Doubts remain about the effectiveness of ginseng
A study that casts doubt on the benefits of ginseng is unlikely to lessen its popularity
Ginseng has a reputation as a wonder herb with various benefits that include boosting immunity and energy, but doubts remain about its effectiveness.
The most corrosive evidence is a study conducted by research physiologist Joseph Knapik of the US Army Centre for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. Knapik gave six West Point cadet marathon runners a dose of ginseng - two grams a day for four weeks. Six others were given a lookalike but ginseng-free placebo. All 12 ran on a treadmill until exhaustion.
"There was nothing there," Knapik was quoted as saying in the health care bulletin Nutrition Action. Ginseng improved neither performance time during exercise nor recovery time after, he found. In the same report and the same vein, Detroit researcher Hermann-Josef Engels was also quoted as saying he gave ginseng to more volunteers for longer spells and detected no energy gain.
According to Hong Kong-based nutritionist Courtney Moskal, however, ginseng has some valid applications. Ginseng has been used as an effective prescription to help treat stress, boost the immune system and fight infections such as colds and the flu. Other notable improvements following ginseng consumption include improved glucose level control in patients with type 2 diabetes, according to Moskal.
"Although there is no concrete evidence of the effectiveness of this herb, there is clear evidence of its range of therapeutic properties," Moskal says.
Naturopath Barbara Filokostas, a keen Siberian ginseng user, describes it as a brilliant herb for patients with long-term fatigue and stress. Besides, it is great as a nervine tonic that calms and tones the nervous system. And it is excellent for people who suffer from poor appetite and insomnia, she says.
Fellow ginseng user and anti-ageing researcher Sonia Crystella, who was once chronically ill with many ailments, agrees ginseng works. Daily ginseng has increased her energy and libido, strengthened her immune system and prevented illness, she says.
"I believe ginseng plays an important role in maintaining energy and cell health - it is up there with the best anti-ageing natural health supports on the planet," she says, citing the likes of spirulina and turmeric. A wealth of research further supports ginseng's cause. There's a 2009 study led by University of Hong Kong researcher Allan Lau, which identified seven constituents, called ginsenosides, that showed immune-suppressive effects.
And the king of herbs in Chinese medicine just might spice up your sex life, according to a 2011 scientific review of natural aphrodisiacs conducted by Canadian researchers. Like saffron, they found that the so-called true ginseng variety, panax, boosted human sexual function.
Georgia State University research last year has shown the processed red variety can treat and prevent flu. Likewise, a study released in June 2012 by the non-profit Mayo Clinic found that ginseng relieves fatigue in cancer patients.
There is also the 2009 South Korean study which found that ginseng intake decreased all-cause mortality in older males and a further 2013 South Korean study which found that it counters chronic fatigue.
Hong Kong has been the portal for China's ginseng imports since at least 1949, when Mao Zedong shut the mainland to overseas commerce, according to Forbes. In fact, Hong Kong is the biggest ginseng importer - US$107 million in 2009, according to South Korean researchers In-Ho Baeg and Seung-Ho So.
Used in traditional Chinese medicine as a natural tonic for over 2,000 years, ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb. Its roots have a forked, human-like appearance that may partly explain the fascination.
The two key classes of ginseng - red and white - have varying biological effects, according to traditional Chinese medicine. The white, raw variety is taken for sustained stints, to boost overall health, energy and longevity. In contrast, the red processed kind is used for short spells to accelerate disease recovery.
Whether ginseng is an effective medicine or not, it is a valuable commodity.
Five hundred grams of high-quality root can fetch more than US$1,000. Its cost has rocketed, reflecting the growing demand from China's burgeoning middle class. On the mainland, the plant has been picked almost to extinction.
The same could happen in the US. In Minnesota, for example, it has been all but wiped out. So much for its coverage under the 1973 international treaty for the protection of endangered species.
Ginseng is no magic bullet for lethargy, age or impotence. Nor is there any evidence it can stop the highly infectious, flu-like Mers virus, as the North Koreans have claimed.
Nonetheless, ginseng undeniably has remarkable attributes, which suggests it can serve as a good all-round tonic. You might want to try it in phial form, twinned with royal jelly. You could add some vanilla essence or honey to make it more palatable.
Five alternatives to ginseng
Also called yerba mate, this tea-like central nervous system stimulant is popular in South America. Brewed from the dried leaves of an evergreen plant related to holly, it is usually taken in the form of a stimulating greenish drink. Yerba mate contains caffeine, the core ingredient in many stimulant drinks. Mate apparently boosts your physical endurance and ability to focus. Plus, it has even more antioxidants than green tea, making it one of ginseng's strongest rivals. Adding to its allure, yerba mate has a smoother taste.
2. Golden root
Rhodiola rosea, or golden root, is a Siberian herb said to counter depression, curb stress, increase lifespan and serve as an aphrodisiac. Native to cold regions of the world including Central Asia and the Arctic, golden root has been widely consumed in Siberia for centuries. Soviet scientists assessed its impact on athletes then cosmonauts. A recent study by Californian researchers found it increases lifespan by 24 per cent in fruit flies.
Native to the Amazon Basin, this woody climbing plant packs a punch in its seeds. After being roasted, they are made into a stimulant drink with a sharp taste and an aroma that is reminiscent of coffee, except the caffeine content is about three times higher than a regular cup of joe. In fact, guarana (below) has among the highest caffeine concentration of any plant.
Another traditional Chinese medicine contender, ginkgo comes from the oldest surviving species of tree, which dates back 300 million years. Apparently good for your circulation, the venerable medicinal plant is often used to combat memory disorders including Alzheimer's disease. It is also said to improve long-distance vision and counter depression.
5. Kola nut
The kola nut comes from trees in tropical Africa that are related to the cocoa tree. Again, it is full of large doses of caffeine. The nut's caffeine content is extraordinarily high: 1-1.5 per cent by weight. The nut apparently raises oxygen levels in the blood and improves concentration, clearing your head. Consumed throughout the West Indies and Brazil, the kola nut fights fatigue and apparently aids digestion.