February 24, 2020
Dr. Wilmark N. Gular, M.D.
“Ginseng strengthens the soul, brightens the eyes, opens the heart, expels evil, benefits understanding, and if taken for prolonged periods of time will invigorate the body and prolong one's life.”
– excerpt from Chinese Canon of Medicine
The use of ginseng in medicine dates back over 3000 years. It was taken byChinese farmers to boost their energy because of the belief that it possesses a rejuvenating ability. This plant has a peculiarly shaped root that is likened to the human form². In Chinese language, it is known as ren shen which means human plant root reflecting its shape².Some would argue that it is shaped like a phallus or the male sexual organ. This is one of the main reason why it was used in ancient China as an aphrodisiac and a traditional medicine for erectile dysfunction¹.
Two major varieties of ginseng exist, namely, Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius. Both originally come from China. The former species is also known as Korean or Asian ginseng and the latter variety was brought to and grown in America. The word Panax comes from the Greek word panacea which means ‘all-healing’³.
The ginseng root is available in two forms and color. White ginseng is produced by air-drying the root while red ginseng is steamed for about ten hours and then left to dry. The red variety is thought to be more potent.⁴ Ginseng can be manufactured into various forms for supplementation. It may come in a powder from via capsule or can be a water-soluble extract.
Ginseng contains a lot of nutrients. Its effect on health can be attributed to its active component, ginsenoside. The subtypes of ginsenosides that exert significant benefits to humans are panaxadiol and panaxatriol. It is postulated that ginsenosides partially bind to steroid receptors in the body, which in turn, decrease binding of stress hormones to these receptors thereby reducing stress⁵.
Several studies conducted in human subjects have identified the potential use of ginseng. The improvement of mood, exercise capacity, fatigue are among its notable health benefits. It has also been postulated to enhance the immunity, improve cardiovascular function, and treat erectile dysfunction. A more detailed explanation of the benefits of ginseng on human study subjects follows.
Setting the Mood
Ginseng helps improve one’s mood. In a 2007 study by Kennedy D. et al., Panax ginseng was found to be superior over placebo for treating mood, quality of life, and memory performance among healthy subjects⁶.
The Boost You Need to Start the Day
Exercise capacity can be increased by intake of ginseng. The effect of a standardized extract proved to increase exercise capacity by about 24.5% compared to baseline levels⁷. A study conducted by Kim H. et al in 2013 revealed that scores for fatigue have significantly decreased among patients with idiopathic chronic fatigue (ICF) when they took a standardized ginseng extract⁸. In the same study, levels of glutathione, a known antioxidant, increased signifying the role of ginseng versus free radicals.
Heightened Primary Defenses
Panax ginseng significantly enhanced the amount of natural killer cells according to a 2012 metaanalysis by Al-achi⁹. Natural Killer cells are part of the body’s primary defense mechanism against microbes. This finding is suggestive of the preventive potential of ginseng as a supplement against infection.
Sugar under Control
The intake of ginseng decreased fasting blood glucose among healthy individuals and among diabetics¹⁰. This was substantiated by Shistar’s study in 2014. However, more clinical trials are needed to evaluate the effect of ginseng on other blood glucose parameters such as glycosylated hemoglobin.
Lose Weight with Less Pressure
A slimmer waist can be achieved with red ginseng. Mean waist circumference decreased in study subjects receiving Korean red ginseng¹¹. In the same study, high density lipoprotein or the good cholesterol increased. Moreover, systolic blood pressure decreased with Korean red ginseng¹¹ʾ ¹². Notably, ginseng had no adverse effect on blood pressure, as reported in early researches. The findings suggest that ginseng could be safely explored in individuals with or at risk of hypertension.
Korean Red Ginseng reduced vascular stiffness in the aorta and peripheral muscular arteries. In a 2010 study by Chung, significant reductions in the brachial-ankle and heart-femoral Pulse Wave Velocity (PWV), which isa measure of arterial stiffness,was found among subjects taking Korean Red Ginseng. This finding poses a possible preventive strategy for coronary artery disease.
We Stand Erected
The role of ginseng in erectile dysfunction cannot be refuted. In two large studies conducted at multiple centers in Korea¹³ ¹⁴, ginseng was proven to improve symptoms of erectile dysfunction. It was also associated with increase sexual desire among the study subjects.
Libido, erection, ejaculation, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction all increased after the administration of Korean red ginseng as reported by earlier research¹⁵. Furthermore, the administration of ginseng helps patients with impotency due to problems in blood vessels¹⁶. This is mediated by the relaxing effect of ginseng on penile vascular smooth muscle cells.
The innumerable health benefits of ginseng bear the same weight placed on gold during colonial times. Ancient Chinese emperors and medicinal gods first discovered its role in erectile dysfunction. Current evidence-based medicine supports its use in this disease entity as well as in fatigue, hypertension, and diabetes.Clinical trials in larger population could help establish the best evidence for ginseng’s therapeutic potential. For as long as benefits continue to be discovered, we know that ginseng is here to stay.