Ginseng, a regularly top-selling herbal supplement, comes from the root part of several plant species in the Panax genus. The most common type of ginseng supplement comes from Panax ginseng, which roughly translates to “all-healing man-root.”


  • Chinese ginseng
  • Ren shen
  • Korean ginseng
  • Red ginseng
  • Asian ginseng


Ginseng is in the spotlight again as researchers look into how well the herb can actually help fight cancer. Though some early research has shown some benefit, at least one complementary medicine expert feels that the future of this and many other hopeful herbs is not too bright.

A group of researchers say a number of animal and human studies from 20 years ago to the present show Panax ginseng may reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Their report appears in the July issue of Cancer Causes and Control — a medical journal published in the Netherlands.

Panax ginseng is one of the most medically important varieties of ginseng in the Orient and has been used for thousands of years as a natural tonic for restoration of strength and a cure-all, or panacea (hence the name Panax), according to the researchers. Ginseng has grown very popular in this country, with sales increasing more than 20% each year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

The components in Panax ginseng — both red and white versions that the Korean researchers say fight cancer growth — are a group of 34 constituents collectively called ginsenosides. In one 1980 study in Korea, red ginseng extract inhibited the formation of lung tumors in rats. In another study in 1983 using mice, a 75% reduction in liver cancer was reported. Other studies on mice and rats have shown reductions in cancer of the mammary glands, cervix, ovaries, kidney, stomach, and skin.

The researchers do issue one caveat about the cancer-fighting properties of ginseng, however. “While Panax ginseng has shown cancer-preventive effects,” write researcher Hai Rim Shin and colleagues, “the evidence is not conclusive as to its cancer-preventive activity in humans.” Shin believes further research is needed, and based on the positive results so far, is warranted.

There have been only a couple of studies of ginseng use on humans. One study conducted by researcher Taik Koo Yun — who also co-authored this latest study — found that among more than 4,600 people over the age of 40, ginseng users were approximately 70% less likely to develop cancer compared to those who did not take the herb. They also found that the more frequently ginseng was consumed, the lower the risk of getting cancer was.


Panax ginseng may be effective in treating erectile dysfunction and diabetes. Whether it can improve strength and stamina remains unknown.

The active ingredients in ginseng are called ginsenosides, which show definite activity in the nervous systems of animals, with both stimulatory and inhibitory effects. Certain ginsenosides are able to stimulate the immune system in mice. They may also have anti-cancer activity. In addition, ginseng can prevent tumors in mice, including ovarian, lung, liver, and skin cancers. Some studies suggest that this effect may also occur in humans. In one study, Korean individuals who consumed ginseng extract had a decreased risk of all types of cancers.

Other experiments have suggested that ginseng may increase the production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator, in the heart, lung, and kidneys. In addition, studies in animals showed that ginseng can lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Clinical trials suggest that ginseng can reduce muscle injury and inflammation after exercise.

Because ginseng was shown to have estrogenic effects, patients with hormone-sensitive cancers should consult their physicians before using it.


  • To treat angina
    Some laboratory studies show that ginseng can increase the synthesis of nitric oxide, a vasodilator, but clinical trials have not been conducted to determine if ginseng is useful in treating angina.
  • To treat diabetes
    Ginseng may help to increase the effect of insulin as well as reduce insulin resistance in type II diabetic patients.
  • To treat HIV and AIDS
    Research shows that P. ginseng stimulates certain aspects of the immune system, and although one small clinical trial supports this use, more research is necessary.
  • To stimulate the immune system
    Clinical data support this use, but the long-term effects of P. ginseng are still not known.
  • To treat sexual dysfunction
    A clinical trial showed benefits of P. ginseng for male erectile dysfunction.
  • To improve strength and stamina
    Clinical trials do not support this use.


  • Use of Panax ginseng should be stopped at least one week before surgery.

Do Not Take If

  • You are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) (If combined with MAOIs, Panax ginseng can cause manic-like symptoms).
  • You are taking insulin or sulfonylureas (Panax ginseng may increase their effect, causing a drop in blood sugar).
  • You are taking warfarin or other blood thinners (Panax ginseng may lessen their effects).
  • You are taking Raltegravir (Panax ginseng may increase its effects).


  • Dry mouth
  • Tachycardia (fast heart rate)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • In a case report, a young man with no history of mental illness became manic following chronic consumption of 250 mg of Panax ginseng capsules three times a day. His symptoms resolved when he stopped taking the herb.
  • Gynecomastia (developing breasts) has been reported in a 12-year-old boy after ingesting ginseng extract for body building.
  • A 46-year-old woman developed orobuccolingual dyskinesia (OBLD) that interfered with her speech, tongue-biting and eating difficulties, following consumption of a formula containing black cohosh and ginseng. Her symptoms resolved after discontinuing use of the formula.
  • Perioperative bleeding was reported in a 72-year-old woman following cardiac surgery due to severe coagulopathy induced by high oral intake of ginseng before surgery.

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