By James Duscio
Ginseng is one of the most sought after herbs for over 2,000 years. The issue I raise is the effect of ginseng in humans is not strongly convincing. When it comes to quality and accuracy of labeled content, ginseng has the worst record of accomplishment of any supplement. Does this ancient magic root really enhance our health?
Ginseng consists of dried roots of several different species of the genus panax. It contains small amounts of B vitamins, some minerals, but the important bioactive ingredient is ginsenosides. There are about 30 different ginsenosides in ginseng, which appear to have optimal quantities in the 4-5 year old roots. The most popular known and used types of ginseng out of the 28 different types discovered are American Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, and Korean Ginseng.
The promise of ginseng is to fight cancer, lower blood pressure, create more energy and improve athletic performance. Sounds a little to good to be true, and that is not the full list of promises given by the ginseng manufactures.
One problem is that the research physician Imre Forgo published a series of not well-controlled studies on ginseng that was sponsored by a Swiss ginseng manufacture. This has based most of the claims of energy improvement for ginseng. Yet, recent human research done on soldiers at West Point has proven that a well-controlled, objective study can find much different results. American scientists recently reviewed 35 in vivo studies of ginsengs ability to improve human physical performance, and they concluded that the quality of clinical research in this area was too low to serve as convincing evidence.
In the defense for ginseng, a laboratory study published in the Journal of Surgical Oncology found that an American ginseng and drug combination actually inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells. This warrants further investigation, but ginseng as a cancer fighting treatment looks very promising. Also a placebo-controlled, double blind two week trial, 12 student nurses who were working the night shift experienced improvements in mood, feelings of fatigue, and performance after taking ginseng extract at a daily dose of 1200 mg per day. This is a start on ginseng research with humans, but it is all in its early stages. Be patient and keep looking out for new objective studies.
Now if you feel that ginseng can truly improve your health in some way, pay close attention to how you could be mislead in your ginseng consumption. This is because dietary supplements are not subject to the same regulations that pharmaceuticals are, which creates a concern to the purity and potency of these products. Published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study took 25 commercial ginseng supplements and compared actual content to what is labeled. The results were surprising, all of the contents matched the label identification, but the amount was significant in variability. We are not talking small potatoes here, the contents varied 15-36 fold. Not likely in your favor either. Consumerlab.com did a review on ginseng and found that eight brands of dietary supplements with Korean ginseng contained high levels of pesticides, and some even had high levels of lead.
A sad fact in life is that money dominates every aspect, nutritional products are not an exception. Most companies are trying to profit off of this ginseng natural healing herb hype going around the world. Therefore, everything that you see now today has added ginseng. Now the problem is not purity alone, it is quantity. These products put in close to nothing of the amount needed to see any reaction. For example, Centrum Performance has only 50mg of ginseng, but recommended doses and quantities of ginseng intake in studies show you need 200-500mg a day. Red bull and other energy drinks also put ginseng on the label, but not quantity - not even on their web site. This just convinces me that they have less then the ideal amount of ginseng. Same thing with all of the juice smoothies that have added supplements, no significant amount of ginseng.
We have a huge international acceptance of ginseng, a long history and tradition of its use and great laboratory research done in its field. The issue though is that clinical human research is lacking. At recommended doses of 200-500mg a day, ginseng is tolerated by most people with no negative side effects. Avoid ginseng supplementation if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure conditions and avoid taking for periods longer then three months followed by a two month break. But before you try it, be cautious of what company you are purchasing the ginseng from, and do not fall for commercial products that use ginseng as a selling tool when in fact there is very few scraps of ginseng in it. Do your research beyond the company’s consumer marketing.
James Duscio is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Las Vegas.