Ginseng: Not the Miracle Drug We Hoped For

If you walk down the health food isle of your local grocery store, you might observe that dozens of products include ginseng. From energy drinks and teas to non-Western medicine, this antioxidant “powerhouse” is said to have quasi-magical effects—from improved brain function to blood sugar regulation. Used for thousands of years across hundreds of nations and cultures, Ginseng is treasured for its healing properties and reported effect on sexual libido. However, ginseng is not the cure-all remedy we all hoped for.

 

Ginseng is a species of slow-growing perennial plants. Its roots are most often turned into a powder, which can be utilized in infusions and supplement capsules. Commercial ginseng is currently sold in over 35 countries, but China has, historically, been the plant’s largest consumer. These roots have an unusually long germination period—they usually do not yield anything until the second spring after it is planted. Ginseng must be subjected to a long period of storage in a moist environment with a warm/cold treatment.

 

Many users of ginseng claim that it can reduce stress, alleviate erectile dysfunction, stave off dementia, strengthen the immune system, prevent colds, reduce infections, improve digestion, and cure cancer. However, like most wonder drugs, there is little-to-no research to support any of these claims.

 

Ginseng’s antioxidants are to blame for these panacea claims. Antioxidants are molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules—and they are currently very popular in the health food world. Oxidation can facilitate the growth of free radicals, leading to the idea that antioxidants can fight cancer. However, ginseng does not have nearly enough of the compound to boost a body’s immunity.