Ginseng--What does it really do? To find this answer to this question, I took a detailed look at not only the claims made by the producers of this plant, as listed on the internet, but also the research done by scientists. Although it has a wide variety of claims, it does not necessarily fulfill all of its promises.
What is ginseng?
What is ginseng made of?
What is it promised to do?
A closer look at specific effects:
Ginseng and Aging
Effects on stress
Quality of Life/Physical Stamina
Should I take Ginseng?
What is ginseng?
Ginseng is listed as an adaptogen. Hans Selye, a listed expert on stress, defines an adaptogen as a "non-toxic substance which reinforces the bodys ability to react to stress" (http:/www.sunwellness.com/ginseng.html). It is offered in a variety of species each yielding a different response.
What is ginseng made of?
Ginseng is a plant with many different components. It is used in its entirety in the preparation of teas, powders, and capsules. It contains saponins, or soaplike materials, that have been named with various numbers and letters, such as Rg1. Its root is said to have a composition similar to that of a steroid (http://www.mkservices.com/ginseng/ more.html) ) It contains compounds containing hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in the proportion C42 H72O14, (Liu et al., 1995).
What is it promised to do?
Ginseng is said to have many effects on the human body. The cooling effects or relaxing effects are felt from the "Yin" ginsengs such as the American or Siberian species. The warming or stimulating effects are seen from the "Yang" ginsengs which include the species of Korean and Chinese ginsengs (http://www.tenzing.com/g.html).
|What they are saying: Promised effects||
Where they are saying it: Internet addresses
|stimulated mental and physical activity, improved accuracy of work, prevents||http://www.mkservices.con-L/ginseng/more.html|
|fatigue, stimulation of endocrine glands, improves memory||http://www.com-star.com/ginseng/about.html|
|strengthen the heart and nervous system, builds mental and physical vitality, builds resistance to disease, stimulates endocrine glands||http://www.dacom.co.kr/O/o7Ekkm55/moreinfo.html|
decreased health conditions, hangovers, fatigue, cool or hot feelings, stress, menopause, light symptoms of diabetes, male impotency, weakness surrounding childbirth increased strength, stamina, athletic performance, stress management, recovery from illness
|improved capacity to think, study, concentrate, focus and memorize||http://www.tcmherbs.com/products/60222.html|
A closer look at its effects:
Ginseng and Aging:
Ginseng has been studied in its relationship to the process of aging among humans. It is stated that aging is a declining process associated with dysfunction of neuro-endocrino-immuno-system network. The atrophy of the thymus places a role in decreased lymphocyte function (Liu J., Wang. Liu H., Yang, Nan, 1995).
Scientists at the Beijing Institute of Geriatrics conducted a study on the direct effects of Rg1, extracted from Panax ginseng, on lymphocytes of aged people. The study concluded that the Rg1 saponin used could stimulate and enhance the function of lymphocytes, restoring it to normal (Liu J. et al., 1995).
Furthermore, this study provided insight on the immunostimulatory mechanisms of saponin and other herbs. Ginseng contains ten saponins, or polysaccharides with specific characteristics, including Rc, Rc2, Rd, and Rg1. Some of the researchers found that ginseng can promote synthesis of protein, RNA, and DNA in tissues and organs such as the kidney, liver, bone marrow , and plasma of rats.
In 1994, a group of scientists conducted a study on the life span, motor activity and antibody production in senescence accelerated mice (SAM). A ginseng containing compound, DX-9386 (ginseng, acorus, polygala, and hoelen) was given to SAM for 13 consecutive months starting from two months of age. The results concluded that DX-9386 significantly prolonged the life span of SAM, prevented body weight decrease with aging, and tended to improve the senile syndrome. Antibody production was however markedly decreased and DX-9386 showed no effect of raising that (Zhang, Takashina, Saito, Nishiyama, 1994).
Effects on Stress
Electric shock and other physical stress manipulations are known to cause antinociception, or an increase in the threshold of pain, in experimental animals. The mechanisms of stress-induced antinociception are controlled by emotional factors such as anxiety and fear. Panax ginseng has been demonstrated to suppress the development of adaptation to psychological stress in mice (Nguygen et al., 1995).
Other scientists studied the effects Vietnamese ginseng saponins, especially R2, had on psychological stress and foot shock stress-induced antinociception in mice. It was found that acute administration of VG crude saponin significantly suppressed the antinociceptive response caused by the psychological stress. Repeated administration of the saponin had no effect on the development of adaptation to either psychological or foot-shock stress exposure (Nguygen TT. et al., 1995).
Quality of Life/ Physical Stamina
Among the varied promises of Ginseng are those of an increased physical stamina and a higher quality of life. Many advertisers promise a feeling of an increased overall well being. They offer testimonies of people who claim that after taking the extract they "feel better."
Scientists in Sweden conducted a double-blind, randomized study with a 12 week duration to determine the effect of ginseng extract G115 on the quality of life. Healthy, employed volunteers, 25 years old or older were included in the study measuring two standards. Self-administered questionnaires were given concerning the Psychological General Well-Being Index and the Sleep Dysfunction scale. 185 subjects taking a placebo and 205 subjects taking the active substances completed the study (Wiklund, Karlberg, Lund, 1994).
The results of the study showed an improvement in the quality of life of both groups, showing an improved alertness, relaxation, appetite, as well as an improved overall score, although a more pronounced improvement was seen in those taking the extract. It was concluded that treatment with the combination of active substances had significant advantages over placebo therapy.
One experiment was cited by Betty Kamen, Ph.D., whose qualifications as an expert include her experiences as a nutritionist, author, lecturer, and radio-TV host. This study involved sailors on a two-month voyage. Twenty-nine of the men were given Siberian ginseng extract, while another group received a placebo. Kamen records the results showing a greater increase in the mental and physical capacity to do work among the men with the ginseng treatment (http:www.sunwellness.com/ginseng2.html).
The effects of ginseng G115 on physical stamina was studied by Van Schepdael of Medicine du Sport in 1993. A group of 43 triatheletes of good standing, aged 24-36, was studied during the sport season using cross-over design for two consecutive periods of ten weeks. No significant conclusions were made after the first period. However, the second period of ten weeks showed a prevention by the drug in the loss of physical performance characteristic of end of the season tiredness. The experimenter concluded that G115 could be a non-doping "adaptagen" (Van Schepdael, 1993).
Ginseng was studied to determine its effects on learning and memory performance in the step-down and lever-press tests in normal mice. The prescription of S-113m (Panax ginseng and Schisandra chinensis) had no effect on memory registration, consolidation and retrieval processes or on motor activity (Nishiyama, Wang, Satio, 1995).
Should I take ginseng?
Is ginseng a "cure-all?" A study shows that ginseng has no effect on memory registration as claimed by many manufacturers of the product. Saponins contained in ginseng do seem to have a prohibiting effect in the aging process and a positive effect toward anti-stress. Both the quality of life and physical stamina studies fail to exhibit overwhelming data that ginseng greatly improves either of these aspects of life. They do however, open the doors for future studies. There seems to be little harm in taking ginseng because none of the studies included an adverse reaction to the plant. A word of caution must be introduced. Many of these studies were done on rodents. Although they may have positive effects on these creatures, that does not mean that they will also have the same effect on humans. Maybe then, we should place a little more weight on those studies done using humans as subjects such as the quality of life experiments. In these studies, little was shown to illustrate that ginseng was extremely effective. In conclusion, ginseng is only overwhelmingly effective in certain circumstances and the "wonder drug" marketing techniques must be taken with a grain of salt.
Liu CX., Xiao PG.(1992).Recent advances on ginseng research in China. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 36(1) 27-38.
Liu J., Wang S., Liu H., Nan G. (1995). Stimulatory effect of saponin from Panax ginseng on immune function of lymphocytes in the elderly. Mechanisms of Aging & Development, 83 (1) 43-53.
Stancheva SLS., Alova LG. (1993). Ginsenoside Rg-1 inhibits the brain cAMP phosphodiesterase activity in young and aged rats. General Pharmacology, 24(6) 1459-1462.
Nash, George. American Ginseng: its commercial history, protection and cultivation. Washington: Govt. Print. Office, 1898.
Nguygen TT., Matsumato K., Yamasaki K., Nguygen TN., Watanabe H. (1995). Crude saponin extracted from Vietnamese ginseng and its major constituent majonoside- R2 attenuate the psychological stress- and foot-shock stress-induced antinocicpetion in mice. Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, 52(2) 427-32.
Nishiyama N., Wang YL., Saito H. (1995). Beneficial effects of S-113m, a novel herbal prescription, on learning impairment model in mice. Biological & Pharmaceutical Buletin, 18 (11), 1498-503.
Van Schepdael P. (1993). Effect of Ginseng G115 on the physical condition of triathletes. Acta Therapeutica, 19(4), 337-347.
Wiklund I., Karlberg J., Lund B. (1994). A double-blind comparison of the effect on quality of life of a combination of vital substances including standardized ginseng G115 and placebo. Current Therapeutic Research, 55(1) 32-42.
Zhang Y., Takashina K., Saito H., Nishiyama N. (1994). Anti-aging effect of DX-9386 in senescence accelerated mouse.
Melissa Schweikhart Vanderbilt University Nashville, Tennessee Health Psychology 115A December 10, 1996
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