Perhaps more than any other herb, this one sure seems like it’s got something for everyone.
Just take a look at the claims: more energy, improved memory, lower blood sugar and cholesterol – even better sex and protection against the common cold.
I’m talking about ginseng. And with two varieties of this herb – American and Asian – you should get double the benefits, right?
Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
While both types of ginseng do show some promise for some of these concerns, there’s not nearly enough good evidence to back them up.
And a laundry list of possible side effects and interactions make these supplements even more troublesome.
A Variety of Options…
There are actually five species of ginseng. But just two have been valued for their medicinal potential.
The first, known as Panax, or Asian, ginseng, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 5,000 years. Herbalists believe that this root, which happens to be shaped like a person, has whole-body, life-extending benefits.
Meanwhile, so-called American ginseng gained a reputation in the 1700s as a valuable herb among Native Americans and settlers alike.
A third “ginseng” – Siberian ginseng – isn’t really ginseng at all. It’s actually a species of small, woody shrub that is native to northeastern Asia.
While it’s been noted for its properties as an adaptogen, this particular “ginseng” won’t be discussed in this article since it isn’t in the same family. I’ll discuss this treatment in another article in the months to come.
According to many herbalists, particularly those who practice Chinese medicine, the two types of ginseng possess opposite – but complementary – properties. In their view, Asian ginseng is stimulating, while American ginseng is calming.
In traditional Asian medicine, ginseng’s benefits are widely accepted without doubt. It’s considered an almost magical root with a range of therapeutic uses. It’s also often recommended as a daily tonic to help the body adapt to stress.
In the West, however, it’s a different story. Time and again, researchers have put both Asian and American ginseng to the test. And the results have been, well, less than stellar.
In fact, all those magical benefits could go right up in smoke.
Since the early 1990s, scientists have examined the potential benefits of Asian ginseng in large analyses of previously published studies – often with lukewarm results.
For example, a 1999 evaluation of 16 studies found that most had been so poorly executed that it was impossible to determine whether Asian ginseng could improve physical or psychomotor performance, boost immunity, or increase cognitive function.1
Four years later, a review of 9 clinical trials concluded that ginseng’s effects on quality of life were promising, but still inclusive.2
And things weren’t much better in 2006, when a review of 34 studies found that “current evidence does not support the use of ginseng to treat cardiovascular factors”.3
Individual studies have been mixed, too: A small study of 19 people with type 2 diabetes found that those who supplemented with Asian ginseng daily had good glucose control, but didn’t reach measures of clinical efficacy.4
Another study, of 30 healthy young adults, showed that taking Asian ginseng was associated with improved performance and subjective feelings of mental fatigue during sustained mental activity.5
But it seems like, for every positive study of Asian ginseng, there’s a negative or inclusive result.
Too Early to Tell…
American ginseng may have faired slightly better.
Take, for instance, a 2009 review of five studies looking at the effect of American ginseng on the common cold. Researchers found that, compared to a placebo, ginseng reduced the number of patients infected by 25 percent and shortened the duration of colds by 6.2 days.6
And early research into the effects of American ginseng on cognitive function showed that taking the herb was associated with “robust working memory enhancement”.7
Yet with most studies, scientists have concluded that far more research is needed to wholeheartedly recommend American ginseng.
Right now, you might be thinking, “So what if ginseng hasn’t been completely scientifically proven? What’s the harm in just taking it to see if it works for me?”
Well, that depends.
In fact, for some people, the harm could be pretty big.
See, both Asian and American ginseng have been linked to a number of side effects and interactions, ranging from merely unpleasant to downright dangerous.
The most commonly experienced side effects of ginseng include dizziness, insomnia, headaches, restlessness and nervousness, and gastrointestinal problems. Women have also been known to develop breast sensitivity and changes to their menstrual cycle while taking ginseng, suggesting that the herb might have hormonal effects.
And these are just the “minor” side effects. More serious side effects include low blood pressure, high blood pressure, anxiety, euphoria, mania, vertigo, nosebleed, gastrointestinal bleeding, breast pain, tachycardia, and palpitations.
Plus, ginseng appears to interact with a whole pharmacy full of medications and herbs. The list is long but includes drugs metabolized by the liver (such as some antidepressants and pain medications), drugs that suppress the immune system, drugs used to lower blood sugar, anticoagulant and anti-platelet drugs, and even some stimulants – including caffeine.
You also shouldn’t take ginseng if you take certain herbs, such as bitter orange, country mallow, ephedra, and any supplements that lower blood sugar like bitter melon, ginger, and fenugreek.
And that’s not all.
A number of case studies suggest that ginseng is a bad idea for people with all sorts of health conditions, including people with mental health problems, bleeding conditions, diabetes, heart disease, high or low blood pressure, autoimmune disease, hormone-sensitive cancers (such as breast, ovarian, uterine, and prostate cancer), and insomnia, who drink caffeine or smoke excessively, who are preparing for surgery, or who have received an organ transplant.
Whew! What’s left?
If you don’t fit into any of these categories, aren’t worried about side effects, and still want to give ginseng a try to say, help boost mental function or shorten a cold, look for products that contain at least 7 percent ginsenosides, believed to be the active ingredient.
Most experts recommend taking up to 2,000 mg of Asian or American ginseng, with breaks of one to two weeks every two to three weeks, since long-term use hasn’t been well studied.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Vogler BK, Pittler MH, Ernst E. The efficacy of ginseng. A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. Eur J Clin Pharmacol 1999;55:567-575.
2 Coleman CI, Hebert JH, Reddy P. The effects of Panax ginseng on quality of life. J Clin Pharm Ther 2003;28:5- 15.
3 Buettner C, Yeh GY, Phillips RS, Mittleman MA, Kaptchuk TJ. Systematic review of the effects of ginseng on cardio- vascular risk factors. Ann Pharmacother 2006;40:83-95.
4 Vuksan V, Sung MK, Sievenpiper JL, et al. Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) improves glucose and insulin regulation in well-controlled, type 2 diabetes: results of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of efficacy and safety. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2008 Jan;18(1):46-56.
5 Reay JL, Kennedy DO, Scholey AB. The glycaemic effects of single doses of Panax ginseng in young healthy volunteers. Br J Nutr. 2006 Oct;96(4):639-42.
6 Seida JK, Durec T, Kuhle S. North American (Panax quin- quefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) preparations for prevention of the common cold in healthy adults: a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2009; Epub ahead of print.
7 Scholey A, Ossoukhova A, Owen L, et al. Effects of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) on neurocognitive function: an acute, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2010 Oct;212
Source: Is Ginseng Actually Bad for You?