Ginseng is a popular supplement because of its touted health benefits, but the ginseng root that packs the most powerful medicinal punch is Panax ginseng. Also called Asian or Korean ginseng, it is native to Korea, China and Russia. Not to be confused with American ginseng, Panax ginseng is more potent than its American cousin because it contains numerous ginsenosides -- the natural plant compounds which act like steroids and are linked to health benefits. In addition, red Panax ginseng -- named red when the root is 6 years or older, is considered more potent than the white, younger Panax ginseng. According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which summarizes the effectiveness and safety of herbal supplements based on scientific research, extracts made from the root of Panax ginseng appear to improve mental function, strengthen the immune system, improve sexual desire and function and ease depression.
Panax ginseng extract may improve mental function in middle-aged people and also reduces dementia in people with cognitive disabilities. A small study, reported in the August 2008 issue of the "European Journal of Neurology," treated 15 people with Alzheimer's over 12 weeks with high doses of red Panax ginseng. Those treated with the ginseng had improved functional and cognitive performance compared to an untreated, control group. Other studies report Panax ginseng may slightly improve thinking or enhance concentration in middle-aged adults. One study found it helped adults perform mental arithmetic and focus more, but this research is in the early stages and exactly how the extract works to improve mental functioning is unknown. Other studies have also found a positive mental effects when ginseng was combined with Ginkgo biloba. Other studies suggest Panax ginseng may strengthen the immune system so people have an improved sense of well-being and get fewer colds and infections when they take the extract in a capsule for several weeks or months.
For centuries, ginseng was believed to increase sexual performance in men, and a few studies have backed up this claim. A November 2002 report in "The Journal of Urology" found 60 percent of 45 men given red Panax ginseng reported improved erections after eight weeks of treatment. The April 2010 issue of "The Journal of Sexual Medicine" reported that 28 menopausal women, average age 51, reported improved sexual arousal after taking red Panax ginseng. Ginseng also appeared to alleviate depression in women. Other studies, that focused primarily on animals, also found increased sperm production and sexual performance following Panax ginseng treatment.
New Ginseng Treatments on the Horizon
Scientists are trying Panax ginseng for an assortment of medical problems in lab animals to see what treatments appear promising for humans. Given the successful Alzheimer's studies, researchers are focusing on possible ginseng treatment for brain and nervous system disorders and injuries. A study in the September 2015 issue of the journal "Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine" found the extract helped rats with spinal cord injuries heal faster. Another study in the October 2015 issue of "Phytomedicine," which focuses on plant extract treatments, found mice infected with a dangerous pneumococcal strep bacterial infection had higher survival rates when they were pretreated with Panax ginseng.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database found no clear evidence that Panax ginseng improved athletic performance, blood pressure, cancer, heart disease or HIV infection. There were also conflicting reports about its success in lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. Experts also noted that people should take Panax ginseng extracts for only limited periods of time, with recommended stop periods of at least two weeks before restarting treatment. Panax ginseng, like all herbal supplements, can interact with prescription medications and may worsen medical conditions. For example, when taken with caffeine-laden beverages, NIH warns that Panax ginseng can increase the heart rate. Be sure to consult with a health care provider before taking any herbal supplement, and never take supplements unless a doctor has been consulted especially if one is pregnant or about to undergo surgery.
As with all herbal supplements, it's hard to tell how much of Panax ginseng's healthy ginsenosides are contained in capsules, extracts and creams sold over the counter. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not analyze herbal supplements as closely as it regulates medications. Consumers must trust the product manufacturer to truthfully report the percentage of extracts on the supplement's label. Be aware that herbal supplements may contain many compounds and chemicals that are not reported on its label.