Ginseng: King of Herbs
Updated: Feb 2
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Ginseng has been called the King of Herbs. Although exact numbers are hard to come by when dealing with unregulated products, ginseng is probably the most widely used and respected medicinal herb through out the world. It is used in Europe and Asia and of course here is the US.
Ginseng helps with fatigue. Fatigue is probably the main reason people use ginseng. A recent study, (Nutrients 2016 Dec 13;8(12):807) confirmed the anti-fatigue effects, and determined it was due to inhibition of oxidative stress and improvement of mitochondrial function in skeletal muscles. These researchers suggested athletes could use ginseng for relieving exercise fatigue during training and competition. Muscles injured from overexercising recover faster with ginseng according to a placebo controlled study published last year. (Nutrients. 2022 Jan; 14(1): 78.)
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 24, No. 7 confirmed that ginseng is a promising treatment for fatigue and found that both American and Asian ginseng reduce fatigue in people with chronic illness.
A recent study published in 2021 (Nutr Cancer 2021;73(8):1270-1281) tested various doses of American and Asian ginseng, for cancer patients experiencing fatigue. Cancer related fatigue is often severe and treatment resistant. One group of patients with cancer related fatigue took 2000 mg/day of American ginseng for up to 8 weeks and reported significantly reduced fatigue. Another group of cancer patients took Korean ginseng for 12 weeks and also reported reduced fatigue.
Multiple studies have found ginseng promotes improvement in type 2 diabetes. Glucose control improves, and insulin sensitivity is normalized. (Molecules. 2019 Dec; 24(24): 4501., Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 Feb; 95(6))
A recent study published in 2019 (Eur J Nutr . 2019 Apr;58(3):1237-1245) compared ginseng to placebo. They showed that American ginseng, compared to placebo, lowered fasting blood glucose and reduced HbA1C, the most important measure of diabetic control.
Asian ginseng extract, was taken orally by healthy young male volunteers three times a day for 7 days. Overnight sleep studies were performed two times, 1 day before starting ginseng and after 7 days of taking ginseng. The researchers found that after taking ginseng total wake time was significantly reduced, non restorative sleep stages were decreased and sleep efficacy was increased with increased restorative quiescent sleep. The researchers stated that ginseng significantly improved the quality of sleep. Improving sleep may be the the most important thing ginseng does and the underlying mechanism accounting for its other benefits. (J Ethnopharmacol 2013 Sep 16;149(2):597-9)
Ginseng is considered beneficial for depression and a number of studies confirm this. Mechanisms of action have been shown in animal and human studies. Ginseng is often used as an adjuvant, or add on treatment for people whose depression is not adequately treated with drugs alone. (Asia-Pacific psychiatry. 2015; 7(3): 330-6. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior. 2003;75(3):687-700.
Ginseng's Best Use: TONIC
Ginseng is the greatest tonic known to herbal medicine.
TONIC: a medicine that increases body tone: one that invigorates, restores, refreshes, or stimulates.
As a tonic, you shouldn't look to ginseng to cure anything, but rather to invigorate your health, such that a cure might be possible. When you feel like you don't have any wind in your sails, you turn to ginseng. When you are exhausted, sleep deprived, burned out and don't know how to keep going, ginseng will turn the situation around. When you are taking a medicine or undergoing a therapy, and you should be getting better, but you aren't: add ginseng into your regimen. When you are over the flu or recovered from pneumonia, but just can't get your energy back, ginseng will help. If you have Long Covid, you should try ginseng. Ginseng will put the wind back in your sails, it will get you back up on your feet and back out into the battle. It will put the pep back in your step.
But there are some caveats to ginseng. You don't use it every day. You use it sporadically, just when needed. When you are worn out and fatigued, that is when you want to use it. Maybe for 1 or 2 weeks, or as long as 1 or 2 months. When you feel the wind back in your sails, ginseng has done its job, and it goes back on the shelf, until the next time you need it.
Sometimes people get the idea ginseng is a stimulant, like a strong cup of coffee. Wrong. It is a tonic. Big difference. It will help you get your strength and energy back, but it is not a stimulant. Taking a stimulant is like whipping a tired horse. Taking a tonic herb like ginseng is like starting over with a fresh, rested horse.
Having said that, some people do feel the Korean, or Asian ginseng has some stimulant effects in addition to the tonic effects. American ginseng is not considered to be stimulating. I've used both and I'm not sure I would agree that Asian ginseng is stimulating. For example the sleep study discussed above administered Asian ginseng 3 times day. Presumably, the last dose was close to bedtime, yet their sleep improved considerably. They weren't kept awake by any stimulant effect. In my experience, in most cases you can use either one with great results. I consider them interchangeable. Try them both and if you find otherwise, let me know.
You will also encounter Siberian ginseng, which is NOT ginseng. They made up the name Siberian ginseng as a marketing tool and it may have some benefit, but this article is about American and Asian ginseng.
When Should I Take Ginseng?
If you are tired and worn out.
If your sleep is poor.
If you feel depressed or discouraged.
If undergoing treatment and not responding very well to the treatment.
If you are recently over an illness and haven't gotten your energy back.
In all of the above cases you should do the normal things you should do AND take ginseng. The ginseng doesn't replace the treatment, it gets added onto the treatment.
When I have been in any of the above situations and taken ginseng, the response seems pretty quick. I've never needed to take ginseng longer than 1-2 weeks. I have had patients that have taken ginseng for up to 2 months under my supervision. Typically the ginseng you will get will be capsules and you might take 1-2 capsules, 2-3 times day. Get a quality product from a trusted company. There are liquid versions of ginseng, but I think the capsules work just fine.
Take care and BE HEALTHY!
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