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Dec 22, 2021
6 min read

Ginseng: what is it, benefits, uses, side effects

Ginseng is an herb commonly used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of conditions. Potential uses and benefits of ginseng include increased energy, focus, blood sugar control, and sexual function. It may also reduce cholesterol, stress, and inflammation. Some research is conflicting about the effects of ginseng in the body, and more research is needed to truly understand its effects.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Ginseng is a popular herb used for many different ailments and health concerns within alternative medicine. But, you may be wondering, is it safe and is it effective?  Keep reading to learn what ginseng is, its common uses, potential benefits and side effects, and whether it’s effective. 

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What is ginseng?

Ginseng is a plant that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to support health and well-being. The plant has a fork-shaped root and oval-green leaves. There are many different varieties of ginseng, and the two most popular are (Cambria, 2021):

  • American ginseng, also known as Panax quinquefolius
  • Asian ginseng or Korean ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng

These two varieties have different concentrations of active ingredients. Within herbal medicine, American ginseng is considered to be less energizing than Asian ginseng. Siberian ginseng is another variety of ginseng available, though it’s less popular than American or Asian ginseng. 

There are two traditional ways ginseng is processed to create either white or red ginseng. White ginseng is produced by drying the fresh ginseng root in the sun. Red ginseng is produced by steaming fresh ginseng, followed by a drying process to remove moisture (Lim, 2015). 

Naturally occurring compounds called ginsenosides are believed to be responsible for the health effects of ginseng. These are also called saponins or triterpenoids (Chen, 2019). 

Ginseng benefits

Ginseng has been used to treat several ailments throughout the years. Practitioners of complementary medicine support and back these health claims. 

However, Western medicine and researchers are still questioning many of these uses. Some of the claimed benefits have little scientific evidence to support them other than anecdotal evidence. 

Here are some of the potential uses and claimed health benefits of ginseng:

Increased energy levels

Ginseng may help you feel more energized. Fighting chronic fatigue syndrome is one of the most popular uses for ginseng, as it may help with both physical fatigue and mental alertness.

The research seems to bear this out. A 2018 review found that ginseng may be a promising treatment for fatigue for people with chronic illnesses (Arring, 2018). There was also a clinical trial done in 2013 to evaluate the effects of ginseng on cancer-related fatigue. The study found a significant improvement in fatigue after eight weeks of taking a ginseng supplement compared to the placebo (Barton, 2013). 

Potential cognitive benefits

The research isn’t cut-and-dried on how ginseng impacts cognitive function. One study on healthy people taking ginseng extract showed both positive and negative changes to cognitive performance tests. This means the evidence within the study was inconclusive on whether  ginseng had any actual effects on thinking, memory, or problem solving (Kim, 2013).

However, within this review of research, they noted that some studies found ginseng helped improve the cognitive function of people with Alzheimer’s disease. They found that when these people stopped using ginseng, they lost the cognitive improvements that had been attained while taking ginseng, sliding back to their baseline (Kim, 2013).

Lower blood sugar and diabetes management

Diabetes is a medical condition where blood glucose levels are higher than normal. It’s suggested that ginseng may help manage type 2 diabetes and blood sugar levels.

Research is starting to back the anti-diabetic effects of ginseng. The research suggests ginseng may help (Chen, 2019):

  • Regulate insulin secretion (the hormone responsible for bringing glucose into cells from the blood)
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce oxidative stress (damage caused to cells by free radicals) 

This research means taking ginseng may help keep blood sugar under control and reduce the risk for diabetes-related complications. According to the review of research, the beneficial effects didn’t appear to be as strong for people with pre-diabetes or healthy adults (Chen, 2019). 

Of course, this isn’t necessarily evidence that ginseng may be used in place of typical diabetes treatments. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, speak with your healthcare provider before trying ginseng to see how it may impact your current treatment.

Reduced inflammation and oxidative stress

Ginseng has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body (Kim, 2013). Many medical professionals believe that inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to the development of many chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. 

A 2014 study found that Korean red ginseng may reduce oxidative stress by increasing antioxidant enzyme activity (Seo, 2014). 

Lower cholesterol

High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often called bad cholesterol, increase the risk for heart disease and plaques forming in the arteries. 

A 2019 meta-analysis evaluated the effects of ginseng on cholesterol levels. The study found that ginseng may help lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels (Hernandez-Garcia, 2019). 

Reduced stress and improved relaxation

Ginseng may help lower your stress levels and promote relaxation. It’s believed ginseng helps to reduce stress hormones and regulate the body’s stress response. The research also suggests ginseng may be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression (Lee, 2017). 

May help sexual dysfunction in men

A popular use for Korean red ginseng is to help treat erectile dysfunction or problems with sexual performance in men. According to a review of research, ginseng may improve reported sexual performance and function. However, the evidence is considered low quality, and more research is needed to understand what impact ginseng may have on erectile dysfunction (Zaslawski, 2021).

Side effects of ginseng

Although ginseng is considered safe to consume, there are some potential side effects from taking the supplement, such as (Cambria, 2021):

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Digestive problems, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, constipation, etc.
  • Changes in blood pressure or blood sugar, potentially causing low levels
  • Increased heart rate
  • Skin reaction
  • Headaches
  • Swollen breasts
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Mania or psychiatric symptoms

Ginseng drug interactions

In addition to the potential side effects, ginseng may also interact with some medications, potentially strengthening or weakening their effects. Potential drug interactions include (Cambria, 2021):

  • Antihypertensives (medications for hypertension or high blood pressure)
  • Diabetes medications
  • Blood thinners, like warfarin or coumadin
  • HIV medications
  • Antidepressants
  • Statins

There is little research on the safety of ginseng while pregnant or breastfeeding. It may be best to avoid use during these times to lower potential side effects.

Before taking any new supplements, always talk with your healthcare provider to understand the potential benefits and risks and for medical advice about the best dose. 

It’s important to note that most dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you choose to take a ginseng product, be sure to research the brand to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the company’s herbal supplements. 

Is ginseng effective?

Scientific evidence around the effectiveness of ginseng is limited, and some of the research conflicts or is low in quality. It appears ginseng may be beneficial for some uses, and it’s relatively safe for most people to consume in small doses. Still, there isn’t enough research to recommend a dose or uses. Be sure to talk with a medical professional before starting any new supplements.

References

  1. Arring, N. M., Millstine, D., Marks, L. A., & Nail, L. M. (2018). Ginseng as a treatment for fatigue: A systematic review. Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine, 24(7), 624–633. doi: 10.1089/acm.2017.0361. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29624410/ 
  2. Barton, D. L., Liu, H., Dakhil, S. R., Linquist, B., Sloan, J. A., Nichols, C. R., et al. (2013). Wisconsin Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) to improve cancer-related fatigue: a randomized, double-blind trial, N07C2. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 105(16), 1230–1238. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djt181. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3888141/ 
  3. Cambria, C., Sabir, S., & Shorter, I. C. (2021). Ginseng. [Updated 2021, July 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Nov. 18, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538198/ 
  4. Chen, W., Balan, P., & Popovich, D. G. (2019). Review of ginseng anti-diabetic studies. Molecules, 24(24), 4501. doi: 10.3390/molecules24244501. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6943541/ 
  5. Hernández-García, D., Granado-Serrano, A. B., Martín-Gari, M., Naudí, A., & Serrano, J. C. (2019). Efficacy of Panax ginseng supplementation on blood lipid profile. A meta-analysis and systematic review of clinical randomized trials. Journal Of Ethnopharmacology, 243, 112090. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2019.112090. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31315027/ 
  6. Kim, H. J., Kim, P., & Shin, C. Y. (2013). A comprehensive review of the therapeutic and pharmacological effects of ginseng and ginsenosides in central nervous system. Journal Of Ginseng Research, 37(1), 8–29. doi: 10.5142/jgr.2013.37.8. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3659622/ 
  7. Lee, H. W., Lee, M. S., Kim, T. H., Alraek, T., Zaslawski, C., Kim, J. W., et al. (2021). Ginseng for erectile dysfunction. The Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews, 4(4), CD012654. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012654.pub2 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8094213/ 
  8. Lee, S. & Rhee, D. K. (2017). Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Journal of ginseng research, 41(4), 589–594. doi: 10.1016/j.jgr.2017.01.010. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5628357/ 
  9. Lim, C. Y., Moon, J. M., Kim, B. Y., Lim, S. H., Lee, G. S., Yu, H. S., et al. (2015). Comparative study of Korean White Ginseng and Korean Red Ginseng on efficacies of OVA-induced asthma model in mice. Journal Of Ginseng Research, 39(1), 38–45. doi: 10.1016/j.jgr.2014.07.004. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4268570/ 
  10. Seo, S. K., Hong, Y., Yun, B. H., Chon, S. J., Jung, Y. S., Park, J. H., et al. (2014). Antioxidative effects of Korean red ginseng in postmenopausal women: a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Journal Of Ethnopharmacology, 154(3), 753–757. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2014.04.051. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24814037/