Does ginseng live up to its popular reputation?

The Irish Times
Health Supplement, p. 13
25 March 2008

DOES IT WORK? The “man root” is one of the most popular herbal treatments

GINSENG IS one of the best-known herbal remedies. For several years, ginseng has been the best-selling herbal remedy in the Republic, according to a Euromonitor International report on health and wellness products. The word “ginseng” comes from a Chinese term that literally means “man root”. The herb’s roots look similar to a person’s legs.

Ginseng has been recommended to treat many ailments. According to herbalists, ginseng is an adaptogen: a herb that helps the body adapt to various stresses and challenges. For this reason, ginseng is usually recommended as a tonic to improve general wellbeing

All ginseng is not ginseng

Despite ginseng’s popular usage, its effectiveness for any specific condition remains questionable. Numerous studies have been conducted on ginseng, but rather than providing clear guidance, these demonstrate some of the complexities and difficulties surrounding herbal remedies.

For example, “ginseng” refers to several plant species. The most traditional form is Asian or Chinese or Korean ginseng, with the scientific name, Panax ginseng. American ginseng is the closely related Panax quinquefolius. Several other species in the Panax genus are also used and sold as ginseng. Siberian ginseng is another popular product, but is made from Eleutherococcus senticosus, while Brazilian ginseng is Pfaffia paniculata.

What is important is that each species contains different active ingredients – the compounds that affect the body. Panax plants contain a group of similar compounds called ginsenosides. The amounts of ginsenosides vary according to the species, age of the plant when harvested, season harvested, and part of the plant used.

Traditionally, Asian ginseng is harvested after growing for at least five years when the roots typically contain 1-2 per cent ginsenosides. With increased pressure to bring products to market, plants are often harvested earlier, and have less ginsenoside.

Siberian ginseng contains no ginsenosides, although it has other compounds with allegedly similar properties. However, the differences have led US regulators to allow labels to use the term “ginseng” only when the product contains a Panax species. In addition, the plant material is processed in different ways.Each method of preparation leads to a product with different active ingredients. Labels need to be read carefully to understand which ginseng the product contains.

Evidence from studies

Hundreds of studies have been conducted on ginseng. The results vary considerably, in part because many different products have been tested for different conditions. The results are rarely consistent.

A few studies have found that Asian and American ginseng helps reduce blood sugar during the early stages of type-two diabetes. This must be carefully monitored, however, to ensure blood sugar is not reduced too much.

A product combining ginseng and ginkgo has been found to help improve memory. Siberian ginseng was reportedly developed to provide Soviet athletes with a less expensive form of ginseng. Several studies have consistently demonstrated that no form of ginseng improves athletic performance.

Problematic aspects

Ginseng appears to have few adverse effects, though some people develop intestinal problems. Other side effects have been reported, especially with Asian ginseng, but their occurrence is not consistent.

A “ginseng abuse syndrome” has been suggested as people consistently using larger doses of ginseng can develop high blood pressure, nervousness and diarrhoea. Ginseng can lower the effectiveness of warfarin which is being used as a “blood thinner”.

Overall, there is little evidence to support the use of ginseng for any specific condition, in spite of its popularity.
Back to Herbal Remedies list