Panax ginseng is an herb native to East Asia and Russia, also cultivated for its medicinal properties. The root is widely used as a “Yang” tonic in traditional medicine (1). Patients take ginseng to improve athletic performance, strength and stamina, and as an immunostimulant. Some use it to treat diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and a variety of other conditions. Ginsenosides, the saponin glycosides, are thought responsible for Panax ginseng's medicinal effects.
Ginsenosides have both stimulatory and inhibitory effects on the CNS, alter cardiovascular tone, and increase humoral and cellular-dependent immunity (2).
Ginseng has been used in the treatment of erectile dysfunction (4). It may increase the hypoglycemic effects of insulin and sulfonylureas as well as reduce insulin resistance in type II diabetic patients (5), and enhance immune response (19) (21). It was also shown to improve menopausal symptoms, and may positively affect cardiovascular health in postmenopausal women (30).
Data from a randomized clinical trial indicate that ginseng helps alleviate idiopathic chronic fatigue (33).
Ginseng also has anticancer potential. In vitro studies indicate that ginsenosides have antiproliferative effects (25) (26). Data from an epidemiological study show improved survival and quality of life with ginseng use, in breast cancer patients (3). In addition, two case-controlled epidemiologic studies of Korean subject indicate an association between consumption of a Panax ginseng extract with reduction in the incidence of all cancers (11) (12). Larger, well-designed studies are needed.
Because ginseng was shown to have estrogenic effects (23), patients with hormone-sensitive cancers should avoid it until definitive data are available.
Panax ginseng should not be confused with American ginseng or Siberian ginseng, which have different medicinal properties.