American Ginseng does much more . . .
Saving Yourself from AGE

Have you ever wondered why the good feelings that you derive from eating a magnificently prepared meal do not last? Have you noticed how often you actually end up feeling bad following a great dining experience? Well, aside from overeating, or eating foods that produce excessive gas or indigestion, there may be another explanation, and it has to do with a concept that many of us health seekers are already familiar with: high blood-sugar levels.

According to glycemic researchers Drs. Thomas Wolever and Jennie Brand-Miller (authors of The Glucose Revolution), the rise in blood-sugar levels in both normal and diabetic people after meals varies markedly and depends on the source of the carbohydrates, the method of their preparation, and the composition of the total meal.1 A typical American meal has far too many carbohydrates, especially starchy ones that can increase blood sugar (glucose) too rapidly and create what is known as a blood-sugar spike. Inevitably, our bodies normally respond with a compensatory swing in the opposite direction, causing the blood-sugar crash that is hypoglycemia. This condition of low blood sugar, with concomitant loss of energy, can be dangerous for diabetics and unpleasant for the rest of us, to say the least. In the long term, too much of this abuse can lead to very undesirable consequences for the normally healthy.

There is strong support for the hypothesis that a low-glycemic-index diet (one that does not increase blood glucose excessively) may have significant beneficial effects on health. Such a diet may even have life-extending effects. This is because high blood-glucose levels can make you hungrier than normal by releasing additional insulin (known as the "hunger hormone" among farmers trying to fatten their pigs) and because they can lead to obesity and increased oxidative stress. Recently, researchers have suggested that high blood-glucose levels after a meal may lead to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.2 More devastating still, high blood-glucose levels - even if they are only transient, as is the case following high-carbohydrate meals - increase the chemical cross-linking of sugars and proteins, a process known as glycation. This produces what are known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which, because they interfere with important life processes, are now thought of as benchmarks of aging. In other words, the more AGEs you have, the more likely it is that your life will be foreshortened.

There are very few data available on the glycemic indexes of mixed meals, so we do not yet know how to compose the ideal meal, thereby reducing the glycemic impact. As fortune would have it, though, scientists have recently discovered several tricks that may decrease the level of blood sugar reached after the consumption of a meal. These include the addition of lemon juice, vinegar,3 acidic fruits, or sourdough bread to a meal, which may help delay the gastric emptying rate, thus "time-releasing" the starches and sugars from carbohydrates that would normally be rapidly converted to glucose.4

On a par with delayed gastric emptying, but with the reliability of a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, American ginseng extract has recently been found, in nondiabetics, to dampen the blood-sugar spike that normally follows dining.5 Specifically, it has been found to reduce postprandial (after a meal) blood-sugar levels by about 20% (see Reduce AGE - July 2000). Thus, it helps reduce the uncontrolled, nonenzymatic reaction of sugars with proteins to form those advanced glycation end products - something that had previously been suggested by numerous animal studies. While the damage caused by glycation is particularly great in diabetics - among other critical proteins affected are those in long-lived nerve cells - it accelerates the aging process in nondiabetics too, so no one is immune.

Surprisingly, despite its long, traditional use, no clinical studies on American ginseng have been found in the literature, except for this one. There is, however, scientific suggestion that American ginseng may influence carbohydrate metabolism and diabetes mellitus.6

From the beginning of recorded history in the East, ginseng has been used as a revitalizing agent.7 Its greatest promoters, the Chinese, are still the world's major consumers of this therapeutic plant, and its uses are myriad. There are two species of ginseng that have been studied for their health benefits: Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer, which is the source of the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese brands, and Panax quinquefolius L., which is the source of American ginseng. Ginseng is a perennial herb with a fleshy root from which its benefits derive, especially as the plant matures for as many as 20 years. The Chinese prepare ginseng from roots that are bleached, boiled, steamed, or sugared in curing, and from which they make teas and powders. Given that folkloric medicine is often dependent on allegiance to superstition and custom, it is interesting to note that medicinal applications of American ginseng developed independently by various North American Indian tribes were remarkably similar to those of the Chinese.8

One of the principal active components of American ginseng, the ginsenoside Rb1, has been shown to exert beneficial effects on memory and learning, probably owing to its actions in facilitating nerve impulses that are mediated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) in certain parts of the brain.9,10 The increased release of ACh is associated with an increased uptake of choline by nerve endings, and this facilitation of ACh metabolism in the central nervous system is associated with better mental performance.

American ginseng has been shown to possess strong free-radical-scavenging activity in both lipid (fatty) and aqueous media and to effectively inhibit a type of DNA strand breakage.11 Furthermore, through its ability to chelate metal ions, American ginseng reduces the ability of certain metals, especially iron, to cause oxidative damage.

In another laboratory study, American ginseng was found to have direct antioxidant activity and to act synergistically with vitamin C, which increases the protective effects of American ginseng in preventing the oxidation of LDL (the "bad" cholesterol).12

In a Chinese study, American ginseng was given in liquid form to 71 subjects of 60-plus years who were randomly divided into a treatment group and a control group.13 The subjects were observed by single-blind method. Following traditional Chinese classifications of kidney health and function - as arcane and mysterious as traditional Chinese medicine may seem, 5000 years adds up to a lot of wisdom - the researchers attributed significant health benefits for kidneys to the use of American ginseng. Those already indicating kidney "yang-type" deficiency improved the most. The activity of the endogenous (made within the body) antioxidant superoxide dismutase (SOD) increased, and as it did, lipid peroxidation diminished significantly. The effective physiological age of those in the treated group was significantly lowered, indicating that American ginseng could be helpful in prolonging life.

The benefit found for kidney function echoes the findings of a recent study showing that arginine can improve kidney function through its ability to reduce glycation (see Arginine Keeps Kidneys in the Pink). At least one additional study has shown that some of the components in American ginseng exhibit a protective effect against liver injury.14

Also on the protection front, American ginseng has been found to protect the endothelial cells in arteries (the smooth cells lining the arterial walls) from injury.15 Damage to these cells is considered to be the initial step in the development of thrombosis (blood clot) and atherosclerosis (plaque formation), which are associated with cardiovascular disease.

Using cultured endothelial cells from human umbilical veins, researchers have studied the effects of American ginseng on endothelial-cell injury and on enzymes that play a significant role in the release of nitric oxide (NO), an important neurotransmitter. The findings strongly suggest that the pharmacological action of American ginseng is at least partly due to NO release. American ginseng may play a therapeutic role in facilitating the role of vascular endothelial cells (the cells that line blood vessels) in maintaining the balance between arterial dilation and contraction.

At a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, the ability of American ginseng to influence breast-cell growth was examined.16 It caused a dose-dependent decrease in cell proliferation, as did the sex hormone estradiol (an estrogen). American ginseng acted in ways that suggested its use concurrently with estradiol as a therapeutic agent for breast cancer. Together, these agents may be able to inhibit the growth of cancer cells synergistically.

Men too may find a specific use for American ginseng. It was totally unexpected, but nonetheless delightful to contemplate, that this herb has been found to increase copulatory behavior in rodents.17 Male laboratory rats were found to have not only increased desire - they coupled more frequently - but also increased potency, as measured by their more frequent erections. The researchers found a reduction in plasma prolactin, a hormone connected with passive "nesting" behavior, suggesting that this may play a role in the ability of American ginseng to stimulate sexual activity in the male rat.

While there are many ways in which one may benefit from the use of American ginseng, the most immediate and, perhaps, the most far-ranging uses converge in the regulation of blood-sugar levels, combined with other items that have been shown to be of value in this same regard (see the Life Enhancement article cited earlier). And, possibly, American ginseng may be able to extend your age by curtailing the development of AGE.


  1. Wolever TM, Miller JB. Sugars and blood glucose control. Am J Clin Nutr 1995 Jul;62(1 Suppl):212S-221S; discussion 221S-227S.
  2. Gapstur SM, Gann PH, Lowe W, Liu K, Colangelo L, Dyer A. Abnormal glucose metabolism and pancreatic cancer mortality. JAMA 2000 May 17;283(19):2552-8.
  3. Liljeberg H, Bjorck I. Delayed gastric emptying rate may explain improved glycaemia in healthy subjects to a starchy meal with added vinegar. Eur J Clin Nutr 1998 May;52(5):368-71.
  4. Liljeberg HG, Bjorck IM. Delayed gastric emptying rate as a potential mechanism for lowered glycemia after eating sourdough bread: studies in humans and rats using test products with added organic acids or an organic salt. Am J Clin Nutr 1996 Dec;64(6):886-93.
  5. Vuksan V, Sievenpiper JL, Koo VY, Francis T, Beljan-Zdravkovic U, Xu Z, Vidgen E. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) reduces postprandial glycemia in nondiabetic subjects and subjects with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Arch Intern Med 2000 Apr 10;160(7):1009-13.
  6. Koo VY, Vuksan V, Francis T. Effects of North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) on postprandial glycemia in healthy humans. FASEB 1998;12(4):A256.
  7. Hu SY. A contribution to our knowledge of ginseng. Am J Chin Med 1977 Spring;5(1):1-23.
  8. Goldstein B. Ginseng: its history, dispersion, and folk tradition. Am J Chin Med 1975 Jul;3(3):223-34.
  9. Salim KN, McEwen BS, Chao HM. Ginsenoside Rb1 regulates ChAT, NGF and trkA mRNA expression in the rat brain. Brain Res Mol Brain Res 1997 Jul;47(1-2):177-82.
  10. Benishin CG, Lee R, Wang LC, Liu HJ. Effects of ginsenoside Rb1 on central cholinergic metabolism. Pharmacology 1991;42(4):223-9.
  11. Kitts DD, Wijewickreme AN, Hu C. Antioxidant properties of a North American ginseng extract. Mol Cell Biochem 2000 Jan;203(1-2):1-10.
  12. Li JP, Huang M, Teoh H, Man RY. Interactions between Panax quinquefolium saponins and vitamin C are observed in vitro. Mol Cell Biochem 2000 Jan;204(1-2):77-82.
  13. Cui J, Chen KJ. American ginseng compound liquor on retarding-aging process. Chung Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1991 Aug;11(8):457-60, 451.
  14. Yoshikawa M, Murakami T, Yashiro K, Yamahara J, Matsuda H, Saijoh R, Tanaka O. Bioactive saponins and glycosides. XI. Structures of new dammarane-type triterpene oligoglycosides, quinquenosides I, II, III, IV, and V, from American ginseng, the roots of Panax quinquefolium L. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo) 1998 Apr;46(4):647-54.
  15. Yuan CS, Attele AS, Wu JA, Lowell TK, Gu Z, Lin Y. Panax quinquefolium L. inhibits thrombin-induced endothelin release in vitro. Am J Chin Med 1999;27(3-4):331-8.
  16. Duda RB, Zhong Y, Navas V, Li MZ, Toy BR, Alavarez JG. American ginseng and breast cancer therapeutic agents synergistically inhibit MCF-7 breast cancer cell growth. J Surg Oncol 1999 Dec;72(4):230-9.
  17. Murphy LL, Cadena RS, Chavez D, Ferraro JS. Effect of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) on male copulatory behavior in the rat. Physiol Behav 1998 Jun 15;64(4):445-50.

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