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Eleuthero (formerly Siberian Ginseng)

Other common name(s): Siberian ginseng, devil’s shrub, devil’s root, touch-me-not

Scientific/medical name(s): Eleutherococcus senticosus, Acanthopanax senticosus

Description

Eleuthero is a shrub that grows in Siberia, China, Korea, and Japan. The dried root and other underground parts of the plant are used in herbal remedies for a number of health problems. It is a distant relative of true (Panax) ginseng (which includes Asian ginseng and American ginseng), but it does not belong to the Panax group of herbs. It was sold in the United States as "Siberian ginseng" until a 2002 U.S. law forbade the "ginseng" label. The name "eleuthero" is now more commonly used.

Eleuthero does not contain ginsenosides, the compounds found in Asian and American ginseng that are thought to be linked to the plants’ medicinal effects. Eleuthero contains other compounds, called eleutherosides, some of which may act like estrogen or other steroid hormones.

Overview

Some studies have suggested eleuthero may help boost energy or have other helpful effects, but those studies had some design flaws. Others that were more carefully controlled tended to show no effects. Available scientific evidence does not support eleuthero as an effective way to treat cancer or reduce the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

How is it promoted for use?

Proponents of eleuthero claim that it boosts the immune system, increases energy and physical prowess, improves concentration and memory, and speeds recovery from illness. Some practitioners claim that the herb regulates blood pressure, reduces inflammation, has a restorative effect on many organs, and lowers blood sugar levels.

Some claim eleuthero can help with cancer-related fatigue. There are also claims that it helps chemotherapy drugs work better and that it reduces the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

What does it involve?

Eleuthero is on the Commission E (Germany's regulatory agency for herbs) list of approved herbs, and the supplements are available as tablets, capsules, tinctures, and liquid extracts. The powdered or cut root can be brewed as a tea. An average dose is 2 to 3 grams per day. Typically, it is taken regularly for 6 to 8 weeks, followed by a 1 to 2 week break before starting again.

What is the history behind it?

Eleuthero has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat rheumatism, weak liver and kidneys, low energy levels, and to prevent respiratory infections, including colds and the flu. Herbalists have long prescribed eleuthero for menopausal complaints, weakness in elderly people, physical and mental stress, trouble sleeping caused by anxiety, and even to treat cancer.

Eleuthero did not come into widespread use until the middle of the 20th century, at a time when supplies of Panax ginseng were low. Russian and Chinese scientists found eleuthero seemed to have some of the same properties as Panax ginseng and could be grown faster. Athletes from the former Soviet Union used it because they believed it enhanced athletic performance. After the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, Russian and Ukrainian citizens reportedly received the herb to counter the effects of radiation poisoning, though that benefit was not proven. It is still widely used in Russia and other Asian countries and has become more popular in western countries as well.

What is the evidence?

Research on the possible medicinal properties of eleuthero has been conducted mainly in Russia and other Asian countries. Few studies of eleuthero in humans have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals. There have been a few studies on cells in the laboratory or in rodents.

Some lab studies in cell cultures and animals have suggested that eleuthero might boost immune function. Whether these effects might occur in people has not been tested. The consensus of available scientific evidence does not show the herb works in treating cancer in humans or that it can reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

One small study found that eleuthero was no better than a placebo in reducing chronic fatigue over the course of a few months, although there were hints it might be better among people whose fatigue was less severe. The study authors concluded that further research in this area might be useful.

The evidence that eleuthero supplements enhance athletic ability is doubtful. A review of 8 clinical trials in humans found that while 3 studies suggested improved physical endurance, these studies had flaws in the way they were conducted. The 5 remaining studies, which were more scientifically sound, did not find a strong benefit.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must be tested before being sold), the companies that make supplements are not required to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their supplements are safe or effective, as long as they don't claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease.
Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Actual amounts per dose may vary between brands or even between different batches of the same brand. In 2007, the FDA wrote new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing for dietary supplements and the proper listing of supplement ingredients. But these rules do not address the safety of the ingredients or their effects on health.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

The health risks of eleuthero have not been firmly established, but major side effects from usual doses seem to be rare. Some cases of headache, diarrhea, nervousness, and trouble sleeping have been reported.

Eleuthero might raise blood pressure and increase heart rate, so people with high blood pressure or heart disease should talk with their doctor before taking it. It may also lower blood sugar levels, which may be important to people taking medicine for diabetes such as insulin or pills to lower blood sugar. Lab tests on people taking digoxin may show falsely high levels.

Eleuthero may alter the amount of time it takes for bleeding to stop. This could be an issue if it is taken before surgery or if a person is taking drugs that can affect blood clotting, such as aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin). Other interactions with drugs or other herbs may be possible. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs and supplements you are taking.

Eleuthero has not been well studied in women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.

People with allergies to eleuthero or related plants should avoid this herb.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

To learn more

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 1998.

Goulet ED, Dionne IJ. Assessment of the effects of eleutherococcus senticosus on endurance performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2005;15:75-83.

Gruenwald J. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 3rd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson PDR; 2004.

Hartz AJ, Bentler S, Noyes R, Hoehns J, Logemann C, Sinift S, Butani Y, Wang W, Brake K, Ernst M, Kautzman H. Randomized controlled trial of Siberian ginseng for chronic fatigue. Psychol Med. 2004;34:51-61.

Siberian ginseng. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69379.cfm on July 11, 2011.

Watanabe K, Kamata K, Sato J, Takahashi T. Fundamental studies on the inhibitory action of Acanthopanax senticosus Harms on glucose absorption. J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Oct 28;132(1):193-199.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 10/13/2011
Last Revised: 10/13/2011