Ginseng : Traditional Medicine Under Modern Scrutiny

For over five thousand years Ginseng has been used extensively by oriental cultures. People have been extolling its benefits to the point that this perennial plant has attained an almost mythical status. But really, how many of these claims are credible? Is ginseng a real cure-all as many of its advocates claim it to be? Are there side effect? Based on extensive scientific research, here are some facts you need to know before purchasing products with ginseng.

What is Ginseng?

Ginseng refers to any of the eleven types of perennial plants from the family Panax.  It is found only in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere, including its traditional home in China, parts of Korea, Siberia, Japan and North America. The most southerly species is Panax Vietnamensis, found in the mountains of Vietnam.

Many plants belong to the same family. Some even bear the name ginseng (Brazilian ginseng, Alaskan ginseng and Peruvian ginseng) but only the eleven species belonging to the genus Panax (which in Greek means, all-curing, and is also the origin of panacea), are considered true ginsengs. Furthermore, out of the eleven, the Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) are the most commonly used and are considered the most effective.

Ginseng has always been a priced commodity in traditional Asian herbal medicine. At the same time, it has been gaining a lot of popularity in the west as an alternative medicine. In fact,  there has been steadily rising number of advocates of the plant prompting further studies and research.

All the eleven species in the Panax genus contain Ginsenosides a compound, which is the target of research. The health benefits of ginseng are slowly coming into light in western medicine – something that the Chinese have already known for hundreds of generations.  In today’s market, ginseng has been sold in many forms including powder, tea and most recently, capsules.

What are Its Health Benefits?

Ginsenoside compounds have been observed to induce a multitude of benefits to its users. One of them is mental stimulation. Rg1, a compound of ginsenosides most abundant in Panax ginseng (Asian Ginseng) has been known to improve spatial learning hippocampal activity. In simpler terms, ginseng promotes awareness, mental alertness and improved cognitive skills and overall mental performance.

Another benefit that many will enjoy from ginseng is that it helps with erectile dysfunction in males. Ginseng, especially American ginseng and Korean red, when tested with animals has been observed to increase testosterone productions by stimulating the luteinizing hormone.  The two herbs, especially the red ginseng (ginseng that has been boiled and dried), have been used for this purpose by traditional Chinese herbalists.

The herb also promotes weight loss and lowers the level of cholesterol in the body. It is a very potent appetite suppressor. As well as an excellent stimulant; helping people fight fatigue and giving energy boosts, allowing for more activity. It also helps women with menstrual cramps.

Ginsenosides, according to studies may also boost the immune system, and contains antioxidants that inhibit the formation of free radicals.

As  Medicine for Diabetes and Cancer

Ginseng in the West has been marketed more as a heath supplement – a kind of natural prophylaxis-rather than a curative. But, surprisingly, studies have shown that ginseng has many benefits to Type II diabetes patients; and further research (although very much still in its infancy), have shown that ginsenosides even prevent and cure some types of cancer.

Type II diabetes patients have benefited greatly from using ginseng capsules. The roots, more so the berries, lower levels of glucose in the blood. Patients who take ginseng, even along with high-sugar drinks experience lesser increase in sugar levels.

Aside from that, a research conducted by Korean and American scientist have found out that ginseng helps inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer such a lung cancer, melanoma and colon cancer. At some doses, ginseng completely inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells in the human body.

Are There Side Effects?

Just like any other health supplement, consulting a doctor before taking ginseng products and capsules is essential. Taking ginseng without medical supervision may cause allergic reactions. For some people, side effects may include headaches, nausea, palpitations, and hypertension. Ginseng may not always work with other types of medication, such as antidepressants or maintenance medication for certain conditions.  Pregnant and nursing women are also strongly advised to avoid the intake of ginseng as its effect on the mother and the baby are not very well-known.  Although a non-toxic herbal medicine, excessive use of it may cause negative effects.

Can You Overdose From The Intake of Ginseng?

Given that ginseng may cause headaches or hypertension, many doctors recommend taking ginseng for regularly (daily) for three weeks, then having a one-week break after that. Most tablets are 100-400 milligrams.  At the same time, following the intake instructions on the package is always recommended.

Where Can You Buy It?

Because of the high demand in the traditional oriental market and the ever-increasing popularity in the west, the price of ginseng (i.e., either the root itself, tea, or capsules), has been increasing steadily with prices reaching up to five hundred dollars per pound. Some sellers use other types of ginseng instead of the more popular Asian and American species. Although perfectly acceptable, some company’s market these varieties as their more famous counterparts. Some companies even go as far as minimizing the ginseng content of their food supplements.

In an independent study by the British study, researchers have found out that some companies actually “water down” their products; and as a result, some of their ginseng based goods actually contain very little of the herb.

Conclusion

As a remedy based on tradition and sometimes, a lot of hearsay, it is easy for one to become absorbed in the “lore” of ginseng. For that very same reason, and the fact that ginseng is not well studied in the west, it is easy for many to dismiss it as folk medicine.

In this case, however, traditional knowledge and modern medicine have both proven the immense potential of this perennial plant. Ginseng has many benefits no doubt, but it’s not a cure-all ; they simply don’t exist.  Supplements and medicine, whether traditional or modern, do not solve problems overnight. A healthy lifestyle, balanced diet and an overall positive outlook are still essential for good health.

 

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1 Comment

  • Joanne Davis May 24, 2013 01.47 am

    This is really an interesting post. I learned a lot about the goodness ginseng could brought to us. I never thought it can be a medicine for cancer and diabetes.

    Reply 

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