Health Benefits of Ginseng
Alongside gingko biloba, ginseng is one of the most popular botanical extracts in the world.
Contrary to popular belief, there are numerous plants that belong to the ginseng family, with ones such as Korean (Panax), American and Siberian ginseng being the most widely used in a medicinal capacity.
The active ingredients within ginseng, known as ginsenosides, are what provide the beneficial properties of the plant. Each type of ginseng has a different natural make-up which means each ginseng exerts slightly different actions.
For the purpose of this article, we will be focussing on Korean, otherwise known as Panax Ginseng, and Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). So let’s get started and uncover the health benefits of ginseng, so you can assess whether it would be a good addition to your supplement regime.
What Are the Benefits of Korean Ginseng?
Given that Panax is derived from the Greek word for ‘all-healing’, Korean ginseng has a lot to live up to. As it has been a mainstay in Chinese medicine for centuries however, this shows that there is definitely something to be excited about.
A large amount of traditional herbal medicines unfortunately do not live up to their promises when analysed in a laboratory setting. Not Korean ginseng though; this botanical has been subject to scores of studies which report positive findings as we explore in detail below.
Energy Levels and Wellbeing
Korean ginseng is famous due to being classed as an adaptogen, which is a herbal extract that has the ability to reinforce the body’s defences against stress, be it mental or physical.
One of the stand-out studies in this area recruited 90 participants who suffered with chronic fatigue. Over 4 weeks it was shown that the group receiving a daily dose of Korean ginseng experienced less physical and mental fatigue. These results were so impressive that the researchers concluded that these were ‘significant findings’.
A study conducted in cancer survivors provided complementary evidence. It was shown that daily provision of ginseng resulted in significantly lower fatigue symptoms and also helped the participants increase their physical activity levels to further boost their recovery. These results are certainly impressive and hopefully they stimulate further investigation in different population groups.
Whether we are looking to do well in exams, the workplace or remain independent in our advancing years, it is of critical importance to ensure our brain is functioning optimally. Interestingly, numerous studies are in agreement that Korean ginseng has the ability to boost mental acuity.
One investigation of interest studied 30 healthy individuals who were provided with either Korean ginseng or a placebo on a daily basis for a month. By the end of the study period, the participants who received the ginseng saw a significantly greater improvement in overall quality of life. This was realised by the participants seeing improvements in both mental health and social functioning.
Complementary findings have been seen in a study conducted in 2005 that demonstrated Korean ginseng’s ability to improve mental performance and reduce mental fatigue during a battery of cognitive ability tests. The researchers believe that this was because Korean ginseng increases the uptake of glucose into the brain and other cells, helping to fuel performance. As we will find later, this is a valid theory.
The above two studies have been conducted in younger adults, but the most poignant of results have been seen in older adults who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. The most impressive of these studies was published in the journal of Nutritional Neuroscience in 2012.
For this study, the researchers recruited 40 patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Half of the participants received the ginseng treatment with the other half receiving a placebo. In as little as 12 weeks, the group receiving the ginseng saw significant improvements in all of the specialist parameters that the researchers used to objectively measure the extent of the condition.
What is also significant is that these improvements were maintained when the researchers followed-up with the participants 6 months after the end of the study.
To complement the other scientifically-backed benefits of Korean ginseng, it has also been shown numerous times to be able to improve symptoms of erectile dysfunction. Scientists are unsure exactly how ginseng helps, but there have been suggestions that the ginsenosides can protect the blood vessels from damage. It is also known that ginseng can stimulate nitric oxide production which helps to dilate the blood vessels, subsequently increasing blood flow.
One study reported results that were comparable to prescription medication used to treat erectile dysfunction. A study in agreement with these results demonstrated that taking Korean ginseng daily for 8 weeks led to significant improvements in erectile function and also overall satisfaction in the 86 men who took part in the study. However, it is important to note that there have been studies that have not reported such impressive findings. Hopefully future research will provide a more conclusive view in this regard.
If you take a keen interest in health and nutrition, you will have almost certainly heard of antioxidants and know of their importance. Antioxidants have the unique ability of being able to stabilise free radicals, which are harmful molecules that can cause damage and inflammation – the same inflammation which is thought to play a role in most chronic illnesses.
Multiple research studies have demonstrated Korean ginseng’s antioxidant capacity, with this being shown to impact the body in general and the skin specifically. Although this is a lesser-known benefit of Korean ginseng, it adds to its reputation.
Blood Sugar Regulation
Diabetes, which is basically a chronically elevated blood sugar level, is known to affect over 8% of the world’s adult population. No wonder then that scientist’s the world-over are looking for ways to manage blood sugar levels and prevent diabetes-related complications.
Korean ginseng is one that has received notable attention, and has been shown on numerous occasions to both decrease blood sugar and improve the body’s response to insulin, the key hormone in blood glucose regulation.
One study of note published in 2008 showed that in type 2 diabetics, daily provision of Korean ginseng over a 12 week period led to an 11% reduction in blood glucose levels and a 33% improvement in the body’s response to insulin. These are very impressive findings considering the participants were not encouraged to change their diet for the better or increase physical activity levels.
What Are the Benefits of Siberian Ginseng?
Now that we have covered the benefits of Korean ginseng, let’s delve into the efficacy of another member of the ginseng family: Siberian. Although this botanical extract hasn’t been subject to the same level of scientific scrutiny as Korean ginseng, there still exist some impressive findings.
Bolstering the immune system is a big priority for many people, to help fend off colds, flus and other illnesses. When it comes to supporting immunity, vitamin C, zinc and herbs such as Echinacea are likely to spring to mind. However, there is now evidence to suggest that Siberian ginseng is worthy of consideration when looking for a supplement to reinforce the body’s natural defences.
Numerous research studies have shown that Siberian ginseng is effective at increasing the amount of T cells and natural killer cells that the body can produce. These are types of white blood cells that play an integral role in destroying foreign pathogens, therefore maintaining immunity.
Although there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence, hopefully future scientific trials will assess whether the impressive improvements seen translate into a decreased prevalence of illnesses.
Fatigue Resistance & Athletic Performance
Siberian ginseng was supposedly a regular addition to the diet of the athletes from the Soviet Union during the mid-part of the 20th century, where they enjoyed great success. Although there are certainly more important factors that determined this success, there is research to show that Siberian ginseng may have led to modest improvements in athletic performance.
One study carried out in 2010 instructed a group of healthy men to perform a sub-maximal cycling test to exhaustion at 75% of their maximum capacity. The participants performed this task on two occasions, once following the ingestion of Siberian ginseng, and the other time following the consumption of a placebo.
The authors reported that in the ginseng trial, the men were able to ride for 25% longer before reaching the point of exhaustion. They were also able to use more oxygen and burn more fat, without perceiving to be working harder.
These findings have been confirmed by subsequent investigations, which have built upon this by showing that Siberian ginseng is effective for boosting maximal exercise performance as well. An investigation back in 2000 showed that in 35 male participants, supplementing with Siberian ginseng for a month, led to 8.6% improvement in Vo2 max (the gold standard measurement of maximal aerobic fitness).
Compared to placebo, the resistance used during the Vo2 max cycling test was significantly greater. So it seems that if you are looking for a botanical extract to boost exercise performance, Siberian Ginseng is worthy of consideration.
Similarities with Korean Ginseng
Although the two types of ginseng mentioned in this article have noticeable differences, there are also a number of similarities. Like Korean ginseng, the Siberian alternative has the ability to enhance cognitive ability and perceived wellbeing, and is thought to have stimulatory and energising properties that are milder and less volatile than caffeine.
Siberian ginseng is also an adaptogen that can help defend the body against various sources of stress, and has been shown to possess antioxidant properties, albeit not as potent as its Korean counterpart. Finally, to add to its benefit and to complement the ability of Korean ginseng, Siberian ginseng has also been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels.
How Much Ginseng Should I Take?
With regards to Korean ginseng, the weight of scientific evidence points to 200-400mg being the most effective dose for stimulating the majority of benefits.
For improving blood sugar regulation specifically, dose of up to 3,000mg per day have shown to be both safe and effective.
The benefits of Siberian ginseng seem to be experienced between doses of 2000-4000mg per day.
What Are the Side Effects of Ginseng?
Before embarking on any supplementation it is important to assess the risks, and one of the best ways to do this is to discover if there are any side effects. From a large-scale study that analysed 57 investigations into the efficacy of Korean ginseng, it was found that there was a low incidence of side effects, and when side effects were reported, these were typically mild.
These side effects were almost exclusively related to the digestive system, with nausea, sickness, diarrhoea and stomach cramps the ones reported. There was also a documented case of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) in one type 2 diabetic. This reinforces the importance of speaking with your GP before supplementation, so that your medication can be adjusted accordingly.
Thankfully, the side effects of Siberian ginseng are also mild and infrequent. The side effects that have been reported are a decrease in the rate of wound-healing and an increase in blood pressure. Again, there is the potential of blood sugar levels going too low, so it is best to seek medical advice before taking Siberian ginseng for diabetes management.
As there is not enough evidence pointing to the safety for children and pregnant/breastfeeding mothers, supplementation in these populations is not currently recommended.
Hopefully this article has helped to improve your knowledge on all things ginseng so that you can now evaluate whether these scientifically backed botanicals would be a good addition to your diet.
Although Korean & Siberian ginseng provide a range of benefits, these traditional herbs really come into their own when it comes to mental performance, energy levels and overall wellbeing. So if this is an area of interest to you, you can buy with the confidence that these supplements are both safe and effective.