Is Ginseng good for my health?

Research on Ginseng: Pharmacogenomics and the Yin/Yang actions of ginseng: anti-tumor, angiomodulating and steroid-like activities of ginsenosides.  Chinese Medicine 2007

Long known as a whole-body tonic (the root plant, precious for centuries in Asian countries, is shaped like a person) new evidence validates and explains some of ginseng’s healing actions.

In Chinese medicine, ginseng (Panax ginseng) has long been used as a general tonic or an adaptogen to promote longevity and enhance bodily functions. It has also been claimed to be effective in combating stress, fatigue, oxidants, cancer and diabetes mellitus.

Most previous studies have claimed that the pharmacological effects of ginseng are attributed to its bioactive constituents such as ginsenosides, saponins, phytosterols, peptides, polysaccharides, fatty acids, polyacetylenes, vitamins and minerals.  In this new research, the focus was the recent advances in the studies of ginsenosides on the formation of blood vessels, which is a common denominator of many diseases, such as cancer and some cardiovascular disorders.

Specifically, the root has been shown to inhibit new blood vessel growth in rapidly growing tissue: that is, tumors.  The medical term angiogenesis means the creation of new blood vessels, which is a critical aspect of how a tumor will successfully establish in, and invade, healthy tissue.

Paradoxically, other components of ginseng have been found to enhance nitric oxide (a vasodilator) levels by promoting new vessel growth, enhancing wound healing, slowing dementia, slowing hair loss and reducing morbidity from various other diseases caused by poor circulation.

The current research suggests that ginseng works as an adaptogen, that is, if new vessel growth is necessary, ginseng will promote that, but if new vessel growth would be harmful (such as in supplying a tumor) then such vascular growth would be inhibited.

Many of the Chinese tonics are adaptogens.  So is Vitamin K: mostly know as an antidote to the blood thinner Coumadin, Vitamin K can also normalize thick blood by reducing platelet stickiness.  Another action of ginseng explained in this recent article is how it acts as a proto-hormone, like the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

More than 30 ginsenosides (biological active components of the plant) have been isolated, and all have a steroid-like molecular structure.  This means one end of the molecule bonds to water-soluble substances (hydrophilic) and the other end of the molecule bonds to fat-soluble substances (hydrophobic) just like our cell membranes.  One reason steroids are so biologically active is that they can penetrate through the outer layer of our cell membranes (fatty cholesterol layer), through the watery center of the cell membrane, and into the center of the cell, where the nucleus and DNA can be affected.

The interaction between ginsenosides and various steroid hormone receptors in all of our many trillion cells, may explain the diverse activities of ginseng, which may eventually lead to further development of ginseng-derived therapeutics for diseases like cancer and dementia.