What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a perennial herb that grows wild in deciduous forests but is also grown on ginseng farms. It is one of the world’s best-selling natural products and has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to prevent and treat a variety of diseases. Over the past several decades, ginseng has become more popular in North America and Europe. Interestingly, Kentucky is one of only 19 states that can harvest ginseng.
Ginseng is considered to be an adaptogen, which means it can restore balance and help the body better manage stress. It has been well-studied clinically and has a great safety profile.
As reported in Food and Chemistry Toxicology, there are thirteen identified species of ginseng with the most common being Panax ginseng (Korean ginseng), and Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng). Ginseng can be used as a seasoning in foods and is also a great caffeine substitute.
How Does Ginseng Support Health?
Ginseng has been shown to have positive effects on blood pressure, the immune system, and metabolism. But it also has important functions related to cancer, the central nervous system, and infectious diseases. The constituents of ginseng responsible for these actions include ginsenosides, which were first isolated in 1963. The quality and type of ginsenosides vary in different types of ginseng and are affected by species, age, location in the plant, and how the plant was cultivated, harvested, and preserved. While the ginsenosides have beneficial health effects for humans, they are also the protectors of the ginseng plant providing antimicrobial and antifungal actions and their bitter taste deters pests.
Ginseng is considered a great option for cancer prevention and those who consume ginseng typically experience lower risk of stomach, lung, liver, pancreas, ovarian, colon and oral cancers. In addition, preclinical studies have indicated American and Korean ginseng can counteract cancer cell growth and stimulate cancer cell death. Ginseng has been shown to improve cancer-related fatigue. As reported in a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled trial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, after 8 weeks of treatment with 2,000 milligrams of American ginseng, a significant improvement in fatigue was experienced in cancer survivors as compared to the placebo group. In this study, participants tolerated treatment well with no reported toxicities.
Ginseng is also beneficial for blood sugar and cholesterol control. In mouse models, fermented red ginseng has been shown to improve both cholesterol and blood sugar levels. In the studies, ginseng supplementation decreased fasting blood sugar, high cholesterol, and also decreased high blood pressure. And a systematic review reported in PlosOne, reported ginseng supplementation significantly improved blood glucose control in people with and without a diagnosis of diabetes.
Ginseng is a known modulator of the immune system. By controlling the pro-inflammatory cytokines that are inappropriately released in inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and atopic dermatitis, ginseng may help reverse many of the negative symptoms associated with these conditions. Indeed, as reported in the Journal of Ginseng Research, Korean red ginseng specifically is considered a functional food for atopic dermatitis.
Ginseng has also been shown to improve cognition and memory, and may be an important consideration in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Does Ginseng Have Side Effects?
Ginseng has been studied extensively and generally has a great safety profile. Those taking psychiatric and progesterone-containing drugs and those on blood-thinning medications should use caution. In addition, due to the effect of ginseng on the immune system, those who are immunocompromised, taking immunosuppressant drugs, and those with autoimmune diseases should consult their physician prior to ginseng use.
**This information is for educational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any disease or condition. **
- Arring NM, Millstine D, Marks LA, Nail LM. Ginseng as a Treatment for Fatigue: A Systematic Review. J Altern Complement Med. 2018;24(7):624-633. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0361
- Barton DL, Liu H, Dakhil SR, et al. Wisconsin Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) to improve cancer-related fatigue: a randomized, double-blind trial, N07C2. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2013;105(16):1230-1238. doi:10.1093/jnci/djt181
- He Y, Yang J, Lv Y, et al. A Review of Ginseng Clinical Trials Registered in the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform. Biomed Res Int. 2018;2018:1843142. Published 2018 Feb 6. doi:10.1155/2018/1843142
- Leung KW, Wong AS. Pharmacology of ginsenosides: a literature review. Chin Med. 2010;5:20. Published 2010 Jun 11. doi:10.1186/1749-8546-5-20
- Kaiser, C. & Ernst, M. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. “Ginseng.” https://www.uky.edu/ccd/sites/www.uky.edu.ccd/files/ginseng.pdf
- Kang S, Min H. Ginseng, the ‘Immunity Boost’: The Effects of Panax ginseng on Immune System. J Ginseng Res. 2012;36(4):354-368. doi:10.5142/jgr.2012.36.4.354
- Mancuso C, Santangelo R. Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius: From pharmacology to toxicology. Food Chem Toxicol. 2017;107(Pt A):362-372. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2017.07.019
- Shishtar E, Sievenpiper JL, Djedovic V, et al. The effect of ginseng (the genus panax) on glycemic control: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. PLoS One. 2014;9(9):e107391. Published 2014 Sep 29. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107391
- US Fish & Wildlife Services. “American Ginseng.” https://www.fws.gov/international/plants/american-ginseng.html
- Wee JJ, Mee Park K, Chung AS. Biological Activities of Ginseng and Its Application to Human Health. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92776/
Written by Kellie Blake, RDN, LD, IFNCP
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