Ginseng benefits prove so plentiful that Chinese medicine considers it a panacea. The term “panacea” originates from the Greek goddess of healing of the same name that translates to All-Heal.
Ginseng, like reishi mushroom acts as a true tonic. The word tonic means to “tone.” Much like a muscle that functions better when toned through exercise, an herbal tonic tones internal organs, and body functions. Tonics are not quick fixes though; they provide their toning effects when taken regularly over time.
I think tonics [like ginseng] work directly on the healing system, increasing, not only defensive capability but also the body’s ability to repair itself, replace damaged structures, and regenerate new structure, reports Andrew Weil, MD in 8 Weeks to Optimal Health.
Ginseng comes from the root of several species of plants. The most common forms used are Panax ginseng or Asian ginseng, and Panax quinquefolius ginseng or American ginseng.
An herb called Siberian ginseng or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not a true ginseng.
American ginseng, the more popular form, acts as an adapotgen. Adaptogens increase resistance to stress, trauma, and fatigue. Panax Ginseng has more of a stimulant effect.
Ginseng contains biologically active compounds called ginsenosides that work on the pituitary-adrenal axis, and other chemicals called polysaccharides that affect the immune system.
These ginseng benefits, like those of green tea, make it a popular natural healing herb:
- Improvement of overall energy and vitality
- Reduction of colds and flues
- Improvement of immune system function
- Improvement of sexual vigor and erectile dysfunction
- Enhancement of mental function and general well-being
MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, reports on research of American Ginseng benefits in treating these conditions:
- Lowering blood sugar in diabetics (as does milk thistle)
- Preventing colds and influenza
Insufficient Evidence for Effectiveness (More Research Needed):
- Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (American ginseng extract in combination with ginkgo leaf extract)
- Breast cancer
- Athletic performance (did not improve athletic performance, but lab tests confirmed it decreased muscle damage during exercise)
Although ginseng is generally considered safe, MedlinePlus reports that these side effects may occur especially with higher doses:
- Trouble sleeping
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased blood pressure or decreased blood pressure
- Breast tenderness
- Vaginal bleeding in women
- A severe rash called Stevens-Johnson syndrome
- Liver damage
- Allergic reaction
Pregnancy and breast-feeding – One of the chemicals in Panax ginseng has been linked to possible birth defects. Not enough is known about the safety of American ginseng during breast-feeding.
Hormone-sensitive conditions (breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids) – The ginsenosides contained in ginseng appear to act similar to estrogen so may worsen conditions sensitive to estrogen. However, some American ginseng extracts have had the ginsenosides removed (Cold-fX, Afexa Life Sciences, Canada).
Trouble sleeping – High doses have been linked with insomnia.
Schizophrenia – High doses have been linked with sleep problems and agitation in people with schizophrenia.
Surgery – American ginseng might affect blood sugar levels and interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgery. Stop taking it at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.
Possible Medication Interactions
Warfarin (Coumadin) – American ginseng has been reported to decrease the effectiveness of warfarin.
Medications for depression (MAOIs) – Taking ginseng along with depression medications might cause side effects such as anxiousness, headache, restlessness, and insomnia.
Medications for diabetes – Monitor your blood sugar closely if taking American ginseng along with diabetes medications as it might cause your blood sugar to go too low.
Ginseng Supplement Contamination
The U.S. FDA recently found pesticides in Root to Health, American Ginseng, Herbal Supplement according to a May 13, 2011 Warning Letter from the FDA to the manufacturer of the product, Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises, Inc.
ConsumerLab.com has also reported finding pesticides and other problems in some ginseng supplements.
You can find ginseng online at companies that regularly pass ConsumerLab.com testing such as iHerb.
Ginseng benefits prove so plentiful that it earns its reputation as a panacea. It acts as a true tonic, toning and strengthening the body. Yet, scientific research is just beginning to confirm these benefits.
Some people experience side effects when taking ginseng and it may interact with some medications. Avoid contaminated products by buying from manufacturers who use good manufacturing practices.
Sources and Resources
ConsumerLab.com at http://www.consumerlab.com.
MedlinePlus, “Ginseng American,” at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/967.html.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), “Ginseng,” at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/asianginseng.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), “Laboratory Study Suggests Potential Anti-Cancer Benefit of Ginseng,” at http://nccam.nih.gov/research/results/spotlight/032510.html.
Reid, Daniel, The Complete Book of Chinese Health & Healing (Boston: Shambhala, 1995).
Weil, Andrew, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).