Ginseng: Definition and Overview

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Ginseng with roots and sliced pieces

What is ginseng good for?

Ginseng is an herbal folk remedy for various ailments that is made from several species of plants in the genus Panax. The root is dried and used to make capsules, tablets, extracts, teas, and creams. Ginseng has been promoted for improving the health of people recovering from illness, increasing a sense of well-being and stamina, improving mental performance, treating erectile dysfunction, and lowering blood glucose and blood pressure, although there is no definitive scientific evidence to support these claims. To date, only a few large clinical trials have been conducted with ginseng, and most of these have had design flaws.

What is ginseng used for?

The uses with the greatest scientific support are lowering blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes and improving mental performance. A number of studies suggest that ginseng can modestly improve thinking or learning ability, although some studies have failed to show this effect. Several other studies suggest that it may lower blood glucose levels in individuals with type 2 diabetes. However, it isn’t clear what the long-term effects are and what doses are safe and effective. Health experts stress that no one should use ginseng in place of proven medicines, such as insulin or oral diabetes pills, prescribed by their diabetes care provider.

Can diabetics take ginseng?

The most common side effects of ginseng are headaches, sleep disturbances, and gastrointestinal problems, although it has been known to provoke allergic reactions as well. Because of the blood-glucose-lowering potential of this plant and the accompanying possibility of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), people with diabetes must be especially cautious about using it. As always, be sure to let your health-care team know about any dietary supplements you take, including ginseng.

Originally Published November 24, 2009

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