Ginseng is a medicinal herb with extraordinary benefits. In fact, the Chinese emperors valued ginseng more than gold. This light colored fork-shaped root is believed to boost energy, lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, reduce stress, treat diabetes, and sexual dysfunction in men.
According to researchers, the high concentration of ginsenosides, plant sterols, and saponins in ginseng provide ginseng its unique medicinal properties.
What is ginseng?
Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial plant which has fleshy roots. There are eleven species of ginseng, which belong to the genus Panax in the family Araliaceae. The most popular varieties of ginseng are the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and the Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng).
Ginseng is a light-colored, fork-shaped root. It has a relatively long stalk and oval-shaped green leaves.
Ginseng is known as ‘ren shen’ in Mandarin, which means ‘manroot,’ a reference to the herb’s resemblance to the human form.
History of ginseng
Ginseng was discovered nearly 5000 years ago in the Northern mountain ranges of Manchurian China. It soon became extraordinarily famous for its numerous health benefits. It also gained popularity amongst the royalty.
The American ginseng is native to the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. This ginseng once thrived in the wild along the nation’s eastern seaboard from Maine to Alabama and west to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Unfortunately, ginseng came close to extinction due to overharvesting in the 1970s.
Ginseng was grown as a domesticated crop in the late 1800s. Though earlier attempts to produce a ginseng crop failed, in 1904 Fromm brothers from Wisconsin were able to transplant 100 ginseng plants from a nearby forest successfully.
Today the Marathon County produces 10 percent of the world’s supply of ginseng. In 1990 Wisconsin grew 3,000 to 5,000 acres of ginseng. The sale of this produce earned $ 70 million for the farmers in Marathon County.
Ginseng benefits on our health
1. Reduces inflammation
Ginseng has strong anti-inflammatory properties that are often used to reduce inflammation. According to researchers, ginsenosides present in ginseng may be responsible for targeting pathways in the immune system that could reduce inflammation (1).
A 2011 study found that Korean red ginseng has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects which help in the treatment of atopic dermatitis (2).
Another study found that Korean red ginseng reduced allergic inflammation in a murine model of allergic rhinitis (3).
2. Lowers stress and improves mood
During a study by the Department of Pharmacology, Central Drug Research Institute, India, rats with chronic stress were given 100 mg/kg of ginseng. The results showed that these extracts possess significant anti-stress properties that can be used for stress-related disorders (5).
Another study by Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, Northumbria University, UK found that 200 mg of ginseng taken for eight days slowed the fall in mood and but also slowed responding on mental arithmetic tasks. The 400 mg dose improved mental calmness and improved mental arithmetic tasks (6).
3. Improves brain function
Studies have found that ginseng can protect against brain damage and improve memory and concentration. The neuroprotective effects of ginseng come from its components like the ginsenosides and compound K (7, 8).
During a study by the Department of Neurology, Clinical Research Institute, Seoul University, 58 patients with Alzheimer’s disease were given 4.5 grams of ginseng per day for 12 weeks.
The patients started showing improvement in their Mini-Mental State Examination and Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale, and this continued to improve all through the 12 weeks (9).
4. Improves erectile dysfunction
The compounds present in ginseng attenuate oxidative stress, restores the function of endolethial cells and smooth muscle cells in the penis (12).
According to a 2002 study, the components of ginseng induce vasodilation and relaxation of the erectile tissue, which helps in penile erections. The release of nitric oxide from the endolethial cells and perivascular nerves also affect the erectile tissue.
American ginseng also affects the central nervous system, which alters the activity of hypothalamic catecholamines involved in copulatory behavior and hormone secretion (13).
A study from Korea studied the efficacy of Korean red ginseng for erectile dysfunction. The results showed that the men treated with ginseng had a 60 % improvement in symptoms (14).
5. Reduces cancer risk
Ginseng can lower the risk of cancers of the lung, lip, oral cavity, pharynx, and liver, according to a Korean study (15).
Studies have shown that ginseng can reduce tumor growth. It also mitigates cancer through antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and apoptotic mechanisms (16).
According to a 2016 review of nine studies, ginseng consumption can reduce the risk of developing cancer by 16 percent (17).
Ginseng extracts can be used to treat colorectal cancer. Researchers have also discovered that using steamed extracts of ginseng can increase their anti-cancer activity significantly (18).
6. Relieves menopause symptoms
Ginseng can reduce the occurrence and severity of menopause symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats.
According to a 2010 study, oral administration of red ginseng extracts improves sexual arousal in postmenopausal women. The study suggested that red ginseng extracts can be used as alternative medicine in postmenopausal women to improve their sexual life (19).
A systematic review of a clinical trial on the effect of ginseng on menopausal women showed that ginseng is effective in treating symptoms of menopause. It is also helpful in treating depression.
However, some trials also found the effect of ginseng limited. The researchers concluded that more research is needed on the topic (20).
7. Fights fatigue
Ginseng also helps to fight fatigue and boost energy levels. It is often taken in Asian counties for physical fitness.
According to a study from Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Peking University International Hospital, Beijing, ginseng oligopeptides possess anti-fatigue effects, which may be attributed to the inhibition of oxidative stress and improvement of mitochondrial function in skeletal muscles. So, ginseng can be used as a natural agent for relieving exercise fatigue (21).
During a 2013 study when 164 patients with cancer-related fatigue were given 2000 mg of American ginseng for eight weeks, they had significantly lower levels of fatigue as compared to the placebo group (22).
8. Boosts immunity
Ginseng helps strengthen the immune system. It maintains homeostasis of the immune system and enhances resistance to illness or microbial attacks through the regulation of the immune system.
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Studies have shown that ginseng improves the performance of the cells that play a role in immunity, including macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, T cells, and B cells. It is useful in controlling inflammatory diseases and microbial infections (23).
A 2004 study evaluated Korean red ginseng extract as an immune modulator in patients in advanced gastric cancer during chemotherapy after operative treatment. The result showed that post-operative intake of red ginseng extract improves anti-cancer immunity (24).
9. Lowers blood sugar levels
Ginseng can also help lower blood sugar levels and treat diabetes. According to a systematic review of randomized controlled trials, ginseng improves fasting blood glucose levels in people with or without diabetes (25).
According to a study from Canada, 19 participants with well-controlled type 2 diabetes were given 6 grams of ginseng per day for 12 weeks. These participants showed an 11 % decrease in blood sugar levels, a 38% decrease in fasting insulin, and a 33% increase in insulin sensitivity (26).
10. Improves lung function
Ginseng is a promising natural medicine for cystic fibrosis patients with chronic P. aeruginosa lung infection. During a 1997 study when rats with P. aeruginosa were injected with aqueous extract of ginseng, they showed a significantly improved bacterial clearance from the lungs (27).
Ginseng is also useful in improving the quality of life in patients with stable symptomatic chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
11. Helps in weight loss
Ginseng is known to boost metabolism, which helps to lose weight. According to a 2017 study, when high-fat diet fed mice were given Chinese ginseng, it reduced body fat mass gain, improved glucose tolerance, and whole-body insulin sensitivity, and prevented hypertension (28).
Side effects of ginseng
Although ginseng is generally considered safe for most people, it may have side effects in some rare cases. These include –
- Digestive problems
- Sleep issues
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
- Skin reaction
- Vaginal bleeding
- Swollen breasts
You should not take ginseng if you are taking heart medication. If you are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (antidepressants), avoid taking ginseng as it may cause tremors or manic episodes. Also, avoid taking ginseng along with blood thinners as it can increase the risk of bleeding.
Ginseng is a root that is known for its numerous health benefits. It helps lower inflammation, lowers stress, improves brain function, improves erectile dysfunction, reduces cancer risk, relieves menopause symptoms, fights fatigue, boosts immunity, lowers blood sugar levels, improves lung function and helps in weight loss.
Though it is safe for use, some people can develop adverse reactions to ginseng. If you are taking heart medication, blood thinners or antidepressants, avoid using ginseng.