+ -Text Size

Ginseng

Other common name(s): Panax ginseng, Asian ginseng, Oriental ginseng, Chinese ginseng, Japanese ginseng, Korean ginseng, American ginseng, man root

Scientific/medical name(s): Panax ginseng C. A. Meyer, Panax quinquefolius

Description

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a perennial plant grown in China, Korea, Japan, and Russia. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a plant with similar properties, is grown mainly in the United States. The dried roots of the plants are used in some traditional medicines to treat a variety of conditions, including cancer. The ginseng plants of the Panax group discussed here should not be confused with Siberian ginseng (also known as eleuthero), which has different properties (see our document Eleuthero).

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that ginseng is effective in preventing or treating cancer in humans. Studies done in the laboratory suggest some substances in ginseng may have anticancer properties, and some population studies in Asia link it to lower cancer risk. Clinical trials are still needed to determine whether it is effective in people. Ginseng should be used cautiously, as it can cause undesirable side effects in high doses and may even be dangerous when taken with certain medicines or if the patient is undergoing surgery.

How is it promoted for use?

Ginseng is an ancient herb that is claimed to help the body prevent and fight diseases, including cancer. Promoters claim ginseng enhances athletic performance and provides energy to people who are stressed or fatigued. It is sometimes used during recovery from illness. There are also claims ginseng relieves depression and anxiety, protects the heart, strengthens digestive functions, prevents hardening of the arteries, stabilizes blood pressure and insulin levels, helps with erectile dysfunction, and even delays the effects of aging.

What does it involve?

Ginseng is available as a powder, capsule, tea, or is sometimes sold already mixed with foods. There is no standard dosage; however, Commission E (Germany's regulatory agency for herbs) suggests taking 1 to 2 grams per day of ginseng root for up to 3 months.

There is some variation in quality and strength among ginseng products. Since it is expensive, some packagers may dilute it or substitute less expensive ingredients to make it affordable to the consumer. Some ginseng products from areas of the world such as Siberia, Alaska, and Brazil are mislabeled. True ginseng has the word Panax as part of its Latin, or scientific, name. A 1978 study of 54 ginseng products found that one quarter of them contained no ginseng at all, although the content of products may be more reliable today.

What is the history behind it?

The Chinese have been using ginseng for thousands of years as an herbal remedy. Early Chinese books listing curative foods claimed ginseng could enlighten the mind and increase wisdom. The Chinese also used ginseng to treat ailments of the digestive and respiratory systems, nervous disorders, diabetes, to keep the elderly warm in winter, and to increase energy and improve memory. The life-prolonging effects of ginseng were first described during China's Liang Dynasty (220–589 AD).

North American ginseng was discovered growing in the mountains of Quebec by a Jesuit priest in the early 1700s. It was soon exported to China, where its medicinal value was appreciated. Other variations of ginseng are grown in Korea and Japan. Ginseng was not used in Western medicine until the 1950s, when scientists in the Soviet Union began studying its health benefits and concluded that it was an "adaptogen"—that is, something that helps the body adapt to outside stresses and ward off disease. The Vietcong used it extensively to treat gunshot wounds during the Vietnam War.

In 1978, Taik-Koo Yun, MD, from the Korea Cancer Center Hospital in Seoul, began to conduct population-based studies to investigate whether ginseng had anticancer properties. He has published articles arguing that ginseng can prevent most cancers, but he is not certain how this occurs. He has encouraged more worldwide study of this herb.

What is the evidence?

Ginseng has been known for three thousand years, but despite a good deal of research, scientists still are not certain whether the herb can help prevent or treat cancer. Most studies of ginseng have been done in China and Korea, and only recently has it received more research attention in Western countries.

The medicinal effects of ginseng are thought to be due to a group of about two dozen substances in the root called ginsenosides, which resemble steroid hormones. In laboratory research using cell cultures and animals, some ginsenosides have been shown to boost the immune system or slow the growth of cancer cells. Some may also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Whether these properties will translate into anticancer activity in humans is still not clear, as few human studies have been done.

Several case-control studies done in Korea have found that people who took ginseng extract seemed to have a lower risk of cancer overall. One recent Chinese study suggested that women with breast cancer who used ginseng before their diagnosis survived longer than those who did not. The same study found that the women who used ginseng during treatment reported better quality of life than those who did not. These studies were not are not the most scientifically convincing, however, and the authors point out that further research is needed to determine the true benefit of ginseng both in cancer prevention and for people who have cancer. Researchers are looking at ginseng’s potential to improve the effectiveness of other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, and are studying its effects on cancer-related fatigue.

The benefits of ginseng for other medical conditions have not been shown conclusively, although research is ongoing. Many studies of this herb have suffered from design problems, and results have been contradictory. Some scientists have found that it raises blood pressure while others have reported that it lowers blood pressure. In some studies, ginsenosides seem to act as stimulants, but in others they seem to work as sedatives. The only conclusions that can be reached with any certainty at this time are that ginseng is a complex herb and that its medicinal effects are not clearly defined.

A systematic review of randomized clinical trials evaluated the evidence of ginseng root extract’s effectiveness. Based on data from sixteen studies, the researchers concluded that ginseng root extract had not been shown to have a significant effect on physical performance, diabetes, herpes infections, psychomotor performance, cognitive function, or the immune system. More research into its medicinal properties is needed.

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 provide the FDA with results of detailed testing showing their product is safe and effective before the drug is approved for sale), the companies that make supplements do not have to show evidence of safety or health benefits to the FDA before selling their products. Supplement products without any reliable scientific evidence of health benefits may still be sold as long as the companies selling them do not 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 written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Though the FDA has written new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing processes for dietary supplements and the accurate listing of supplement ingredients, these rules do not take full effect until 2010. And, the new rules do not address the safety of supplement ingredients or their effects on health when proper manufacturing techniques are used.
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.

Ginseng is generally considered safe, although there are some possible side effects, especially at higher doses. Side effects may include increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, trouble sleeping, and restlessness. Possible effects in women may include swollen breasts and vaginal bleeding. Ginseng may lower blood sugar levels, a side effect that could be of particular importance to people taking medicine for diabetes.

Because ginseng may have steroid hormone–like effects, some doctors caution against its use in women who have had breast or endometrial cancer. Not enough study has been done to show whether ginseng is safe for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Women who fall into these groups should speak with their doctors before taking ginseng.

Ginseng can have an effect on how long it takes for bleeding to stop. This could be an issue if ginseng is taken before surgery or if the patient is taking drugs that affect blood clotting, such as aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin).

Ginseng may cause headaches, tremors, and can cause manic episodes if used with antidepressants known as MAOIs, such as phenelzine (Nardil). Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

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-ACS-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.

Cui Y, Shu XO, Gao YT, et al. Association of ginseng use with survival and quality of life among breast cancer patients. Am J Epidemiol. 2006;163:645-653.

Ginseng (American). Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69236.cfm on June 5, 2008.

Ginseng (Asian). Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69237.cfm on June 5, 2008.

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

Natural Standard. Herbal/plant therapies: ginseng (american ginseng, asian ginseng, chinese ginseng, korean red ginseng, panax ginseng: panax spp. including p. ginseng c.c. meyer and p. quinquefolius l., excluding eleutherococcus senticosus). Complementary/Integrative Medicine Education Resources, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mdanderson.org/departments/cimer/display.cfm?id=DB3FF279-E763-49C4-9A0F41944C3503AF&method=displayFull on June 5, 2008.

O’Hara M, Kiefer D, Farrell K, Kemper K. A review of 12 commonly used medicinal herbs. Arch Fam Med. 1998;7:523-536.

Spaulding-Albright N. A review of some herbal and related products commonly used in cancer patients. J Am Diet Assoc. 1997;97:S208-S215.

Vogler BK, Pittler MH, Ernst E. The efficacy of ginseng. A systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1999;55:567-575.

Yun TK, Choi SY, Yun HY. Epidemiological study on cancer prevention by ginseng: are all kinds of cancers preventable by ginseng? J Korean Med Sci. 2001;16 Suppl:S19-S27.

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: 11/28/2008
Last Revised: 11/28/2008