Ginseng is a herb that is the most renowned in Asia. Chinese doctors consider Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) as a tonic IQ, the source of the “vital energy.” They attribute it the property to increase the strength and volume of the “Blood” (the concept of “Blood” in TCM, is wider than modern Western medicine), to increase the vitality and appetite, calm the “Spirit” and provide the “Wisdom”. It is estimated to affects the whole body in many subtle ways and contributes to overall health and well-being.
Traditionally, Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) is known as “white” when the root has just been cleaned and dried. They say “red” or “Korean red ginseng” when the root was steamed before being dried.
According to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng is “hot”, while American ginseng is “cold.” This means, in short, that the Asian species is stimulating and nourishing Yang energy, while the American species has a calming effect and nourishes the Yin. The active molecules in ginseng are ginsenosides (saponins family). Numerous ginsenosides have been identified to date and they are present in different proportions in the two species.
The generic name Panax comes from the Greek words pan, meaning “all”, and Akos which means “cure.” The term ginseng comes from the Chinese words Gin, which means “man”, and Seng which means “essence”.
Asian ginseng is part of the pharmacopoeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for at least 2000 years. The North American species (Panax quinquefolius) was introduced in China around 1718 after being discovered in the region of Montreal by a Jesuit missionary. Chinese herbalists have rapidly adopted it, stressing its similarity with Asian ginseng while recognizing its specificity.
The strong interest of Chinese for wild American ginseng has resulted in rampant harvesting of the plant that threatened its survival. In addition, the commercial exploitation of forests has created an additional threat. Wild ginseng is now considered an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and its collection is forbidden. In the United States, it is either prohibited or strictly controlled in several states. The wild Asian ginseng is also a rare plant in Asia.
In 1947, a prominent Russian researcher named Lazarev formulated the concept of “adaptogen” to describe an effect which could be likened to the Chinese concept of “Tonic” category. As defined by Lazarev, an adaptogenic substance increases in general and non-specific resistance of the organism to various stresses that reach. While causing minimal side effects, an adaptogen product is self-normalizing action on several specific organs or many physiological functions.
The concept corresponds to the different effects of ginseng, observed in clinical studies. For example, it may, depending on the needs of the organization, raise or lower the body temperature and blood pressure, lose or gain weight, stimulate or calm the central nervous system, etc.. The active molecules are known ginsenosides (saponins family).
It is understandable that such a concept, although very interesting, fits poorly in the context of modern medical research and lends itself more or less the usual protocols of conventional clinical trials. Variation in the quality and content of active ingredients used in the various ginseng clinical trials could also explain their contradictoires1 results.
Many trials in different animals show that ginseng can boost the immune system. The data are also convincing in humans. In subjects vaccinated against influenza, standardized extracts of Asian ginseng (G115 ® 100 mg 2 times a day) 2 and ginseng américain3 (COLD-fX ®, 200 mg, 2 times daily) significantly reduced the risk for respiratory infections compared with placebo.
A trial was conducted in Canada with 270 people prone to colds. Taking a standardized extract of American ginseng (COLD-fX ®, 400 mg daily for 4 months) was more effective than placebo in reducing the intensity and duration of symptômes. In addition, only 10% of the experimental group had more than a cold, compared with 23% in the placebo group. A smaller test on the same product gave similar results with vaccinated seniors.
Many medicinal preparations from traditional Chinese medicine and for the treatment of various sexual dysfunctions contain ginseng. The authors of a summary published in 2008 scrutinized 7 clinical trials with placebo, 6 focused on the red Asian ginseng. They conclude that red ginseng may be useful in cases of erectile dysfunction.
In addition, a crossover trial with placebo conducted in Korea has shown promising results in terms of improving sexual function in women.
Data are interesting, but not accurate enough for the moment. Several attempts have been made to verify the effect of ginseng on blood glucose levels of people with diabetes. According to a summary published in 2006, the plant had a beneficial effect in most of these studies.
The authors of a systematic review have focused on two studies that compared the effects of Asian ginseng as an adjunct to those of conventional therapy alone. Although treatment with ginseng gave significantly better results, according to these researchers, the validity of these results is limited by methodological flaws.
Ginseng is traditionally used to relieve the symptoms of menopause. The only major trial involved 384 women in menopause. A standardized extract of Asian ginseng taken 16 weeks was not more effective than placebo in reducing hot flashes participants, but it has slightly improved psychological well-being.
Case-control studies and epidemiological research in Korea have reported a decreased risk of cancer in patients taking Asian ginseng. As part of a large epidemiological study in China (Shanghai Women’s Health Study), researchers followed for 3-4 years a subgroup of 1,455 Chinese women with breast cancer. They established two interesting correlations: the survival rate was higher among women who regularly took ginseng before cancer is diagnosed; and those who used ginseng after their diagnosis had a better quality of life. However, analysis amalgamated all types of ginseng and preparations consumed, as well as widely varying treatment times. So we cannot make specific recommendations on the best protocols from these results.
One clinical trial with placebo has been published to our knowledge. It focused on 643 Chinese patients with chronic atrophic gastritis, reaching the inner wall of the stomach that may predispose to cancer of that organ. Patients took 1 g of powder extract Korean red ginseng for 3 years and were followed for 8 more years. At the end of this period, only men had received a statistically significant preventive effect against cancer.
Self-medication for diabetes can lead to serious problems. When undertaking treatment, blood glucose should be monitored closely. It is also necessary to inform his doctor so he can, if necessary, review the dosage of conventional hypoglycemic drugs.
It is important to distinguish between Asian and American ginseng species, as they each have specific effects (see sections History and Research). It is advisable to consult a naturopath, herbalist or a duly certified health care professional knowledgeable in order to choose relevant species.
Commission E recommends avoiding Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) in cases of hypertension.
According to the authors of a recent review, the data are insufficient to conclude the safety of ginseng for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Written and Translated by Teddy Nseir