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Ginseng Benefits, Side Effects & Safety Information

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Shaun Ward MSc ANutr

Staff Writer


Introduction

Ginseng is a medicinal plant widely used for the treatment of various conditions.

It has been used for thousands of years to prevent diseases in eastern countries but has recently gained traction in Europe and America.

It is now even rated as one of the best-selling natural products in the world.

In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is termed an “adaptogen”, which means it may be able to assist in dealing with various types of stresses.

The pharmacological effects of ginseng have been studied in cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Its main uses are meant for improving the function of the immune system and the central nervous system.

All types of ginseng seem to have common active ingredients, primarily being from the content of ginsenosides, which vary in quantity and strength between different ginseng types. Ginsenosides are a group of saponins with a dammarane triterpenoid structure.

Ginseng also contains nonsaponin components such as essential oils, antioxidants, polyacetylenic alcohols, peptides, amino acids, polysaccharides, and vitamins.

The Potential Benefits of Ginseng

Below we have listed every potential benefit that's got some credible scientific backing:

It May Improve Immune Function

Ginseng is commonly linked to improved immune function, which is a system that protects the body from foreign substances, cells, and tissues.

This is primarily due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of ginseng [1].

For example, a study on women taking 3 grams of ginseng a day for 12 weeks showed an increase in antioxidant enzyme activities and a reduction in markers of oxidative stress [2].

The lower oxidative stress and cell damage has been linked to less physical and mental fatigue with people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome [3].

Lab studies convey that it is the ginsenoside components that can effectively lower inflammation and increase the cellular antioxidant capacity [4].

In animals, there also appears to be a benefit to inducing a positive cellular immune response in species that are suffering from harmful infections [5].

It May Prevent Against Cancer

A scientific review concluded that people who take ginseng may have a ~15% lower risk of developing cancer. It is hypothesized this is because the ginsenosides are able to prevent abnormal cell production and growth [6].

This benefit is seen with many different cancers including the stomach, lung, liver, pancreas, ovaries, colon, and oral cavity [7].

The ginsenosides that are mostly responsible for the pharmacological effects of ginseng, and are the main active anticancer saponins, are named Rg3 and Rh2 [8].

Specifically, ginsenosides Rg3 and Rh2 can inhibit proliferation of cancer cells by modulating the activities of enzymes such as mitogen-activated protein kinases [9]. Thus, this can induce cell differentiation that creates a more mature and stable form of normal cells.

Rg3 is even capable of blocking some cancer cell survival mechanisms [10].

On top of this, there are thought to be many other mechanisms by which ginseng has its anticarcinogenic effects, including cell cytotoxicity, antimetastasis, and the inhibition of angiogenesis.

Not to mention that the strong anti-inflammatory activity of ginseng has even upregulated antitumor promoter activity in leukemia cells within humans [11].

It May Improve Glycemic Control

Glycemic control is a medical term referring to the bodies ability to deal with varying levels of sugar in the blood, and how it can effectively maintain a stable blood glucose concentration to avoid negative health effects.

Ginseng seems to be beneficial in the control of blood glucose levels in people with and without diabetes [12] [13], with evidence that the roots of ginseng possess antihyperglycemic activity [14].

This is because ginseng may be able to improve glucose utilization and insulin regulation [15].

The ability to regulate insulin production likely means ginseng can take action on the insulin-secreting pancreatic β-cells, or even on the target tissues that take up glucose [16].

It can potentially achieve this by upregulating the amount of glucose transporter proteins (GLUT1, GLUT2, GLUT4) that assist in getting glucose into a cell and out of the blood [17].

This combination of mechanistic effects is thought to be able to slow down the development of insulin resistance in diets that are extremely high in sugar [18] (not that ginseng makes it okay to eat cake!).

As a side benefit, the reduction in blood glucose may be partially responsible for the lowering of cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as oxidative stress, in diabetics who supplement with ginseng [19].

It May Improve Nervous System Function

A study examining healthy humans consuming 200mg of ginseng for 4 weeks saw improvements in their mental health, social functioning and mood [20].

Similarly, other studies found positive effects on brain function and behavior in people suffering from Alzheimer's disease [21].

However, these benefits stopped after 2 months which may indicate it only has short-term benefits before the body makes adaptations to resist the effects of ginseng.

All of the benefits of ginseng on brain function are related to the ginsenosides it contains:

  • The ginsenoside Rg1 has shown to be responsible for improving learning and memory acquisition, whereas other ginsenoside have helped to prevent memory loss and cognitive deficit in various pathological conditions such as cerebral ischemia and dementia [22]. Rg1 may also enhance antioxidant systems such as the activity of superoxide dismutase [23].
  • Ginsenosides Rg1 and Rb1 have been found to enhance the functions of the cholinergic system by increasing the density of central M-cholinergic receptors and increasing the level of acetylcholine in the central nervous system. This combination of ginsenosides may also facilitate the release of glutamate, a potassium channel blocker that depolarizes nerve terminals [24].
  • Ginsenoside Rg3 may protect neurons from neurotoxicity by blocking the glycine-binding site, as well as inhibiting homocysteine-induced cell death to prevent DNA damage [25].

How To Take Ginseng?

Ginseng root can be eaten raw or when lightly steam. It can also be incorporated within teas, or even added to soups and stir-frys.

In addition, ginseng root extract can be supplemented in powder, tablet, capsule and oil forms.

Overall, daily doses of 1–2 grams of raw ginseng root, or 200-400 mg of ginseng root extract are recommended.

If you are going to use supplements, try to get a product that contains a ginsenosides content of between 2–3%.

It is also advised to consume ginseng in weekly cycles – 2 weeks on, 1 week off – due to evidence that the extended use of ginseng can decrease its benefit [26].

Ginseng Safety And Side Effects

According to research, ginseng appears to be safe and should not produce any serious adverse effects.

However, particularly vulnerable individuals such as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ginseng supplementation due to the lack of safety studies.

Some rare side effects are:

  • Insomnia
  • Menstrual problems
  • Breast pain
  • Increased heart rate
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Itching and rashes
  • Dizziness
  • Mood changes
  • Vaginal bleeding

Conclusion

Ginseng is a very popular medicinal plant that is marketed to improve the resistance to stressors.

The available evidence suggests that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory of ginseng may be able to improve immune function, nervous system function, glycemic control, and even protect against cancers.

It is regarded as a safe substance to consume, with daily recommendations of 1-2 grams of raw ginseng root, or 200-400 mg of ginseng root extract.

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