What does ginseng do?
Today it’s a staple ingredient for energy-boosting blends at trendy juice bars, but in reality, the ginseng plant has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for centuries. And now, Western medical research has finally caught up, finding the oval-shaped root might have practical applications in helping to ward off illnesses and reducing chronic inflammation linked to cancer and mental health conditions, including depression.
What is ginseng?
A slow-growing perennial herb with vibrant red berries, the roots of ginseng have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years. There are different varieties, the main types being Asian and American ginseng. Studies have found that different types have different benefits, and said benefits of ginseng come courtesy of active ingredients in the plant called ginsenosides.
What does ginseng do?
In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng has been used to treat everything from palpitations and insomnia to impotence and diabetes. Modern research has shown it has an impact on our central nervous system and immunity, and that the active ingredients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s also famed for its anti-fatigue qualities, hence why it’s in natural energy drinks, with some research showing ginseng benefits concentration. Research has linked ginseng to various health benefits, although more is needed to prove its claims.
A Chinese University of Hong Kong study identified nine ginsenosides within the ginseng plant, and suggested that it was the combined effects of these ginsenosides, and their individual impacts on the immune system, that brings about the anti-inflammatory benefits. They treated human immune cells with different extracts of ginseng and, of the nine ginsenosides, seven could inhibit inflammation. That’s significant because chronic inflammation has been linked to everything from pain conditions and cancer to depression.
According to US lab research, ginseng can help to both treat and prevent flu and bronchiolitis, a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that infects your lungs and breathing passages. They found that red ginseng extract aids the cells in the lungs when they are infected with the flu virus. Red ginseng extract also inhibited the RSV virus from replicating, or multiplying, in the body. Impressive.
Blood sugar leveller
The Canadian Research group found that when people took a capsule containing American ginseng before a meal, it reduced their blood sugar – both for people with and without type 2 diabetes. Controlling after-meal blood sugar levels is a very important strategy in managing diabetes, so this is pretty significant, and could also help in the prevention of diabetes. More research is needed, but it’s promising.
Sex drive booster
In 2011, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada sifted through hundreds of studies on commonly used edible aphrodisiacs to investigate claims of sexual enhancement, both psychological and physiological, and ginseng had a favourable result. Since then, a 2013 study found that while they couldn’t explain the ‘molecular mechanisms’, the use of ginseng appeared to increase the effectiveness of treatment for male reproductive disorders and, in 2015, research found that red ginseng extracts improved sexual function in premenopausal women.
Breast cancer support
Research has found that ginseng may improve survival rates and quality of life after a breast cancer diagnosis. Nearly 1500 breast cancer patients were involved in the research, all of whom had received at least one type of cancer treatment – surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. Three to four years after diagnosis, 62.8 per cent were using ginseng, and they had significant improvements in both survival and quality of life. It’s not a replacement for medical treatment, but is an interesting area of research.
What do I need to know?
Unsurprisingly, as ginseng is a known fatigue fighter, it can act as a stimulant in some people. Too much could cause headaches, dizziness or tummy troubles. Because it can affect blood sugar levels, diabetics should talk to their GP before using it, and it can interact with blood thinners and some antidepressants.