Ginseng is one of the best known and most frequently studied medicinal plants worldwide. This is for good reason—ginseng benefits just about every system in the body in one way or another.There are a number of different types of ginseng. The species of ginseng that is most commonly used around the world is Panax ginseng, also known as Korean or Asian ginseng. Its official botanical name is Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is another commonly used and well-studied species. The word “Panax” is derived from the Latin "Pan," meaning “all,” and "Akos," meaning “cure.” If any herbal medicine is truly a cure-all, ginseng is it. Its broad range of therapeutic effects includes everything from fighting fatigue to preventing cancer.
Most ginseng benefits are thought to be the result of two important groups of compounds: ginsenosides and polysaccharides. The ginsenosides are the most-studied ginseng constituents and have been found to have regulatory effects on the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, reproductive system, and more. While both Asian and American ginseng contain ginsenosides, there are some key differences in types and amounts of these compounds which create some of the variation in terms of their therapeutic effects. The older the plant, the more ginsenosides generally contained in the root. Roots must typically be at least 4 years old before harvest in order to have adequate ginsenosides for medicinal effects. Ginseng’s polysaccharides, meanwhile, are antioxidants with immune-regulating effects and are thought to be partly responsible for its anti-cancer benefits.
Research-backed ginseng benefits include the following:
Ginseng is best known for its ability to boost energy and relieve stress. Both American and Asian ginseng can be perfectly classified as “tonic” and “adaptogen” herbs. Both ginsengs have nutritive, restorative, and normalizing effects which enhance homeostasis and counteract negative effects brought about by stressors. They do this mainly by helping to restore normal functioning of the body’s main stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).
The results of one of the largest studies to-date demonstrating ginseng’s anti-fatigue effects were recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. This double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial by Mayo researchers evaluated a daily dose of 2000 mg American ginseng extractor placebo for 8 weeks in 364 fatigued cancer patients or survivors from 40 different clinics. After 8 weeks, those taking the ginseng showed a statistically and clinically significant difference in their levels of fatigue compared to those taking the placebo. The results for the patients who received ginseng and were undergoing chemotherapy or radiation during the study were especially surprising to the researchers. Those patients had significant improvements starting at 4 weeks rather than 8 weeks.
Like American ginseng, Panax ginseng has also been shown to improve fatigue associated with various conditions in double blind studies. One recent study in adults with chronic fatigue syndrome found that 2000 mg per day of Panax ginseng extract significantly decreased fatigue compared to placebo.
Both Asian and American ginseng have been shown to improve cognitive function and memory. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in healthy young adults found significant improvements in working memory 1-6 hours after administration of an American ginseng extract standardized to 10.65% ginsenosides. Other studies also found that standardized extracts of American ginseng significantly improve aspects ofmemory.[7,8]
Like American ginseng, Panax ginseng also improves cognitive function. In one study, a 200 mg capsule of Panax ginseng enhanced performance of a mental arithmetic task and ameliorated feelings of mental fatigue during the later stages of a sustained, cognitively demanding test. A series of studies by researchers in South Korea found that high doses of Panax ginseng (4.5 to 9 grams a day of Korean Red ginseng) lead to significant and long-term improvements in cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ginseng has traditionally been used to treat high blood sugar and diabetes, and some recent studies support its ability to help regulate blood sugar while other studies do not. At this point in time, researchers believe that certain compounds in both Asian and American ginseng may be beneficial for blood sugar regulation. Among the two, American ginseng seems to work better. Studies indicate American ginseng may help improve blood sugar control in both healthy people and people with type 2 diabetes. Most of the studies with American ginseng have used a dose of 1-3 grams of dried powdered root.[9-11]
In addition to ginsenosides, ginseng contains certain polysaccharides that have been shown to have immune stimulating effects. In one study, 200 mg capsules twice a day of a proprietary American ginseng extract called Cold-fX for 4 months during the cold and flu season reduced the risk of respiratory symptoms by 48% and the duration of symptoms by 55%. Another study using 400 or 800 mg per day of the same extract for six months found that both doses significantly reduced the incidence of upper respiratory infections compared to placebo, with the higher dose working best.
Additional ginseng benefits
In addition to the benefits listed above, ginseng has been shown to improve erectile function, decrease blood pressure and arterial stiffness, improve antioxidant functioning and glutathione levels, help prevent cancer recurrence, and decrease menopausal symptoms. With more studies currently underway, the possibilities for ginseng seem endless. For overall health and vitality, this herb is it!
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