Panax ginseng is one of the most commonly used and highly researched species of ginseng. This species, which is native to China, Korea, and Russia, has been an important herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, where it has been used primarily as a treatment for weakness and fatigue (1)
The main active agents in Panax ginseng are ginsenosides, which are triterpene saponins. The majority of published research on the medicinal activity of Panax ginseng has focused on ginsenosides (2). These are the compounds to which some ginseng products are now standardized.
Ginseng products are popularly referred to as “tonics,”a term that has been replaced by “adaptogens”in much of the alternative medicine literature. The term “adaptogen” denotes an agent that purportedly “increases resistance to physical, chemical, and biological stress and builds up general vitality, including the physical and mental capacity for work.” (3)
Research reviews suggest that extracts of Panax ginseng affect the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and the immune system, which could account for many of the documented effects (1,4). Animal models and in vitro studies mentioned in these reviews, indicate that Panax ginseng enhances phagocytosis, natural killer cell activity, and the production of interferon; improves physical and mental performance in mice and rats; causes vasodilation; increases resistance to exogenous stress factors; and affects hypoglycaemic activity.
Panax ginseng is used primarily to improve psychological function, exercise performance, immune function, and conditions associated with diabetes. Traditional Chinese medicine and many current research studies often use products that combine ginseng with other herbal medicines or vitamins (5-8). Because of the use of combination products and the limitations of some studies on ginseng (e.g., poor methodological quality, research focusing on healthy volunteers, small sample size, unstandardized ginseng preparations, varying doses),it is difficult to draw conclusions about some of the clinical effects of ginseng.
Trials investigating the effects of Panax ginseng on various psychological parameters have shown positive effects, no effects, or both. In one study of 112 healthy volunteers older than 40 years, the administration of 400 mg per day of a standardized ginseng for eight weeks resulted in better and faster simple reactions and abstract thinking, but no change in concentration, memory, or subjective experience (9). The results of two small studies, each including about 30 young, healthy volunteers who received 200 mg of Panax ginseng extract daily for eight weeks, showed improvement in certain psychomotor functions (i.e., better attention, processing ,and auditory reaction time),social functioning, and mental health (10,11).
A study of 384 postmenopausal women who were randomized to receive placebo or ginseng for 16 weeks showed improvements in three subsets of a Psychological General Well-Being index (12).
In addition, a small study of 20 healthy young volunteers who received a single 400-mg dose of ginseng found improvement in cognitive performance, secondary memory performance, speed of performing memory tasks, and accuracy of attentional tasks .However, another study showed no effect on positive affect, negative affect, or total mood disturbance in 83 young healthy volunteers who took 200 to 400 mg per day of standardised extract for eight weeks (13).
Fatigue Reduction and Physical Performance
The European Medicines Agency has deemed panax finseng to be a traditional herbal medicinal product for symptoms of asthenia such as fatigue and weakness (14-16).
A recent meta-analysis of the efficacy of ginseng supplements on fatigue and physical performance reviewed data from 155 randomised controlled trials (17). It found a statistically significant efficacy of ginseng supplements in the reduction of fatigue. The effectiveness of ginseng in the treatment of fatigue has also been recently confirmed in a randomised, placebo controlled, double-blind pilot study in patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (18). Immune System A study of 227 healthy volunteers demonstrated that daily administration of 100 mg of standardised extract for 12 weeks enhanced the efficacy of polyvalent influenza vaccine (19). The patients who received ginseng had a lower incidence of influenza and colds, higher antibody titres, and higher natural killer cell activity levels. Another study in 60 healthy volunteers showed enhanced chemotaxis, phagocytosis, increased total lymphocyte count, and increased numbers of T helper cells in those who received a dosage of 100 mg twice daily for eight weeks (20). In a study of 75 patients with acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis who were treated with antibiotics or antibiotics plus ginseng, those in the ginseng group showed faster bacterial clearance (21).
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