Ginseng, the incredible root. Cultivated for the past 5,000 years, the powers of ginseng range from adaptogenic effects to the modulation of glucose.
Two of those most common kinds of ginseng are genus Panax, which includes Panax ginseng (East Asian) and Panax quinquefolus (American ginseng). Now that we know what it is, let’s explore some of the incredible, research-backed evidence behind the use of ginseng.
1) Helps Manage Blood Sugar
Blood sugar management
A double-blind, randomized, cross-over clinical trial explored an extract of American ginseng on glycemic control in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Recall that type 2 diabetes involves poor glycemic control and improvements in blood sugar regulation can lead to better management of the condition.
The study blinded participants to either receive 1 gram of ginseng per meal (3 g/day) or a placebo. After 8 weeks of treatment and then at least 4 weeks of a washout period, the participants crossed over to participate in the opposite group.
Compared to the placebo, the ginseng extracts reduced HbA1c levels and fasting blood glucose. These two markers reflect blood sugar regulation in the body. Fasting blood glucose can reflect in the moment regulation while HbA1c is a summary of the previous three months.
All participants in this study were still receiving their conventional treatment. Therefore, the study concluded that the ginseng extract added to conventional treatment holds the potential to act as an effective and safe addition for the management of type 2 diabetes.
Blood sugar management is not limited to those with diabetes. A trial in 2000 studied the effect of an escalating dose of ginseng in nondiabetic individuals on glucose tolerance in comparison to a placebo.
The study randomized participants to receive 3 grams ginseng of placebo capsules either 40 minutes before or together with 25 grams of oral glucose. The placebo capsules contained a matched carbohydrate quantity to the ginseng capsules.
When the ginseng was taken before the glucose challenge, significant reductions in blood glucose were observed. This notably was a small study and further studies are necessary to extend these results to a greater population.
2) Fights Fatigue
These days we are constantly searching for ways to fight fatigue. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2013 evaluated the effect of ginseng in 90 subjects with chronic fatigue.
Participants either received 1 or 2 grams of ginseng extract per day or a placebo for four weeks. The scientists collected fatigue severity ratings using a self-rating numeric scale and visual analog scale.
The 2 grams of ginseng significantly reduced the visual analog scale rating of fatigue in comparison with the placebo. Fatigue ratings on the self-rating numeric scale were also lowered in the participants who received only 1 gram per day of ginseng, but the results were not statistically significant. Therefore, the ability of ginseng to affect fatigue may be dose-dependent.
The study proposed that the ability of ginseng to reduce fatigue was due to its effect on serum antioxidant levels. Ginseng lowered levels of reactive oxygen species and increased levels of glutathione, an antioxidant in the body. However, further studies are required to analyze this potential mechanism of action.
Patient experiencing fatigue
A double-blind trial in 2013 randomized cancer survivors experiencing fatigue to either receive 200 mg American ginseng or a placebo for 8 weeks. The study evaluated fatigue through a multidimensional fatigue symptom inventory short form at 4 weeks and 8 weeks. The sample included 364 participants from 40 institutions.
The group who received the ginseng had a statistically significant improvement in fatigue in comparison to the placebo group. Interestingly, those who still were in active cancer treatment reported greater benefits.
This study suggests the potential for ginseng to not only be utilized as an agent for fatigue relief but to act as an adjuvant during cancer treatment.
3) Boosts Memory & Cognition
Ginsenosides are the active compounds of ginseng herbs and research is increasingly exploring their role in the central nervous system. These effects could range from neuroprotection to the regulation of neurotransmitter release, including acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an essential player in cognitive function, from working memory to attention.
A study published just last month investigated the acute and chronic benefits of ginseng on mood and cognition in healthy young adults. This randomized, placebo-controlled trial assessed participants after receiving ginseng extract 6 hours earlier or two weeks of daily supplementation.
In comparison to the acute dosage, the chronic supplementation group produced improved cognition on an acetylcholine-sensitive attention task and improved mental fatigue.
Individual’s cognitive strength
A double-blind placebo-controlled trial in 1995 studied a ginseng complex in patients suffering age-related memory impairment. The study rated participants’ quality of life, related symptoms, and performance on the Randt Memory Test.
The ratings of quality of life and memory performance notably improved in the group that received the ginseng.
A more recent study in 2008 utilized ginseng as an adjuvant therapy to conventional anti-dementia medications in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This study randomly assigned participants to receive low-dose ginseng, high-dose ginseng, or control for 12-weeks.
Cognitive and functional ability was measured by the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale, the Korean version of the Mini-Mental Status Examination, and Clinical Dementia Rating.
The group that received the high-dose ginseng showed significant improvements in cognition after the therapy in comparison to the control group. This significant finding supports ginseng as adjuvant therapy for those experiencing Alzheimer’s.
4) Combats Cellular Damage
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are harmful perpetrators of damage in the human body. Antioxidants combat these players and ginseng have fascinatingly been found to increase levels of antioxidants and decrease levels of ROS.
A double-blind randomized controlled clinical trial in 2011 administered ginseng to healthy volunteers. Those that received the ginseng had a significant decrease in serum ROS. This research supports ginseng as a possible antioxidant supplement.
Inflammation can be another contributor to cell damage. Several in vitro, in vivo, and clinical studies suggest ginseng’s ability to be anti-inflammatory.
NF-kB is a signaling pathway that when decreased, can help control inflammation in the body. An in vitro study in 2018 found that two ginsenosides can decrease this pathway.
And another in 2017 found that another ginsenoside can inhibit cytokines, cells that can perpetuate an inflammatory response.
Ginseng: The Highly Prized Herbal Medicine
Ginseng has a lot history of being highly valued, both throughout China and abroad. But old wives’ tales aside — does it have any practical, scientific use? Hopefully some of the studies here shed some light on how it can be used clinically.