Eleutherococcus senticosus (Rupr. & Maxim.) Maxim. is often referred to as ‘Siberian ginseng’. The family to which Eleutherococcus belongs, the Araliaceae, includes some 84 genera which are native to Asia, the Malay peninsula,polynesia, Europe, North Africa and the Americas (1). Only the genus Panax and some species of Aralia are herbaceous; the rest are woody vines, shrubs or trees. For many centuries the peoples of China, Korea and Japan have used roots and leaves of Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer (mainly roots however). E. senticosus is referred to as ‘Siberian ginseng’ by some authors since it was first exported from Siberia in the Soviet era, and the designation seems to have persisted. Within the borders of the former USSR, however, ‘Siberian ginseng’ has always been referred as ‘eleutherokokk’ perhaps best expressed in English simply as ‘eleutherococcus’, or ‘Eleutherococcus’, or even as adopted by some, ‘eleuthero’ (2), But it was never been called ‘Siberian gingseng’ by the Soviets. Indeed, in Russia and other republics of the former USSR, E. senticosus has never been viewed or used as an exact substitute for true gingseng, P. gingseng (3).
Wild P. ginseng was very scarce in the Soviet Far East (eastern Siberia) as well as in Korea and adjacent regions as far back as the 1950s–1960s. Recognizing that it takes a very long time (order of a minimum of 6 years and preferably longer) to cultivate a ‘quality’ true ginseng root efforts were made by Soviet workers to identify an alternative and plentiful plant source that would have similar pharmacological activity and ‘tonic’ properties. It was in this context that scientists in the USSR turned their attention from P. ginseng to E. senticosus as part of a screening of the Araliaceae family (4) As it turns out, this is the only species in the genus which grows in the territories of the former USSR and which has a habit and gross morphology similar to true ginseng. Both the roots and leaves of E. senticosus are reported to be the source of ‘adaptogens’. Whereas Eleutherococcus is the ancient source of an ‘adaptogen’ or ‘adaptogenic activity’, its extensive use probably derives only from the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Introduction of the Soviet pharmacopoeial extract of Eleutherococcus into the USA occurred only in 1971 (5)
Eleutherococcus (from the Greek eleutheros meaning ‘free’, and kokkos meaning ‘pip’ or ‘seed’) is a thorny shrub that grows in the Russian Far East, and also in Northeast China, Korea and Japan. In the late 1940s (ca. 1947) scientists at the Far Eastern Division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, Siberia began to study compounds that brought about a state of ‘non-specifically increased resistance’ of an organism in experimental animals and humans (6,7).
It was Dr Nikolai Vasilievich Lazarev, then the leading figure in Soviet pharmacology and toxicology, who first proposed to the scientific and medical community in the mid-1950s that substances which were able to bring about an increased non-specific resistance be called ‘adaptogens’, presumably based on the Latin adaptare, to adjust or fit, and ‘gen’ from the Greek genes or born of, or produced by (8). Terms like ‘revitalizing therapies’ or ‘tonic herbs’ which contain ‘immunopotentiating principles’ or ‘immunomodulatory substances’ are not uncommon in the Soviet literature of the period. Such ‘adaptogenic plants’, with Eleutherococcus as the model, are viewed as sources of agents that enhance tolerance to stress.
According to Breckhman (9):
1.The action of an adaptogen should be innocuous and cause minimal disturbance to the normal physiological functions of an organism. It must be absolutely harmless;
2.an adaptogenic agent should not be active only in a specific context or against a particular background. It must have a broad therapeutic spectrum of action;
3.the action of an adaptogen has to be non-specific, that is to say, resistance to a
wide variety of action of harmful factors, whether of a physical, chemical or a biological nature, has to increase. In other words, the action of an adaptogen has to be more intense as unfavorable changes occur in an organism;
4.an adaptogen has to have a normalizing or stabilizing action independent of the direction of previous changes.
According to Lazarev and Brekhman, adaptogenic activity can be brought about by quite different substances of very different origin (10). Moreover, they probably have different mechanisms of action, but the same pharmacological effect. These many chemical and physical non-specific factors nominally increase the state of resistance of the human body to outside irritants and stresses. Lazarev called this bodily state ‘the state of increased non-specific resistance’.
After the term adaptogen was first coined, its use was limited so far as its applicability to substances of plant origin was concerned, to the responses brought about through the activity of Eleutherococcus extracts after oral administration. It was later extended to any product of botanical origin that enabled the body to counteract negative effects of ‘stress’, in the broadest sense of that word. In that early period, a wide range of individuals appear to have taken up the use of Eleutherococcus, including élite athletes. Soviet-era coaches are reputed to have incorporated regular use of eleutherokokk preparations into their athlete-training protocols (9,11). Presumably this was because Eleutherococcus nominally enhanced ergogenic activity. Familiarity with Eleutherococcus as an ergogen and adaptogen entered Europe through encounters with Soviet-bloc trainers, coaches, athletes, sports physicians etc. (11-13). In Russia, ginseng extract has been administered orally to almost 5000 human subjects in studies involving either healthy or non-healthy individuals (14). However, there is a relatively small number of controlled clinical trials performed with eleuthero.
A single blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial lasting eight days investigated the effect of the extract on working capacity and fatigue in male athletes. Significant results were observed in oxygen uptake, heart rate, total work, and exhaustion time compared to the placebo group (15)
A randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover study compared cognitive function measurements in subjects who took eleuthero, ginkgo biloba extract or placebo. Significant improvements in selective memory of the eleuthero group were demonstrated. For those kept taking ginkgo results were significant in those subjects over age 48 (16).
The European Medicines Agency has authorised Siberian ginseng as a traditional herbal medicinal product for symptoms of asthenia such as fatigue and weakness (17-19).
1. Wielgorskaya, T., Takhtajan, A. (Eds.), 1995. Dictionary of Generic Names of Seed Plants. Columbia University Press, NY.
2. Tyler, V.E., 1994. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Pharmaceutical Products Press, Binghamton, NY.
3. Baranov AI. Medicinal uses of ginseng and related plants in the Soviet Union: recent trends in the Soviet literature. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 1982 Nov 1;6(3):339-53.
4. Brekhman, I.I., 1968. Eleutherokokk (Eleutherococcus). Nauka Publishing House, Leningrad, USSR.
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8. Lazarev, N.V., 1955. Voprosy Onkologii 11, 48–54.
9. Brekhman II, Dardymov IV. New substances of plant origin which increase nonspecific resistance. Annual review of pharmacology. 1969 Apr;9(1):419-30.
10. Fulder, S., 1980 New Scientist 21, 576–579.
11. Asano K, Takahashi T, Miyashita M, Matsuzaka A, Muramatsu S, Kuboyama M, Kugo H, Imai J. Effect of Eleutheroccocus senticosus extract on human physical working capacity. Planta Medica. 1986 Jun;52(03):175-7.
12. Kamen, B., 1988. Siberian Ginseng: Up-to-Date Research on the Fabled Oriental Tonic Herb. Keats Publishing, New Canaan, CT.
13. Farnsworth N.R et al. Siberian ginseng: current status as an adaptogen. In-economics and medicinal plant research volume 1. Wagner H et al. London; academic press. 1985;155-209
14. Braun L, Cohen M. Herbs and Natural Supplements, Volume 2: An Evidence-Based Guide. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2015 Mar 30.
15. Dowling EA, Redondo DR, Branch JD, Jones S, McNABB GR, Williams MH. Effect of Eleutherococcus senticosus on submaximal and maximal exercise performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1996 Apr;28(4):482-9.
16. Winther K, Ranløv C, Rein E, Mehlsen J. 2-12-24 Russian root (Siberian ginseng) improves cognitive functions in middle-aged people, whereas Ginkgo biloba seems effective only in the elderly. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. 1997 Sep 30;150:S90.