Untangling the ginseng puzzle

wellness solutions from a natural perspective

This energizing supplement is supposed to strengthen the entire body but gets mixed results in studies. What's the deal?

OF ALL THE ANCIENT REMEDIES, ginseng is perhaps the most closely examined by modern science. Traditional Chinese Medicine has used the herb for thousands of years for its properties as an adaptogen, a whole-body tonic that boosts stamina, elevates mood, and increases resistance to stress and infection. Results from Western research have been mixed, though studies indicate that ginseng can successfully lower blood sugar levels in diabetics, boost sperm motility, and treat erectile dysfunction.

"Clinical trials in China get dramatically higher responses than you see in Western trials," says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. Much of the discrepancy may lie in the dosage — most Western investigations are based on daily doses of 200 milligrams of ginseng, he explains, while Chinese studies use much higher amounts — up to 10 times more. Adding to the confusion, different types of ginseng are associated with varying actions (see below), and production methods can alter the ratios of certain potentially beneficial compounds.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng] is native to areas of China and Korea. It's taken for its immunological effects, to treat impotency and erectile dysfunction, and to increase energy and endurance. An analysis of studies published in Alternative Medicine Review found that Panax ginseng consistently mitigates cancer progression.
American ginseng Panax quinquefolius), indigenous to Canada and parts of the United States, is in the same genus as Asian ginseng but has a slightly different mix of natural chemical substances called ginsenosides. According to Blumenthal, some recent studies have shown that American ginseng stabilizes blood sugar levels in healthy adults and in type 2 diabetics.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) technically isn't of the same botanical genus as Panax. It's been used as a general tonic and to reduce physical and mental stress, most notably by Russian cosmonauts and athletes. You might find it labeled as Eleuthero in stores.
White and red ginsengs "White" ginseng is simply dried ginseng root; "red" is the same root that's been steamed before it's dried. "This apparently increases the stimulating effects of the ginseng," says Blumenthal.
So how much ginseng should you take? According to Blumenthal, healthy adults can safely tolerate doses in the range of 800 mg to 2 grams. Consult your physician, especially if you take blood-thinning drugs, including daily aspirin. A 2004 study at the University of Chicago found that 2 grams of powdered ginseng daily significantly reduced the serum levels and the anti-clotting effects of warfarin (Coumadin).

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By Angela Hynes

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