Old Herb, New Tricks

Ginseng, a long-revered energy booster, helps blood sugar too.

By Lisa James

July/August 2006

If there’s any herb with an exotic cachet, it’s ginseng. This elusive prize has drawn ’seng hunters deep into the cool northern forests in which it thrives; in China ginseng was thought to morph into a person or bird to evade capture. The enchanted root has also sparked commerce—it was the first major US export to the East—as well as conflict, with the fortunes of empires rising and falling on the ginseng trade.

Ginseng fever has been fueled by a near-reverential awe for the plant’s medicinal properties. Chinese healers describe ginseng as a warming “emperor” herb for its subtle-yet-powerful ability to harmonize the flow of life-energy, or qi, within the body, and use it to fight fatigue and revive male sexual prowess. Modern botany has recognized the distinctions among ginsengs from different parts of the world by assigning them to separate species; the most famous is Panax ginseng, the “Korean” or “red” variety native to northern Asia. And modern medicine has teased facts about ginseng’s therapeutic value out from the myth—a process that has yielded valuable information on how ginseng can be used today.

Stopping Sugar Surges

The latest word on ginseng is its ability to moderate levels of glucose, or blood sugar—no small feat in an age when glucose-control problems are skyrocketing worldwide. In one study involving 30 people with diabetes, ginseng brought levels of hemoglobin A1C, a standard blood-sugar measure, down into the normal range. (American ginseng, species P. quinquefolius L., has also shown an ability to control glucose.) In addition, researchers have found that ginseng improves the ability of insulin to properly regulate glucose levels, the control mechanism that breaks down in type 2 diabetes.

Ginseng’s ability to help manage blood sugar may be linked to its power to boost mental functioning; British scientists found that ginseng both reduced glucose levels and enhanced performance on a series of math-based tests among healthy young volunteers (Journal of Psychopharmacology 1/9/06). True to its traditional use among older folks, ginseng has also helped improve memory scores among people with stroke-induced dementia and those suffering from the kind of cognitive impairment that often foreshadows Alzheimer’s. In addition, evidence suggests that ginseng’s effects on the brain may extend to protecting it against such relentlessly degenerative ailments as Huntingdon’s disease (Annals of Neurology 5/05).

Extra Energy and More

How can one herb have such wide-ranging benefits? Ginseng is an adaptogen, or a substance that’s able to help the body cope with all sorts of adverse conditions. This explains its nearly universal use as an energy enhancer; in the words of one Russian scientist, it “strengthens and protects the human organism when undergoing severe and/or physical strain.” That may explain why Korean researchers found that ginseng helped volunteers recover from exhaustive exercise (Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 6/05).

Ginseng may even help fight cancer. Tumors often grow their own blood vessels; ginseng can help hamper this process. It may also ease the nausea associated with chemotherapy.

As with any herb, it pays to consult with a trained herbalist before using ginseng. Some authorities suggest not taking it with coffee to avoid digestive upset.

Nowadays, you don’t have to forage in forests for ginseng treasure. But this fascinating herb just might give you the lift you need to blaze your own trail through life.

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