February 16, 2024/Wellness

Can Ginseng Boost Your Health?

Two types of ginseng work in different ways to help improve energy, immunity and heart health

Giseng root and ginseng tea on reed mat

Ginseng is a Chinese medicinal herb historically used in Asia and gaining popularity elsewhere. Some say it can boost energy, alertness and memory, as well as benefit blood sugar, digestion, heart health and immune function.

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Sounds almost too good to be true, right? So, let’s take a closer look at the claims and learn a little more about ginseng from licensed acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Thuy (Kim) Nguyen, DAOM, LAc.

Is ginseng good for you?

Don’t be fooled by the word “herb” — ginseng is also very strong and should be used cautiously.

Two primary types of medicinal ginseng are part of the Panax genus of plants. Asian ginseng (also called Chinese or Korean ginseng) is the stronger version. American ginseng is milder. Both varieties grow in mountainous regions of China and North America.

What are the potential benefits of ginseng?

To understand health claims connected to ginseng, it helps to know some of the basics of Chinese medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) emphasizes whole-body wellness and well-being. It’s viewed as a complement (but not a substitute) for conventional medicine.

“In your body, the belief in traditional Chinese medicine is that you have yin and yang energies,” explains Dr. Nguyen. “Yang is the energizing fire in the body, and yin is the nourishing fluid.”

The two energies are connected and can feed or deplete each other. Chinese medicine treatments often aim to balance yin and yang energies in the body — and ginseng can affect both.

Asian ginseng is described as being more yang, meaning it may offer a boost. American ginseng is cast as slightly more yin, calming you.

“Asian ginseng boosts your energy and vitality,” says Dr. Nguyen. “This is because it tonifies or strengthens your qi (chi), or life force energy. In Chinese herbal medicine, we call Asian ginseng the ‘king of herbs’ because it tonifies all the vital organs.”

American ginseng shares many of the same “life force” values as Asian ginseng but in a gentler form. “American ginseng is more nourishing, calming and relaxing than Asian ginseng,” she continues.

Potential health benefits of ginseng include:

1. Boosts alertness and brain function

Both types of ginseng can help your brain work well — just in different ways, says Dr. Nguyen.

The yang-boosting effect of Asian ginseng may help sharpen alertness and focus. (One small study involving people taking doses of Korean red ginseng noted a potential increase in cognitive function. Researchers also cited the need for additional research.)

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The “nourishing” effect of American ginseng, meanwhile, could offer a boost in memory, thinking and reasoning, says Dr. Nguyen. Again, though, more study is needed.

Ginseng is often combined with other herbs in formulas designed for mental performance.

2. Improves heart health and circulation

The energizing quality of Asian ginseng may increase circulation and improve heart health. Researchers have long looked at the herb’s potential value in managing health issues like high blood pressure (hypertension) and cardiovascular function.

Study results suggest potential for the herb when it comes to boosting heart health, but the effect isn’t clearly understood or verified.

There’s also some evidence that ginseng may treat erectile dysfunction (ED), a condition that makes it difficult to get or keep an erection. Problems with blood flow to the penis often contribute to ED, so ginseng’s ability to improve circulation can help strengthen erections.

Ginseng also may be beneficial as a complementary treatment for those with anemia.

3. Aids digestion and blood sugar

Traditional Chinese medicine connects ginseng to improved spleen and stomach function and improved digestion, according to Dr. Nguyen. (Note that in traditional Chinese medicine, the term “spleen” doesn’t correspond exactly to the organ identified by the same name in conventional medicine.)

Ginseng also may work to regulate blood sugar, making it potentially helpful for people with diabetes. But studies have offered inconsistent and conflicting results — a reality that makes it difficult to use ginseng in a true clinical application.

If you’re taking medication to lower your blood sugar, Dr. Nguyen recommends talking to your provider before using ginseng given possible complications. Combining ginseng and blood sugar-lowering drugs can potentially drop your blood sugar too much. While small blood sugar dips aren’t usually a problem, very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can be dangerous.

4. Helps immune function

The connection between ginseng and improved immune system function has been well-chronicled over time. “Their qi-tonifying action strengthens your ability to fend off illnesses,” says Dr. Nguyen.

Asian ginseng has a stronger immune system effect than American ginseng, she adds. Research shows taking either type of ginseng may reduce your chance of getting a cold. If you do get a cold, it may be shorter and less severe.

“Ginseng can also tonify the lungs and make them stronger,” Dr. Nguyen continues. “This can be good for people who have a cough or asthma.”

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5. Raises energy level

As mentioned, Asian ginseng in particular is believed to increase yang energy in your body and boost your physical energy level.

American ginseng also may have use as a fatigue fighter. A 2021 review of research studies found support for using American ginseng to treat cancer-related fatigue. (The report didn’t offer dosage recommendations and cited the need for more research.)

Given the potential boost offered by ginseng, Dr. Nguyen advises against using the herb with other stimulants (such as caffeine or certain medications). “The combined effect may make you too wired,” she says.

Is there a difference between ginseng tea and other forms?

The different forms of ginseng provide different strengths of the herb. “Ginseng tea is the weakest form of ginseng,” notes Dr. Nguyen. “Pure powdered ginseng in a pill is the strongest form.”

But even ginseng tea can be pretty strong if it’s in pure powdered form or made from raw ginseng. So, before taking any type of ginseng, talk to your healthcare provider.

Risks and side effects of ginseng

Are there reasons why you should be careful using ginseng? Definitely. For one, government oversight of dietary supplements isn’t as stringent as prescription or over-the-counter medications available in pharmacies or on store shelves. That makes it tough to know exactly what you’re getting in quality and concentration.

It’s also best to use caution if you:

  • Have high blood pressure. Ginseng can raise blood pressure in some people.
  • Are taking blood thinners. Ginseng has been reported to have antiplatelet and anticoagulant properties. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking ginseng if you’re on blood thinners.
  • Have diabetes. Ginseng can lower blood sugar too much if you’re taking medication for diabetes.
  • Use any stimulating medications, supplements or other substances. Combining ginseng with caffeine or any other stimulating substance can give you the jitters, make it tough to fall asleep or even give you heart palpitations.

Possible side effects of ginseng include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Increased mucus.
  • Insomnia.
  • Lower blood sugar.
  • Menstrual changes.
  • Nausea.

No matter your health status, Dr. Nguyen recommends not staying on any form of ginseng long term. It’s best to give your body breaks given the herb’s power and the potential for potent effects.

“And before taking any herbal medicine, talk to your provider,” she emphasizes. “Herbal medicines aren’t the same as eating food. They all have side effects and can be very strong.”

Learn more about our editorial process.

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