The Health Benefits of Korean Ginseng

Improves Mood, Cognitive Function, and Immune System

Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is in the family Araliaceae. Most the root of the plant is most commonly used in herbal supplements. Other names synonymous with Korean ginseng include Panax ginseng, mountain ginseng, wild ginseng, true ginseng, and Asian ginseng. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not related to Panax ginseng. 

Korean ginseng is available in two different forms based on preparation, including white ginseng and Korean red ginseng (KRG). Each of the two forms of Korean ginseng (white and red) varies in composition as well as in the health benefits offered.

It’s important not to confuse Korean ginseng with other types of ginseng, including Chinese ginseng (Panax notoginseng), Siberian (Eleutherococcus senticosus), American (Panax quinquefolius), or Himalayan (Panax pseudoginseng), each of which provides its own specific effects on the body.

Health Benefits

The root of the Korean ginseng plant, including the smaller lateral roots, is the part that is used for its medicinal properties; it has long been highly valued for its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine preparations. Of the thirteen plants in the Panax genera, only five are used medicinally in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Korean ginseng is the most widely used, according to the Korean Clinical Pharmacopoeia.

Background

Korean ginseng is a perennial plant (a plant that lives for at least two years, and beyond) that grows in the mountains in Eastern Asia. It grows well in the moist, shaded mountainsides of Korea, China, and Russia. The plant grows to a height of 2 feet or taller and has dark green leaves with red berry clusters. The root’s outer appearance is wrinkled and creased and the taste is considered slightly sweet with a bitter after taste.

Korean ginseng has been used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a wide range of ailments and promote health.

The primary use of ginseng in Traditional Chinese Medicine was for the treatment of weakness and fatigue.

Panax comes from the Greek words, loosely translated as “all-healing.” The English translation for ginseng (rénshen in Chinese) is “man-root.” The literal English translation for the term Panax ginseng is “all-healing man root.” 

Korean Red Ginseng (KRG)

The plant of the ginseng root must grow for four to five years before it's ready to be used in a supplemental form. This usually translates to a high price for a quality form of ginseng.

When the ginseng root is dried—but not processed further—it is called white ginseng. When it’s further processed with heat and then dried, it’s referred to as red ginseng (because it changes color during the heating process). Panax ginseng treated with heat transforms into a form of ginseng called Korean red ginseng. KRG contains some unique bioactive properties that differ from regular Korean white ginseng, such as its heightened anti-inflammatory properties. KRG can also be treated in a fermentation process which is thought to even further enhance its anti-inflammatory action.

To understand the difference between Korean ginseng and Korean red ginseng, consider how different forms of tea evolve from the same tea plant but vary because of the processing method. For example, the Camellia sinensis plant can be made into green tea, white tea or black tea—depending on the processing method.

Well-Being Medication

Korean ginseng is commonly referred to as an overall well-being medication. This is because it affects several systems in the body (such as the immune system, reproductive system, and neurological system).

Ginseng has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for improving overall health. It has been used to help fight off stress, lower blood sugar, as well as treat male erectile dysfunction and many other conditions. Korean ginseng is known for its ability to help regulate mood, strengthen the immune system, and improve cognition. Traditional uses of Korean ginseng include:

  •  Function and resilience
  •  Inflammation
  •  Performance (unsupported by clinical research studies)
  •  Energy
  •  Negative mood states (such as anxiety and depression)
  •  Men’s sexual health (insignificant data to fully support claims)

Medical Uses

Although Korean Red Ginseng is not FDA-approved for the treatment of erectile dysfunction, it is thought to improve the condition while increasing mental alertness. There have been studies that support its use in improving male erectile dysfunction, but more evidence is needed to further support these claims.

Research Studies

The primary active components of Korean ginseng are molecules called ginsenosides, which "have been shown to have a variety of beneficial effects, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer effects. Results of clinical research studies demonstrate that Panax ginseng may improve psychological function, immune function, and conditions associated with diabetes,” says Dr. David Kiefer, M.D.

There have been more studies on Korean ginseng than on any other type of ginseng. Examples of a few important hallmark studies include:

  • A study of young, healthy volunteers found that single doses of Panax ginseng have shown cognitive improvements. The study also revealed that both the 200 mg and the 400 mg treatment led to a significant reduction in blood sugar.
  • In a double-blind study (the gold standard of studies) of 384 post-menopausal women, Panax ginseng was not found to improve symptoms of menopause or influence the hypothalamic function (controls metabolic processes). Panax ginseng was, however, shown to be significant in reducing depression and increasing the overall well being in women during menopause.
  • In a 2011 study of those who had suffered a heart attack (myocardial infarction) and were given 3 grams of Korean Red Ginseng each day, subjects were found to have an improvement in coronary flow reserve (an increase in blood flow in the coronary arteries). The study subjects were also found to have an increase in the number of immune cells after taking Korean Red Ginseng.
  • One study found that social function, mood, and cognition improved more than with placebo after four weeks of taking Panax ginseng at 200 mg per day. The same study discovered that after eight weeks, the benefits started to decline and became more like the placebo effects.

Possible Side Effects

There are several side effects that have been reported from Korean ginseng use, these include:

  • Insomnia (the most common side effect)
  • Increasing the side effects of caffeine (such as jitteriness)
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Nausea
  • Menstrual problems
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Breast pain
  • Dizziness
  • An increase or decrease in blood pressure

Serious Side Effects

Although ginseng is generally considered safe—particularly when taken for short periods of time—serious reactions can occur. It’s important to stop taking the supplement and seek immediate medical attention if any of these symptoms occur:

  • Irregular, fast heartbeat
  • Serious allergic reaction (rash, itching, or swelling around the face, lips, tongue, and throat while spreading to the upper body, dizziness, or breathing problems)

Signs of Overdose

It’s possible to overdose on Korean ginseng. This is the reason that experts recommend taking regular breaks from the daily use of the herb. Signs and symptoms of toxicity or overdose may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • An increase in blood pressure and respiration (breathing)
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Inability to control urinary or bowel function
  • Cyanosis (bluish discoloration around lips and nails)
  • Reddened skin (particularly in the face and neck)
  • Seizures (convulsions)
  • Delirium (a severely disturbed state of mind characterized by restlessness, delusions, illusions, or incoherent speech)

Contraindications

Always follow the instructions of the prescribing healthcare provider about any type of food, drink (such as alcoholic beverages or caffeinated drinks), or activity restrictions as well as any drug contraindications (medications that should not be taken with other medications or supplements).

Medications (such as oral hypoglycemics and insulin) and other herbs or supplements that lower blood sugar should not be taken with Korean ginseng. Check with a credentialed naturopathic doctor about combining Korean ginseng with other herbal medicines to check for interactions.

Other Precautions

There are several health conditions in which ginseng should not be taken without first consulting the healthcare provider. These include:

  • Blood pressure problems
  • Heart conditions (such as arrhythmias or rheumatic heart disease)
  • Clotting or bleeding problems
  • Schizophrenia
  • Immune system disorders (such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis)
  • Female conditions impacted by estrogen (such as uterine fibroids, breast cancer, uterine cancer or ovarian cancer, or endometriosis)
  • Diabetes (Korean ginseng may lower blood sugar)
  • Insomnia

Do not take Korean ginseng with:

  • Aspirin (aspirin causes a decreased blood clotting time to prevent blood clots, and in rare instances, ginseng could cause bleeding)
  • Phenelzine (Nardil) and warfarin (Coumadin) as it could increase bleeding
  • Any type of heart medications such as nifedipine (calcium channel blocker)

Do not take Korean ginseng when:

  • Drinking alcoholic beverages
  • Drinking caffeinated beverages
  • Smoking marijuana or using cannabis
  • A scheduled surgery or dental work is impending (stop taking ginseng at least two weeks prior)

Dosage and Preparation

Korean ginseng is usually made into a powdered form from the dry root and taken by mouth as a supplement. Although there is a tincture (a liquid preparation made with alcohol) and tea form available, most of the clinical research studies are performed using ginseng in the powdered/supplement form. 

Ginseng should be stored at room temperature and kept dry, away from heat.

Always take Korean ginseng (and any other herbal supplement) as directed by the healthcare provider. The average dose of Korean ginseng is about 200 to 400 mg per day as an overall health promotion/preventative herbal supplement. The 400 mg dose may provide the highest cognitive benefit from Korean ginseng.

Other medical experts recommend 200 mg per day and suggest taking a two-week break from taking ginseng every two to three weeks. This is to avoid the possibility of getting a toxic reaction from the build-up of ginseng in the body. “Most published research studies have used a standardized Panax ginseng extract in a dosage of 200 mg per day,” says American Family Physicians.

Do not take Korean ginseng at bedtime since the side effect of insomnia has been reported. Also, do not take Korean ginseng for long time spans (no more than three months). Be sure to discuss the specific safety precautions of taking Korean ginseng with your healthcare provider.

What to Look For

When considering any herbal supplement, the dosage, potency, and purity of the product cannot be overlooked.

To ensure a product that provides safety and quality, it’s important to pay attention to the ginsenoside ratio and quality of the ginseng supplement. The standardized Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer root extract G115, (trademark of Pharmaton SA) is used in many clinical research trials, according to Examine.com.

The G115 patented extraction of Panax ginseng contains 4% ginsenosides (by weight). Another standardized extract, called NAGE contains 10% ginsenosides. Both extracts have been used in clinical research studies for quality standards. One study found that the purity of ginsenoside in these extracts (in the G115 and the NAGE) ranged from 95% to 100%.

Other Questions

Can you use Korean ginseng if you're pregnant?

No, ginseng should not be used during pregnancy.

Does Korean ginseng pass into breast milk—if so, is it safe for babies who are breastfed?

It is not known whether ginseng passes into the breast milk, therefore nursing moms should not use ginseng.

Is Korean ginseng safe for children?

No, never give any herbal supplements to children without the approval of the healthcare provider.

What if you miss a dose?

Do not take extra ginseng to make up for a missed dose. If it’s close to the time for the next dose, simply skip the missed dose.   

What happens if you overdose?

If a person overdoses on Korean ginseng or any other herbal supplement, it’s important to seek emergency medical care right away.

A Word From Verywell

Although it’s been touted that Korean ginseng is effective for the treatment of everything from the common cold to cancer, the clinical research evidence does not provide enough support for many of the claims about ginseng’s effectiveness. In fact, according to the research, Korean ginseng is most effective for mood disorders (such as depression), boosting the immune system, and improving cognition. Some evidence supports the use of ginseng for fatigue (in people with cancer, but not for healthy people). As with all other herbal supplements, it’s important to consult with the healthcare provider before taking Korean ginseng.

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