New insights into an age-old remedy

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ginsengSince ancient times, ginseng has been used as a cure for just about anything from reducing fatigue and increasing libido to lowering blood sugar levels and strengthening the immune system. Today, ginseng is one of the most commonly used over-the-counter herbal medicines. Yet, as popular as ginseng is, research supporting its health benefits is scarce. That may be changing thanks to a group of researchers at Georgia State University (GSU).

Ginseng belongs to a group of natural remedies called adaptogens, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary a adaptogen is a nontoxic substance that increases the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promotes or restores normal physiological functioning. In fact, many people today do take ginseng to combat fatigue. And clinical studies have been done that support ginseng’s ability to reduce cancer-related fatigue. In 2012, researchers at the Mayo Clinic presented results of a large study to the American Society of Clinical Oncology that found that cancer patients given 1,000 milligrams of ginseng twice a day for two weeks saw significant improvements in fatigue compared with a placebo group.

New research by scientists at GSU focuses on the anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory properties of ginseng as well as its ability to prevent flu. One study suggests that normal consumption of Korean red ginseng extract by healthy individuals could prevent infections by different flu virus strains. Studies in mice indicate long-term ginseng intake could strengthen immunity to pathogens.

In another study, published recently in Nutrients, the GSU team found that ginseng improved the survival of human lung epithelial cells of individuals infected with the flu virus. Treatment with ginseng treatment also reduced the expression of pro-inflammatory genes, possibly by interfering with chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen and which are formed by the flu virus.

Mice treated with ginseng for a longer term (around 60 days) showed multiple immune system effects, including stimulation of anti-viral protein production after flu virus infection. Ginseng also inhibited the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the lungs in mice. These results suggest that ginseng may prevent flu virus infections by acting on the immune system in multiple ways.

Earlier studies investigated the effects of giving ginseng orally to mice (oral administration is the most common way that healthy people take ginseng). The GSU researchers found that this gave the mice a moderate but significant resistance to infection with the 2009 pandemic flu virus strain. In this case, the researchers concluded that ginseng didn’t prevent illness, as demonstrated by weight loss, but did result in better survival.

Humans have been taking small doses for many years with no major side effects. Based on these studies, it appears that ginseng looks help prevent flu in healthy individuals taking normal doses. However, the animal studies indicate that ginseng has little or no protective beneficial effects if taken after the onset of symptoms.

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