseng is sometimes credited with helping the body deal with physical or mental stress. While these properties can be difficult to study, there is some evidence that ginseng (both Asian and American) can improve quality of life, although quality of life can be hard to measure, too.

A study of 501 men and women living in Mexico City found better quality of life measures (energy, sleep, sex life, personal satisfaction, and well-being) in those taking Asian ginseng. Another well-designed study found that people who took a nutritional supplement with ginseng said they had better quality of life than those taking the same supplement without ginseng.

Fertility/erectile dysfunction

Asian ginseng is widely believed to boost sexual performance. But there are not many studies to back this up. In animal studies, Asian ginseng has increased sperm production, sexual activity, and sexual performance. A study of 46 men has also shown an increase in sperm count as well as motility. Another study in 60 men found that Asian ginseng increased sex drive and decreased erection problems. Also, in one study of 45 men, those who took 900 mg of Korean ginseng 3 times per day for 8 weeks had less trouble getting an erection than those who took placebo.

Cancer

Several studies suggest that Asian ginseng may reduce the risk of some types of cancers. In one observational study, researchers followed 4,634 people for 5 years. They found that those who took ginseng had lower risks of lung, liver, pancreatic, ovarian, and stomach cancers. But the study could not be sure that other things, including healthy eating habits, were responsible for the lower risk of cancer. The study also found that taking ginseng only 3 times a year led to a big reduction in cancer risk.

Several studies suggest that Asian ginseng slows down or stops the growth of tumors, although researchers are not yet sure how it might work in humans. More research is needed.

Menopausal symptoms

There have been only a few studies of ginseng for menopausal symptoms. Two well-designed studies evaluating red Korean (Asian) ginseng suggest it may relieve some of the symptoms of menopause, improving sense of well-being and mood, particularly feelings of depression. People took ginseng along with a vitamin and mineral supplement. Other studies show no effect.

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Herbal medicine

Review Date: 6/22/2015  

Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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