Ginseng is any of eleven different varieties of short, slow growing perennial plants with fleshy roots. Ginseng is believed to restore and enhance normal well-being and has become one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world today.
The herbs consist of a light-colored, forked-shaped root, a relatively long stalk and green leaves with an oval shape.
Ginseng has traditionally been taken to aid a number of medical conditions, which we discuss below. However, as a note of caution, there remains little scientific research to back up how effective ginseng actually is for these.
Both American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.) and Asian Ginseng (P. Ginseng) are believed to provide an energy boost, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and treat sexual dysfunction in men.
It should be noted that Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis) is not a true ginseng and doesn't belong to the genus "Panax". It does belong to the Araliaceae family of plants, but consumers should be aware that it is not the same as American or Asian ginseng.
Possible health benefits of ginseng
Ginseng is one of the most widely used herbal supplements.
Traditionally ginseng has been used to treat a number of different ailments.
However, it should be noted that ginseng's therapeutic properties are often questioned by Western scientists and health professionals because of little "high-quality" research determining its true effectiveness in medicine.
The following ginseng health benefit links have been suggested:
Ginseng may help with stimulating physical and mental activity among people who are weak and tired. A Mayo Clinic study revealed that ginseng showed good results in helping cancer patients with fatigue.
Ginseng may improve thinking ability and cognition. Research published in the The Cochrane Library, conducted at the Medical School of Nantong University in China, examined whether this claim holds any truth.
Lead author, JinSong Geng, M.D., said that given the results of the study "ginseng appears to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behavior and quality of life." However, the authors of the review cautioned that despite some positive findings, studies included in the systematic review did not add up to a "convincing" case for ginseng's effectiveness as a cognitive enhancer.
In commenting on the study, Richard Brown, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, said: "It was a very careful review. But as with many Chinese herbs and treatments, while ginseng has been used by millions of people, there aren't a lot of rigorous modern studies."
Another study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, explored whether it would be possible to incorporate American ginseng into foods. The researchers developed ginseng fortified milk with sufficient levels of ginseng to improve cognitive function.
Ginseng has seven constituents, ginsenosides, which may have immune-suppressive effects, according to results of experiments which were published in the Journal of Translational Medicine
Allan Lau, who led the study, said that "the anti-inflammatory role of ginseng may be due to the combined effects of these ginsenosides, targeting different levels of immunological activity, and so contributing to the diverse actions of ginseng in humans".
There may be substances in ginseng that have anticancer properties. A few population studies in Asia have linked the herb's consumption to a lower risk of cancer.1
Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers found that Ginseng improved survival and quality of life after a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society said that "clinical trials are still needed to determine whether it is effective in people."
Men may take ginseng to treat erectile dysfunction. A 2002 Korean study revealed that 60 percent of men who took ginseng noticed an improvement in their symptoms. In addition, research published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology provided "evidence for the effectiveness of red ginseng in the treatment of erectile dysfunction."2
Flu and RSV
Research published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine has suggested a possible link between ginseng and the treatment and prevention of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This study was conducted in mice and found that red ginseng extract improved the survival of human lung epithelial cells infected with influenza virus.
On the next page we look at the history of ginseng and the possible side effects of taking it.