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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.

  • Ginsana improved mental functioning in a study by Rosenfeld of fifty patients with psychosomatic weakness, depression, or neurological disorders. Physicians and patients, respectively, rated the success of ginseng therapy at 96 and 88 percent.

  • According to a recent University of Illinois monograph, clinical studies support the use of ginseng as a mental and physical preventive and restorative agent in some cases of weakness, exhaustion, tiredness, loss of concentration, and during convalescence.

  • Concluding a 1990 randomized clinical trial by Scaglione and associates, patients receiving ginseng showed improved immunity. In another study by Scaglione, research indicated that ginseng helps prevent colds and flu.

  • Based on a 1995 study by Sotaniemi and associates, diabetics taking ginseng noted improvements in mood, physical performance, reduced fasting blood sugar, and overall regulation of blood sugar levels.


Not all studies of ginseng, however, have been favorable.

  • In a 1997 study of thirty-one men, a standardized ginseng extract did not produce any improvement in work performance and recovery, nor a change in energy metabolism. This suggests that ginseng has not been proven to improve work performance.


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.



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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.

Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.


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