Potential Anti-Inflammatory Effects Of Ginseng

  • Isabel Rivera Doctor of Philosophy – PhD, University of Manchester, UK
  • Chimdi Okoye Bachelor of Science - BS, Pharmaceutical Science with Regulatory Affairs, Kingston University
  • Regina Lopes Senior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Introduction

Brief overview of ginseng

Ginseng is a medicinal herb that has been used to nourish, combat fatigue, improve focus, and enhance the immune system. Its natural medicinal properties have been part of the long history and culture in East Asia, as well as in the US. Through historical use and scientific studies, ginseng has been shown to be particularly effective in regulating the immune system and inflammation.1,2

Ginseng contains active compounds that support mental and physical health. The active compounds found in ginseng, such as ginsenosides and antioxidants, have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, and anti-cancer potential. Ginseng is an established regulator of the immune system, which controls inflammation.1,2

Historical uses and cultural significance

Ginseng is a herbal plant with medicinal properties that has been widely used to treat various illnesses for more than 2000 years. It is considered a ‘traditional medicine’, meaning its use as a natural medicine is founded over years of trial and error and deeply rooted in traditional cultures. Ginseng’s use for healing came from East Asian countries, namely China, Korea, and Japan, as well as the US.1

Historically, ginseng was used in China as an all-around treatment, such as:

  • To nourish vital organs
  • To slow down heart palpitations
  • To improve vision and mental focus
  • For vertigo and headache
  • For diarrhoea
  • For fever and chills
  • For fatigue1

The potential anti-inflammatory properties of ginseng

Ginseng has been a longstanding and highly valued herb used in traditional medicine for a long list of illnesses. In addition to this, there is now growing scientific evidence based on clinical and experimental studies towards ginseng’s value as an herbal medicine. Through these studies, the bioactive compounds responsible for ginseng’s medicinal power have been identified. These bioactive compounds have been found to have various health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune regulatory potential.2

Understanding inflammation

Definition and purpose of inflammation

The immune system is your body’s defence against danger, like chemical exposure and germs that cause illnesses or when you have injury. The presence of danger or foreign object entry into the body activates the cells of the immune system to attack the source of danger and initiate healing. Inflammation is one such defence mechanism launched by your immune system against these dangers or to the wound site to help with healing. Inflammation is an immune response that leads to symptoms like:

  • Pain
  • Swelling 
  • Bruising
  • Redness 
  • Increased temperature3

There are two types of inflammation, depending on how long the inflammatory response lasts. We explore this in the next section.

Types of inflammation (acute vs. chronic)

Acute inflammation

Acute inflammation is the short-term immediate response of your body to sudden injury. For example, getting a splinter on your finger or having a cold. Your body activates an inflammatory response to fight off germs from the wound and to start the healing process. This response can last for a few hours to a few days, depending on the injury. You may experience some or all symptoms, but sometimes you may not have any symptoms at all. Typical symptoms you might experience with acute inflammation are:

  • Skin redness at the wound site
  • Pain or soreness
  • Swelling
  • Heat at the wound site
  • The increased temperature when ill 3,4

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a long-term inflammatory response that continues to be activated even when there is no external danger. Your immune system is on high alert for much longer – lasting for months to years. This can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases, where your immune system is mistakenly fighting against your own body. Example diseases in this category are:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis where your joints like elbows and knees are inflamed
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) where the parts of the digestive system are inflamed 3,4

Some symptoms of chronic inflammation are:

  • Fatigue and/or insomnia
  • Fever
  • Abdominal and/or chest pains
  • Joint pain
  • Weight changes
  • Recurring infections
  • Mental health changes
  • Digestive problems like diarrhoea, constipation, and acid reflux3

The role of inflammation in various health conditions

Inflammation is associated with many other diseases, such as:

  • Some cancer types
  • Cardiovascular diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels
  • Neurodegenerative diseases that affect the brain and nerves
  • Mental health issues3

Ginseng: a nutritional powerhouse

Overview of ginseng plant species 

There are many ginseng varieties, but ginseng commonly refers to 2 specific varieties: Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius.

Panax ginseng is the scientific name for the variant naturally found in Korea, the Manchuria region in China, and Siberia in Russia. It is also known as ‘Asian ginseng’ or ‘Korean ginseng’. It is the most popular and scientifically studied variant. Panax quinquefolius is the variant naturally grown in the US, also called ‘American ginseng’.1,5

Nutritional composition of ginseng

Ginseng contains various ‘bioactive compounds’. Bioactive compounds are chemical compounds naturally found in plants, animals, and microorganisms that have an active effect on the body. These bioactive compounds in ginseng are:

  • Ginsenosides, the major bioactive compound in ginseng
  • Polyacetylenes
  • Polyphenolic compounds
  • Polysaccharides2

Potential benefits of ginseng

Because of ginseng’s rich nutritional composition, studies have shown some evidence to support ginseng’s potential and promising health benefits, such as:

  • Immune regulation: increase resistance to certain infections, balance the inflammatory response
  • Cardiovascular protection: decrease blood pressure, decrease cholesterol, decrease blood vessel stiffness
  • Glucose tolerance: regulate insulin and glucose levels
  • Anti-ulcer: prevent gastritis (stomach inflammation) by increasing the mucus lining of the stomach
  • Anti-cancer: limit cancer growth and spreading
  • Antioxidant: reduce oxidative damage6,7

How to consume ginseng

The most common part of the plant used is the root. However, all parts of the herb can be used and contain bioactive compounds. The amount of these bioactive compounds depends on the Panax variety, plant age, plant part, the season it is harvested, how it is preserved, and how the compounds are extracted.6

Ginseng can be taken in many different forms, usually prepared as an extract using the root of the plant. In the US, it is commonly taken through processed forms like liquid extracts, tablets, or capsules. However, it can also be brewed into ginseng tea or taken raw by chewing on the plant.5,8

The impact of ginseng on inflammatory conditions

Studies demonstrating ginseng's anti-inflammatory properties

A study on mice showed ginseng to have anti-inflammatory effects. Specifically, ginseng is a polysaccharide found in ginseng. Mice were treated with ginseng before exposure to the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Normally, pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-α, would be produced by the immune system when exposed to this bacteria to cause inflammation. In addition, this bacteria would cause sepsis. However, when the mice were treated with ginseng, the production of TNF-α and other pro-inflammatory cytokines were decreased. This lowered the level of inflammation and prevented sepsis in mice. The effect of ginseng on inflammation was also observed in other studies.9,10

Other active compounds stemming from ginseng that also demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects are:

  • Compound K is a product of ginsenoside after it has been broken down in the body. This decreased the level of pro-inflammatory cytokines like TNF-α in microglial cells. [Kang]
  • Rg5 is a major bioactive compound from steamed ginseng. This decreased the level of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α and inflammatory enzymes in mice with lung inflammation.9

Ginseng and rheumatoid arthritis: an example

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where chronic inflammation persists in the joints. Specifically, TNF-α is a major pro-inflammatory cytokine that is involved in early inflammation, helping accelerate inflammation in the joints. Ginseng can help against inflammation by preventing the production of TNF-α and other proinflammatory cytokines.11

Studies have also shown the potential anti-inflammatory effects of ginseng in other diseases that result in inflammation, such as:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Allergic asthma
  • Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, where stress promotes inflammation11

Safety and considerations

Dosage recommendations

Ginsenoside content can vary within ginseng extracts. However, the standard and recommended ginsenoside content is 1.5 to 7%. Most scientific studies have used ginseng extracts of 200 mg per day. Ginseng in capsule form usually contains 100 to 600 mg per day. For ginseng consumed in tea or when chewed, 0.5 to 2 g of dry root per day on a short-term basis is recommended.8

Potential side effects

Ginseng is generally well tolerated. The side effects associated with ginseng consumption are generally mild and include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Hypertension
  • Hypotension
  • Breast pain or soreness
  • Vaginal bleeding 8

Potential drug-drug interactions

Take caution when consuming ginseng alongside the following to avoid possible interactions:

  • Caffeine
  • Warfarin medication
  • Phenelzine medication
  • Insulin and oral hypoglycemic medication for diabetes
  • Having hypertension
  • Having menstruation8

Ginseng should not be used as a replacement for treatment prescribed by your doctor.

Summary

Inflammation is part of your immune system’s defence strategy against danger, like injuries and germs. However, inflammation in excess can be harmful, such as diseases associated with long-term inflammation. Ginseng is a herbal medicine that is backed by hundreds of years in traditional medicine, as well as growing scientific evidence. It is known to be an immune system regulator through its many bioactive compounds. To fight inflammation, certain bioactive compounds have the potential to lower the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Furthermore, ginseng is generally well tolerated and also has other health benefits, such as being an antioxidant that overall contributes to its immune-regulating properties.

References

  1. Park HJ, Kim DH, Park SJ, Kim JM, Ryu JH. Ginseng in Traditional Herbal Prescriptions. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2012 Jul 15;36(3):225–41.
  2. ‌Kim H, Jang M, Kim Y, Choi J, Jeon J, Kim J, et al. Red ginseng and vitamin C increase immune cell activity and decrease lung inflammation induced by influenza A virus/H1N1 infection. 
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Inflammation: What is it, causes, symptoms & treatment [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21660-inflammation 
  4. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. What is inflammation? [Internet]. Nih.gov. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2018. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279298/ 
  5. Dasgupta A, Klein K. Chapter 16 - Herbal and Other Dietary Supplements That Are Antioxidants [Internet]. Dasgupta A, Klein K, editors. ScienceDirect. San Diego: Elsevier; 2014. p. 295–315. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780124058729000161#s0040 
  6. Cheung B, Kwan M, Chan R, Sea M, Woo J. Chapter 47 - Potential of Asian Natural Products for Health in Aging [Internet]. Malavolta M, Mocchegiani E, editors. ScienceDirect. San Diego: Academic Press; 2016 [cited 2024 Feb 14]. p. 659–76. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128018163000479
  7. Shergis JL, Zhang AL, Zhou W, Xue CC. Panax ginsengin Randomised Controlled Trials: A Systematic Review. Phytotherapy Research. 2012 Sep 12;27(7):949–65.
  8. Kiefer D, Pantuso T. Panax ginseng. American Family Physician [Internet]. 2003 Oct 15;68(8):1539–42. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14596440/
  9. Kang SW, Min HY. Ginseng, the “Immunity Boost”: The Effects of Panax ginseng on the Immune System. Journal of Ginseng Research [Internet]. 2012 Oct 15;36(4):354–68. Available from: http://koreascience.or.kr/article/JAKO201229664766672.page
  10. Ahn JY, Song JY, Yun YS, Jeong G, Choi IS. Protection of Staphylococcus aureus-infected septic mice by suppression of early acute inflammation and enhanced antimicrobial activity by ginseng. FEMS Immunology & Medical Microbiology [Internet]. 2006 Mar 1 [cited 2020 May 25];46(2):187–97. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/femspd/article/46/2/187/562541
  11. Lee S, Rhee DK. Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2017 Oct;41(4):589–94.

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Isabel Rivera

Doctor of Philosophy – PhD, University of Manchester, UK

Isabel Rivera, PhD, is an accomplished oncology researcher with a strong acumen for medical communications and creative marketing. With experience in scientific and medical writing, Isabel excels in simplifying intricate scientific concepts. She combines research practice, project management skills, teaching experience, and digital marketing expertise to drive impactful outcomes in roles requiring scientific rigor and effective communication.

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