Ginseng Comeback

Whatever happened to ginseng? This popular pioneer of functional ingredients was the belle of the good-for-you ball 25 years ago. Ginseng may have faded from the popularity contest point of view, but sales are still strong and it still has a myriad of uses.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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Back in the 1970s, before all the fuss about antioxidants, phytochemicals and which appetite suppressant was better (the “secret” one from the desert or the “hidden treasure” from the tropical rain forests) ginseng was the trendy nutraceutical that cured all our ailments and gave us energy to boot. It even looked fascinating – a root shaped like a human, complete with arms, legs and a knobby head.

If we look carefully, we can still find ginseng listed on packages. But it seems to have gone out of fashion, receded from public attention and been out-competed by sexier products. So what’s the story on ginseng and is it still worth our attention?

Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial plant recognized by its oddly shaped fleshy root (actually a rhizome, like ginger). There are about five or six species of ginseng of the genus Panax that grow in the cool climates of Asia, and North America, where, for centuries, they have been part of native cultures.

The oldest Chinese book of traditional medicine, Sheng-nong Ben-cao Jing (composed about 2,100 years ago), credits ginseng with protecting humans from disease, improving memory and increasing longevity. It also hinted at increased sexual potency. On this side of the world, Native Americans used ginseng as part of their healing traditions for hundreds of years.

ginseng root
Ginseng – a root shaped like a human, indeed.
Photo courtesy of www.sciencebase.com.

Ginseng is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides, a class of steroid-like compounds called triterpene saponins. They are exclusive to the genus Panax, and they are what define true ginseng, distinguishing it from the other so-called “ginsengs,” Siberian ginseng, Prince ginseng, Dong Quai, Ashwagandha, Maca and Jiaogulan.

Much research is aimed at understanding ginsenosides. They are believed to be the working compounds responsible for the potential health effects attributed to this ancient root.

In the modern world, numerous claims for the power of ginseng have been difficult to confirm because of the relative paucity of research. Since ginseng cannot be patented, there is little incentive to spend money on studies into its potential health benefits.

Two of the claims about ginseng are that it increases energy and works as a performance enhancer. The claims are backed by animal research. However, a study was published in the 1997 Journal of the American Dietetic Association of 36 healthy men who added ginseng to their diet yet showed no change in performance markers, such as oxygen consumption, respiratory exchange ratio, blood lactic acid concentration, heart rate and perceived exertion.

On the positive side, there is evidence that ginseng may be heart-protective. A recent study (2005), reported in Phytotherapy Research looked at the protective potential of ginseng on drug-induced heart failure. In lab rats with induced cardiomyopathy, symptoms of associated ascites, congested liver, and depressed heart function were lessened when the rats were given ginseng. Also, there was a decrease in markers of oxidative stress along with an increase in natural heart antioxidants.

Korean ginseng has been found to reduce blood pressure in rats by increasing the release of nitric oxide from the endothelial cells of the aorta. Upping the release of nitric oxide is an adaptive response to hypertension that prevents heart damage. In a human study at Chungbuk National University, Republic of Korea, 12 healthy men experienced an increase of exhaled nitric oxide following one administration of Korean red ginseng. It was associated with a decrease in blood pressure.

Some of the potential benefits of ginseng may be due to its antioxidant properties, a familiar theme for a growing number of compounds in fruits, vegetables and herbs. An animal study in 2003 showed that supplementing diets with different amounts of ginseng reduced the evidence of oxidant stress. Ginseng-supplemented rats had higher levels of natural endogenous antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase in heart and skeletal muscles, along with decreased oxidative damage to proteins.

There are many different ginsenosides. Recent research suggests they can reduce the potential of cancer cells to grow and to proliferate. They also may retard the process of angiogenesis, the ability of tumors to create a blood supply critical to metastasis or inhibit the invasion of cancer into healthy tissues.

Ginseng’s connection to health is alive and well. And while it may not improve your marathon times, it has a great deal of potential as a health-giving product. The hype has tradition behind it, and is deserving of not only more research but also a second look by processors – especially beverage manufacturers. So the next time you see ginseng added to your tea, drink up; it’s a good thing.

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