Busy people leading high-stress lives often have a vague feeling of ill-ease – not quite sick, but not quite well. They have more trouble sustaining focus as they work on projects, and are easily distracted. They are tired, yet keep pushing themselves. By the end of the workday, there is not much energy left for anything but a TV show and bed. Along with making us feel worn out, incredibly stressful lifestyles reduce our resistance, resilience, and our ability for our minds and bodies to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. This brings us to a class of herbs that are named for their very ability to increase resistance and improve adaptability: adaptogens. One adaptogen, in particular, has been revered for over 5,000 years for its unique power: red ginseng.
Ginseng root is one of the world’s oldest (probably the original) adaptogenic medicines. It comes from Panax ginseng and was first used in Asia, most likely in the Korean peninsula. Like all adaptogens, ginseng contains compounds that help the body and mind respond to circumstances in the most helpful ways: If you’re feeling particularly scattered, ginseng can help you feel focused; if you feel physically fatigued, it can help you find the stamina to carry on. You may hear about white or red ginseng. While both forms come from the same plant, white ginseng is very minimally prepared, which means that its beneficial compounds, including ginsenosides, ginsans, and gintonins, are too bound up in the plant’s cell walls to be of much use. Red ginseng, by contrast, is steamed, which breaks down some of the cell walls and gives the root powder a characteristic red/brown appearance. While all ginseng has some benefits, the majority of studies show that RED GINSENG IS BEST AND MORE BENEFICIAL. Researchers have recently learned that specific compounds in ginseng, called noble ginsenosides, are not only better absorbed by the body, but have specialized, energizing effects. Noble ginsenosides are found in small amounts in ginseng but are also formed in the gut by probiotic action.
Stress does strange things to the way we think. It ratchets up cortisol levels and affects the
regions in the brain (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA) that tend to make us first
more reactive, and then makes us feel exhausted. Stopping that chemical change is the
first step to feeling more healthy energy and navigating daily challenges and stresses.
Red ginseng does just that. It alters the way we react to stress by helping calm
neurotransmitter activity and balances cortisol levels in a way that HELPS US STAY
FOCUSED AND ALERT. It also acts as an antioxidant, which is an interesting twist on the story of stress reduction. That’s because as oxidative damage harms cells, it also increases our
perceived stress levels. Red ginseng has been found to REDUCE FATIGUE, in part,
because of its antioxidant abilities – less oxidative stress means less stressful feelings
– as well as its actions on the HPA-axis. Less damage to cells is a significant step towards healthy longevity. This protective ability may also account for the way that red ginseng protects our cognitive
process. Korean research has found that it helps keep our mind healthy by preventing the
death of brain cells. I think this may keep red ginseng at the forefront of cognitive studies in the future, too. It continues to show multiple actions that include boosting nitric oxide production to keep blood flowing easily in the body and brain, hormone signaling that is associated with clear-mindedness, neural cell regeneration, and anti-inflammatory actions that reduce threats to delicate brain wiring. The actions that protect the brain from damage may also reduce symptoms of depression. A Korean clinical study found that red ginseng significantly improved depression symptoms, including those somatic symptoms – the physical “drag” that people suffering from depression so often feel.
I know that some people may think of Korean red ginseng as a men’s supplement, but there are many applications for women, too. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners consider ginseng a longevity herb for both men and women, especially as they age. There have been clinical studies that include both men and women, with positive results. There are also studies on red ginseng, specifically on women’s health, including menopause and energy, that have shown the safety and efficacy of this herb. As an adaptogen, ginseng is remarkable for everyone. Life can be full of stresses and challenges. And some of those challenges can be good – they help us learn, grow, and stay fit mentally and physically. But being adaptable and resilient is the key to making those experiences enriching rather than draining. That’s where red ginseng can help.
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics