Health Benefits of Ginseng
Medically reviewed by Aviv Joshua, MS
Ginseng is an herbal supplement made from the fleshy root of the ginseng plant. There are different types of ginseng, but American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) are the most common. Ginseng may also be categorized as fresh, white, or red ginseng. Fresh ginseng is harvested within four years, white between four and six years, and red after at least six years.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners have used ginseng for thousands of years to improve overall health. You can also find over-the-counter (OTC) supplements containing one or multiple types of ginseng that claim to boost energy and reduce stress.
Both Asian ginseng and American ginseng are considered adaptogens—natural substances that may help the body resist and "adapt" stress. They also contain ginsenosides as the main active ingredient. These compounds may act as antioxidants to reduce stress and inflammation.
Keep reading to learn more about ginseng's potential health benefits, and other considerations.
Benefits of Ginseng
Human studies have found ginseng may help manage blood sugar, lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and improve energy. But while the research exists, it is often limited and includes small sample sizes. Therefore, more quality human studies are needed to fully understand how ginseng may benefits your health.
May Help Lower Blood Sugar
Research shows that Asian ginseng may help lower blood sugar in people with diabetes. A 2016 review and meta-analysis found that ginseng helped people with type 2 diabetes improve fasting glucose levels (blood sugar measured after not eating).
Ginseng also helped improve postprandial insulin and homeostatic model assessment for insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) levels, both of which help manage blood sugar levels. However, ginseng did not help change postprandial glucose (blood sugar measured after eating) or fasting insulin. Ginseng was also ineffective at lowering fasting glucose levels in patients already taking oral hypoglycemic agents or insulin to manage blood sugar.
Another review found that ginseng was better at reducing fasting blood glucose than the placebo. However, the overall effect on blood sugar was minimal, and participants already had controlled blood sugar levels. As a result, the slight reduction in glucose levels may not be significant to prove ginseng lowers blood sugar in people with diabetes. Ginseng also didn't affect fasting insulin in the studies included.
While initial research is promising, more studies are needed to prove how well ginseng helps blood sugar. Many reviews include different types and doses that may influence findings. An older review also concluded that Asian ginseng did not have enough convincing evidence to prove the herb helped control blood sugar.
May Help Lower Cholesterol
Limited research shows ginseng may help lower cholesterol levels that contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, which increases your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack.
A 2016 review and meta-analysis found that ginseng helped lower triglycerides (fats in the blood), total cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in people with type 2 diabetes. LDL is often considered the "bad" cholesterol that increases your risk of clogged arteries. However, taking ginseng did not affect high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels. HDL is called the "good" cholesterol and helps remove LDL from the blood.
Another meta-analysis found that Asian ginseng helped decrease LDL cholesterol and not decrease HDL levels. A 2022 review and meta-analysis found people with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes lowered total and LDL cholesterol when taking at least 2 grams (g) of Asian ginseng a day.
Related: Cholesterol-lowering Supplements: What Works, What Doesn't
It May Help Reduce Inflammation
Ginseng is an adaptogen, a natural substance believed to help the body manage stress. In addition, ginseng has antioxidant properties called ginsenoside that may help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress that damage cells. In theory, these properties allow ginseng to help with inflammation related to chronic illness. However, human trials have shown mixed results.
A 2019 meta-analysis found that ginseng helped significantly reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, which indicates inflammation. However, the studies only included participants who already had elevated CRP levels. Older research also found ginseng reduces inflammatory markers like interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor (alpha TNF-a). However, this research found ginseng had no effect on lowering CRP levels.
While ginseng may help reduce some inflammatory markers, we still need more human studies to prove its effectiveness in treating inflammation.
It May Improve Energy Levels
In lab testing, ginseng appears to have stimulant properties. As a result, ginseng may help stimulate the nervous system and make you feel more alert and energized. However, this effect has not been confirmed due to limited human trials. The research available also focuses on participants who experience fatigue from cancer or other health conditions.
A 2018 review found that American ginseng helped reduce fatigue associated with chronic illness. Participants benefited the most from taking 2,000 milligrams (mg) of American ginseng daily for eight weeks. Another review found that American ginseng had similar effects in reducing fatigue in adult cancer patients.
Related: 8 Things To Know About Your Body's Energy Levels
Boosts Immune System
Ginseng is often advertised as an alternative therapy to help treat and prevent the common cold and influenza. Research has found the root of the Asian ginseng plant has antibacterial and antiviral properties. A study of 100 healthy adults also found taking 2 g of Asian ginseng daily for eight weeks helped increase immune cell levels. However, human studies are small and have other factors that may have affected results.
A specific American ginseng extract, COLD-FX (CVT-E002), has been studied to treat cold and flu symptoms. A 2006 small study of adults aged 65 and older found taking two capsules of 200 mg for four months helped decrease the duration and risk of cold and flu symptoms. However, the study only included 43 adults in the same community. The participants were also not experiencing an influenza outbreak and got flu shots after one month of ginseng treatments.
Another 2020 research review, including 10 clinical trials with American and Asian ginseng, found that ginseng may help treat and prevent seasonal respiratory infections. However, this is not enough evidence to confirm that ginseng helps boost the immune system to fight or prevent illness.
Related: What To Know About 'Immune-Boosting' Supplements
How to Take Ginseng
Ginseng supplements come in tablets, capsules, extracts, or powders. Tablets or capsules typically contain the ground-up root or an extract of one or more types of ginseng root. People are usually advised to take one to two ginseng capsules twice daily with food. The number of capsules may vary depending on the supplement dosage.
Ginseng root extract powder can be dissolved in water, juice, or smoothies. Powders are often in higher dosages than tablets or capsules. You may also find smaller amounts of ginseng added to energy drinks and herbal teas.
While not as common, you can consume ginseng in its plant form by:
Peeling and chewing the raw root
Soaking the peeled raw root in wine to create an extract
Boiling the peeled, raw root to make tea
Soaking or boiling dried ginseng root to create an extract.
There is no standard ginseng dosage recommendation. The dosage depends on the type of ginseng and the amount of ginsenosides. Research suggests adults may safely take 100-3000 mg of American ginseng. Safe Asian ginseng dosages range from 200 mg to 3 g per day.
Is Ginseng Safe?
Ginseng is considered safe for the average healthy adult when used short term, but it is not safe for everyone. American ginseng is likely safe for up to 12 weeks, and Asian ginseng may be safe for up to six months. Ginseng's long-term health effects are unknown, but you may be more susceptible to side effects like headaches. Asian ginseng may also cause sleep issues and act like estrogen hormones if used longer than six months.
It is not well-known if ginseng is safe for children, and Asian ginseng has been linked to poisoning in newborns. As a result, you should avoid giving ginseng to children and infants. However, studies have found kids 3-12 could safely take the American ginseng extract Cold-FX (CVT-E002) in 4.5-26 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) doses for three days.
If you have any of the following conditions, you should also avoid ginseng or talk to your healthcare provider before trying ginseng as a dietary supplement:
Pregnancy: There is limited data to prove ginseng is safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In an animal study, a chemical in Asian ginseng was linked to birth defects.
Insomnia: High ginseng doses can make you restless and cause additional sleep problems.
Blood clotting disorders: Ginseng may affect how your blood clots and can interact with blood thinners.
Estrogen-sensitive conditions: The ginsenosides in ginseng may act like estrogen, which can cause issues if you have breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine fibroids, or endometriosis.
Schizophrenia: Ginseng's ability to cause insomnia and sleep problems can further agitate people with schizophrenia.
Surgery: Ginseng may affect blood sugar levels, making surgery and post-op recovery dangerous. You should avoid taking ginseng two weeks before undergoing any surgery.
High blood pressure: Taking too much ginseng may increase your blood pressure.
Autoimmune disorders: While not well proven, research shows ginseng may boost the immune system too much for people with an overreactive immune system that attacks the body.
Potential Drug Interactions
Both American and Asian ginseng can interact with medications. You should avoid ginseng if you take the following medications:
Blood thinners: Ginseng may decrease the blood-thinning effect of Coumadin and Jantoven (warfarin), increasing your risk of clotting.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): Ginseng's stimulative effect may interact with anti-depressant medications like Nardil (phenelzine), Zelapar (selegiline), and Parnate (tranylcypromine) that also speed up the nervous system. This may increase anxiety, heart rate, headache, and insomnia.
Stimulants: Taking ginseng with stimulant drugs and even caffeine may make you too jittery, increase your heart rate, and cause insomnia.
Diabetes medications: Since ginseng may help lower blood sugar, combining the herb with diabetes medication may cause a dangerous drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Immunosuppressants: Ginseng may boost immune cells and cause medications designed to decrease immune system activity (like transplant medications) to become less effective.
Asian ginseng, specifically, may also react with medications like:
QT interval-prolonging drugs: Asian ginseng may increase your risk of irregular heartbeat when taken with these medications.
Lasix (furosemide): Asian ginseng may make diuretics like Lasix (furosemide) less effective.
Gleevec (imatinib) and Isentress (raltegravir): Asian ginseng may increase the risk of liver toxicity.
Cytochrome P450 1A1 (CYP1A1) substrates: Asian ginseng may affect how the liver breaks down enzymes in these medications.
What to Look For
Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration like drugs. The FDA does not have to approve supplement claims on labels before they go to market. In addition, ginseng supplements may contain different types of ginseng with varying amounts of ginsenosides. For these reasons, purchasing ginseng supplements that are third-party tested and transparent about their ingredients is important.
When purchasing a ginseng supplement, the label should include the following:
The type of ginseng plant(s)
The amount of ginseng
The amount of ginsenosides
Third-party testing from USP, NSF, or ConsumerLabs
Knowing how much ginsenosides you are getting is impossible if you plan to consume ginseng directly from the plant. You will also want to check your state's regulations on harvesting ginseng outside your home. Sometimes it is not legal to gather ginseng on state and federal land. It may also require a permit.
Can You Take Too Much Ginseng?
Yes, you can take too much ginseng and experience uncomfortable side effects. However, there has not been enough testing to prove a toxic amount of ginseng for adults. People who take more than 3000 mg of American ginseng and 3 g of Asian ginseng per day are more likely to encounter side effects. Taking ginseng for prolonged periods may also increase your risk of side effects.
Side Effects of Ginseng
Sleep problems are the most common side effect of taking Asian and American ginseng. Other side effects of ingesting ginseng include:
Changes in blood pressure
Increased heart rate
Loss of appetite
A Quick Review
Ginseng is often advertised as an herb that promotes overall well-being, energy, and stress reduction. Actual research shows the herb may help improve blood sugar, cholesterol, immune health, and fatigue. However, we need more high-quality human studies to confirm supplementing American or Asian ginseng has proven health benefits.
If you still want to take ginseng, talk to your healthcare provider before taking the supplement. Taking ginseng for a few weeks or months is unlikely to cause harm if you are a healthy adult, but ginseng can affect blood clotting and interact with medications.
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Read the original article on Health.