Benefits of Ginseng

Asian ginseng has been part of traditional Chinese medicine for over 3000 years and North American ginseng was immediately accepted by Chinese culture as soon as they began to import it in the early 18th century. Various North American First Nations also recognized the medicinal properties of ginseng prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America. The Chinese belief in the health benefits of ginseng relate to the Taoist philosophy that values naturalness, balance and harmony (1). In Taoist philosophy, universal energy is expressed as 2 forces, yin and yang. In the human body, in order to experience good health, these forces must be kept in balance. Ginseng is believed to be a powerful agent in helping to balance these forces. Specifically, Asian ginseng has yang (body-heating) effects, while North American ginseng has yin (body-cooling) effects. Therefore, an over-worked, stressed person would typically be prescribed North American ginseng for its cooling, calming effects. 
Western herbalists have applied the term “adaptogen” to ginseng. An adaptogenic plant is one that assists the consumer in adapting to the stresses present in their environment. True adaptogens are free of side effects, are non-specific in their activity in the body and are normalizing in effect. An example of a normalizing effect would be to assist both people suffering from high and low blood pressure to mainta in a more normal blood pressure. 
An example of a normalizing effect would be to assist both people suffering
from high and low blood pressure to maintain a more normal blood pressure. 
Western institutions of science and medicine have recently begun putting the traditional beliefs about ginseng to the test. What they have found so far indicate that these beliefs are well founded and that further investigation is warranted. Some of the health benefits that have been tested so far include ginseng’s ability to promote memory, act as an anti-oxidant, reduce the effects of excess stress and promote endurance, regulate blood pressure, and to counteract the effects of 2 serious diseases, diabetes and cancer. For a more complete list of the health benefits attributed to ginseng consumption, see the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (BCMAFF) Ginseng factsheet.

Ginseng and Memory 

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the progressive loss of short-term memory and is often only positively diagnosed by autopsy. At that time, it is typical to find accumulations of plaques in the brain, made up of protein fragments called β-amyloid peptides. It has been found that these peptides suppress the release of acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter in memory processing. In tests (2) performed on the brain tissue of rats, the ginsenoside Rb1, extracted from North American ginseng, counteracted the effect of the β-amyloid peptides, allowing greater release of the neurotransmitter from the brain cells.

Ginseng as an Antioxidant 

North American and Asian ginseng were compared in their ginsenoside content and their ability to inhibit oxidation using five different methodologies (3). N.A. ginseng was found to have more than double the amount of ginsenoside in the Asian ginseng, both in the fine root hairs and in the taproot portion of the root. As well, the N.A. ginseng was more effective in preventing oxidation to substrates such as low density lipoproteins and DNA in 5 of the 6 tests performed. It is possible that the higher levels of ginsenosides Re and Rb1 in N.A. ginseng compared to the Asian ginseng account for these differences.

Ginseng and Stress and Endurance 

In a study on rats, injections of North American ginseng extract versus saline placebo injections, had the effect of increasing the aerobic endurance of the subjects during exercise (4). By taking blood samples from the rats after exercise, it was found that the ginseng-treated animals had higher plasma glucose levels and lower free fatty acid levels than the untreated animals. This suggests that the mechanism of increased endurance may be that of enhancing the usage of fat relative to that of sugar for the energy needs of muscles. Endurance to the point of exhaustion was increased by more than 65% (44 versus 26 minutes). When the effect of ginseng consumption on endurance and stress reduction in humans has been studied, the results have been mixed. Reviewers of these studies have concluded that the inconsistency in results can often be attributed to inadequate sample size and poor experimental design (8).

Ginseng and Blood Pressure

Studies looking at the cardiovascular effects of ginseng have found that it can have hypotensive, hypertensive and blood pressure-stabilizing effects (5). This is likely due to the adaptogenic properties of ginseng mentioned above.

Ginseng and Diabetes 

In a study conducted at St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto, researchers found that the consumption of N.A. ginseng before a meal reduced blood sugar levels in people both with and without diabetes (6). Participants with Type 2 diabetes experienced a 20% reduction in blood sugar levels compared with those who took a placebo. Control of post-meal blood sugar is an important component of diabetes management and may also help prevent the onset of the disease.

Ginseng and Cancer 

In vitro studies at the Harvard Medical School in Boston Mass., tested the effectiveness of a standardized extract of North American ginseng in inhibiting the growth of breast cancer cells (7). When added to breast cancer cell cultures, the ginseng extract reduced cell proliferation in a dose-dependent manner. When the extract was combined with breast cancer drugs such as tamoxifen and taxol, the extract worked synergistically with the drugs, reducing cell growth more than either agent (drug and extract) alone. 
(1) Guo YP, Bailey WG, van Dalfsen KB. North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L.) root grading. Proc. International Ginseng Conf. Vancouver, pp 380-389, 1994.
(2) Lee T, Shiao Y, Chen C, Wang LC. Effect of ginseng saponins on β-amyloid-suppressed acetylcholine release from rat hippocampal slices. Planta Med 67: 634-637, 2001.
(3) Hu C, Kitts DD. Free radical scavenging capacity as related to antioxidant activity and ginsenoside composition of Asian and North American ginseng extracts. J. Am. Oil Chemists’ Society 78(3): 249-255, 2001.
(4) Wang LC, Lee T. Effect of ginseng saponins on exercise performance in non-trained rats. Planta Med 64:130-133, 1998.
(5) Bahrke MS, Morgan WP. Evaluation of the ergogenic properties of ginseng – an update. Sports Med. 29(2): 113-133, 2000.
(6) Vuksan V, Koo VYY, Sievenpiper JL, Francis T, Beljian U, Xu Z, Vidgen E. North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) reduces postprandial glycemia in nondiabetic and type-2 diabetic individuals. Archives of Internal Medicine 160:1009-1013, 2000.
(7) Duda RB, Zhong Y, Navas V, Li MZC, Toy BR, Alvarez JG. American ginseng and breast cancer therapeutic agents synergistically inhibit MCF-7 breast cancer cell growth. J. Surg. Oncol. 72(40): 230-239, 1999.
(8) Bahrke MS, Morgan WP. Evaluation of the ergogenic properties of ginseng. Sports Med. 18(4): 229-248, 1994. 
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