By: Seong Jin Jeong
Ginseng has been used as a traditional medicine in Asia for thousands of years, and is still used widely to this day for its medicinal purposes. It is used for boosting immune system, decreasing blood sugar levels, improving cognitive functions, stimulating physical and mental activities, preventing cancer, and promoting anti-inflammatory effects. It is usually safe to use and seems to be an effective alternative herbal medicine, although it still lacks sufficient evidence for some aspects of its medicinal properties. The active components of ginseng are called ginsenosides; these are the chemical component in ginseng that has antimicrobial, antifungal effect, and anti-feeder effect from its bitter taste, and aids in survival of ginseng.
Ginsenosides are considered as steroid glycosides and triterpene saponins. Saponin contents are directly proportional to ginseng’s age, and can be different depending on where it was grown and how the root is processed for consumption. For example, red ginseng is made by steaming at 100 degrees Celsius and then sun dried. Heat transformation and deglycosylation results in different saponin contents which gives red ginseng higher medicinal values than white ginseng. For instance, red ginseng is rich in Rg3, a chemical component shown to inhibit VCAM-1, COX-2, and nitric oxide production, which causes vasodilation and improves cardiovascular function. Ginsenosides have been reported to have bioactivities including angiogenesis modulation, antioxidation, and neuroprotection. Angiogenesis dysregulation is present in tumor cells causing changes in our blood vessels. Ginseng’s angiogenesis modulation property could potentially be used to prevent physiological complications of cancer. Also, ginsenosides have been reported to have high affinity to peroxyl and hydroxyl free radicals, potentially making them efficient antioxidants and a good preventative measure for development of cancer. Ginsenosides are agonists to various steroid receptors as well, regulating receptors in our body like tyrosine kinase, serotonin receptors, NMDA receptors, and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. NMDA receptors have impact in synaptic plasticity and memory function; nicotinic acetylcholine receptors participate in muscle contraction; and, serotonin receptors regulate serotonin, which is a known contributor of happiness and mental relaxation. This demonstrates the potential connection between ginseng and cognitive function improvement, and the potential for physical and mental stimulant properties. Many scientific research reports support other various therapeutic effects of ginsenosides as well. Ginsenosides are reported to be capable of binding to multiple steroid hormone receptors. This gives ginsenosides its multi-target properties and ginseng’s genus name Panax, meaning “all-heal” in Greek.
There is still much more research to be done to understand more about the effectivity of ginseng in our body. However, much of the research that has already been done indicates that ginseng has various medicinal properties from antimicrobial to antioxidant, and could be an excellent option of alternative medicine under proper supervision of health care professionals. It is most likely safe to use for healthy people and may boost the immune system from diseases like cancer and heart disease. One of the few downsides of ginseng is that it can be pricey, and the absorption from oral intake is very low. More research could be done regarding the bioavailability of ginseng so that ginsenosides can be more readily absorbed in our body without excretion or degradation.
This post has been approved by Dr. Linda Norton.