GINSENG: Legendary 'cure all'

(Investigator 169, 2016 July)

A herbal name possibly familiar to most people, ginseng has been used for several thousand years in the Orient as a tonic, a prophylactic agent, a "restorative", and in modern times, as an ergogenic aid by athletes.

Its efficacy however, is based more on testimonial evidence than scientific verification of its pharmacological effects.

According to the doctrine of signatures, because the root of the ginseng plant supposedly resembles the human body it makes it a whole-body tonic. And because some specimens have a third, shorter root, it is especially prized as an aphrodisiac.

In 1753, Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, classified its genus, Panax, from the Greek "pan" meaning all and "akos" or ills — a cure all. There is however, no evidence that ginseng enhances sexual performance, or for that matter, has any other proven medicinal or therapeutic qualities.

There are several species of ginseng, American, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Siberian, and the alleged attributes of each species vary.

Most ginseng studies have lacked controls (they were not tested against non-active substitutes) and the findings are often contradictory. Some for example, showed reductions in blood pressure, while others suggest the herb can dangerously elevate blood pressure.

Although most people would probably identify ginseng with the Orient, 80% of the world's production for export is grown in Marathon County, Wisconsin, U.S.A. Much of the ginseng grown in Wisconsin is repackaged and resold in America as imported Korean ginseng.

Ginseng is claimed to restore body functions to normal and, among other things, increase physical endurance and is a reviver of sexual appetite. There is little research evidence however, to support the view that ginseng consistently enhances physical performance or has any other beneficial effect.

One study reported in the November 1997 issue of the American Dietetic Association's journal confirms this.

Hermann Engles and John Worth, researchers at Wayne State University, in Detroit, measured signs of exertion (oxygen consumption, blood lactic-acid, concentration, heart rate and others) in 31 healthy men while they worked at maximum effort on stationary cycles. The men were divided into three groups.

For eight weeks, one group took 200 mg a day of Panax ginseng concentrate (also called Chinese or Korean ginseng), another took 400 mg a day, and the third group took an identical looking placebo.

When the men were retested after eight weeks, supplementation "was found to have no effect on any of the physiologic and psychological parameters examined.

Although ginseng is thought to be relatively safe, a two year study (Popov and Goldwag 1973) of various types of ginseng in 133 individuals using a wide variety of commercial products, revealed that ginseng has stimulant effects, but was accompanied by a high incidence of adverse effects such as sleeplessness, nervousness, hypertension, and euphoria. However, I have been informed that this study was discredited.


Bahrke, M and Morgan, W.P. 1994. Evaluation .of the Ergogenic Properties of Ginseng. Sports Medicine, 18(4):229-248.

Griggs, Barbara. 1981. Green Pharmacy, Robert Hale Ltd., London.

Huxtable, R. 1992. The Myth of Beneficent Nature: The Risks of Herbal Preparations. Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol. 2, No.2, p.165-166.

Popov, I. M. and Goldwag, W.J. 1973. A review of the properties and clinical effects of ginseng. American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 1(2):263-70.

Prevention Magazine Health Books, 1992. Healing Remedies and Techniques. MJF Books, New York.

Velden, P.V. 1993. Ginseng: Legendary "cure all". Kenosha News. April 29, 1993.

[Edwards, H. 1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc.]

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