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Ginseng: Asian, American or Siberian for health?

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Many people know ginseng for its effects on endurance and athletic performance. Some use the herb to increase their energy and combat fatigue. Other extol the benefits of ginseng for improving the immune system. But did you know there are really three kinds of ginseng? Chinese or Panax ginseng is an herb whose medicinal qualities include increasing T and B cell immune function, reducing insulin resistance in Type II diabetics, increasing blood circulation, and aiding in erectile dysfunction. The Memorial Sloan-Cancer Center website also states that phytochemicals in Chinese ginseng showed anticancer effects and increased survival time (especially when combined with antioxidants) and quality of life in patients with breast cancer.(1)Korean studies showed Panax ginseng consumption reduces the number of all types of cancer.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Maybe we should all be taking Panax? Wrong!! A trained herbalist would not give Panax ginseng to a woman, particularly one with breast cancer. Panax is a male tonic used for thousands of years for its anti-aging abilities, to improve stamina, endurance, sperm count, stooped posture, and erectile function. Men generally start this herb in their thirties and forties to delay the aging process. Because of its heating nature, Chinese ginseng is not advised for women, particularly menopausal women whose hot flashes can worsen with a heating herb. Korean red ginseng is steamed to bring up the heat and increase its warming and blood circulating qualities. The cooling, moistening ginseng for women is American ginseng (Panax cinquefolium). It helps to alleviate dryness and thirst and lowers blood sugar. Men can use this herb as well because of its ant aging qualities.

Finally, we have Russian or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Like the Panaxes, Eleuthero helps the body to normalize stress hormones, enhances performance, and stimulates immunity. Research has shown benefits for diabetes, knee osteoarthritis and nerve cell protection. In post-menopausal women, it has reduced cholesterol (2)and improved bone quality.(3)

Studies show that phytochemicals in the ginsengs can bind onto estrogen and glucose receptors, potentially taking these receptors out of action, thereby reducing the effects of estrogen and lowering glucose levels.(4)The body’s dance of biochemistry is complex, however, and patients with hormone-sensitive cancers are not advised to take ginsengs until we have more data. As with many pharmaceutical drugs and even foods, interactions are known, so if you are taking insulin or sulfonyureas, blood thinners or MAOIs, or have high blood pressure, always consult a clinical herbalist, preferably one with professional-level AHG certification.

Sources:

1.Cheng TO. Panax (ginseng) is not a panacea. Arch Intern Med 2000;160:3329. 2.Lee SH, Ahn YM, Ahn SY, et al. Interaction between warfarin and Panax ginseng in ischemic stroke patients. J Altern Complement Med. Jul 2008;14(6):715-721. 3.Jiang X, Williams KM, Liauw WS, et al. Effect of St John's wort and ginseng on the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of warfarin in healthy subjects.Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2004 May;57(5):592-9 4.Baranov AI. Medicinal uses of ginseng and related plants in the Soviet Union: recent trends in the Soviet literature. J Ethnopharmacol 1982;6:339-53.

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