Ginseng has been used as a cure-all since ancient times (the botanical name, Panax, means “all healing” in Greek). It contains many active ingredients, including more than 40 different ginsenosides, thought to be the plant’s main active ingredients. There are several types of ginseng. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer)—often sold as Korean, Chinese or Panax ginseng—is grown in eastern Asia. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is native to North America.
Ginseng also comes as red or white ginseng, depending on how it’s processed. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is often said to have the same effects as ginseng, but it is not a true ginseng. It and other similar plants may be used in products as a cheaper substitute.
Proponents claim that ginseng acts as an “adaptogen,” boosting the body’s resistance to physical and mental stress, increasing energy and enhancing general well-being. The herb is said to help prevent or treat everything from colds, diabetes, digestive problems and menopause symptoms to poor circulation, asthma, memory problems and even HIV infection and cancer. It’s also touted as an aphrodisiac.
Ginseng: an herb with many variables
Ginseng is one of the most researched herbs. Compounds in ginseng have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer and immune-modulating properties. They may also relax blood vessels, help protect the nervous system, affect hormones and improve blood sugar, among other effects.
Still, ginseng’s medicinal effects remain unclear. One problem is its variability. Different types of ginseng have different compounds and biological properties, and different parts of the plant (roots, leaves, stems) also contain varying chemicals.
How ginseng is processed affects its biological activity as well. Most studies on ginseng have been small or poorly designed and have used different formulations and doses of ginseng, making them hard to compare. Moreover, it’s difficult to study the many vague claims. How, for instance, do you measure increased “well-being” or “vitality? Here's a look at some recent research:
Several small but well-designed studies have found that ginseng can help control blood sugar, possibly by increasing insulin production, among other mechanisms. The Natural Standard, which evaluates alternative and complementary therapies, gives ginseng a B rating (good evidence) for its effect on blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes— but notes that its long-term effectiveness and safety are unclear.
In a small study in the journal Diabetes, however, overweight people with diabetes or poor blood sugar control did not benefit from taking Korean ginseng for 30 days.