Ginseng: Herbal Medications, What Works
Long valued in Asia as an adaptogen, ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Panax ginseng, and other species) is one of the most expensive herbs in the world and has become one of the top three herbal products in the United States. Panax, the genus name, comes from the Latin word panacea, meaning "cure-all," and indeed, the claims for ginseng, of which scientists have historically been skeptical, imply a near-miraculous ability to address a wide variety of problems. Uses of ginseng include treatment of diabetes, impotence, gastrointestinal disorders, prevention of liver toxicity, and promotion of longevity.
Thousands of pharmacological studies and hundreds of animal studies have been done on Asian ginseng root. Its active constituents are ginsenosides (or triterpenoid saponin glycosides), which may have beneficial effects on fatigue and the immune system and have antidiabetic and anti-impotence effects. Human studies are much more equivocal.
A significant number of studies have been done with a proprietary extract of Panax ginseng manufactured in Europe known as G115, or Ginsanaa??q. Twenty-one placebo-controlled trials have been done on Ginsana extract, as well as six review articles, many of them following good experimental design. Ginsana is sold in the United States as a dietary supplement.
Not all studies of ginseng, however, have been favorable.
One reason for the lack of definitive data about ginseng's health effects is the inherent difficulty of quantifying intangible benefits such as "vitality" and "quality of life." People who take ginseng risk paying a high price without proven benefit. Commercial preparations of ginseng can cost up to $20 an ounce and vary tremendously in quality. Adverse reactions to ginseng are rare, although hypertension and tachycardia have been reported.
Another problem with ginseng is product quality. Studies in the late 1990s found that ginseng products were of widely variable quality, and that many contained little or no ginseng. Nevertheless, ginseng products enjoy great popularity, both in the United States and abroad, and research will undoubtedly continue to evaluate this highly prized and puzzling plant.
From THE BEST ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: WHAT WORKS? WHAT DOES NOT? by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier.
Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.
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Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier. All Rights Reserved.