While some herbs can safely be called "miracle drugs" and others are to be avoided at all cost, few have such a complicated history of research as ginseng. Credited with everything from curing cancer and controlling diabetes to an increase in energy and weight loss, we set out to clarify a few of the myths of ginseng.
Two types of ginseng are the most often identified for their potential benefits: American Ginseng and Asian Ginseng. Usage of either has been linked to an increase in energy, lowered cholesterol and blood sugar levels and regulation of Type 2 Diabetes and upper respiratory infections.
1.) Ginseng and Energy:
The Good: The Chinese have used ginseng for centuries as an energy supplement. Recent research, like this study done by the Mayo Clinic, seems to back that up. In 2012, the Mayo Clinic published research linking a usage of pure, ground American ginseng root to an improvement in fatigue among 340 cancer patients and confirmed that within 4-8 weeks, patients reported a “significant improvement in general exhaustion”.
The Bad: While this study confirms a link between ginseng use and fatigue improvement, it’s important to note that this type of ginseng is not available to most consumers. Ginseng root purchased off store shelves is sometimes processed with ethanol, which could be potentially harmful to breast cancer patients. If using for fatigue, whether you’re a cancer patient or not, consult your doctor before use.
2.) Ginseng and High Blood Sugar
The Good: Based on this research summary available from the National Institute of Health, “ginseng intake can significantly improve diabetic conditions in both humans and animals.” There could be a variety of explanations for this effect, but this article credits ginseng’s ability to enhance pancreatic cell function and also the reduction in insulin resistance.
The Bad: Studies surrounding the normalization of hyperglycemia and treatment for Type 2 diabetes are murky, particularly due to variance in ginseng quality available to the consumer. Although some studies have linked ginseng usage to improvement in blood sugar levels, others openly question whether ginseng has any effect at all and claim that it’s most serious side effects are much more impactful than potential health benefits.
3.) Ginseng and Cholesterol
The Good: High cholesterol is concerning to many; left unwatched, high cholesterol levels could lead to hardening of your arteries, the development of blood clots and even strokes or heart attacks. It makes sense, then, that many have turned to Asian Ginseng due to its antioxidant properties. According to Penn State Hershey, "Preliminary studies suggest Asian ginseng may improve the symptoms of heart disease in people. It also may decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and raise HDL (good) cholesterol."
The Bad: So, is ginseng really a viable way to control your high cholesterol? Research says…maybe. According to this report from the Institute of Health, the oral administration of ginseng extract resulted in significantly lower total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations. However, other sources – like those named in this CNN article - question the research done in the majority of studies done on ginseng, simply because few have been randomized and none were blinded or placebo-controlled.
Any time you use any kind of herb, it will have both potential benefits and likely side-effects. How it impacts you personally will depend on your own health and lifestyle. Although ginseng certainly has potential, it can also be the wrong solution. Before any kind of herbal use, consult your physician.