American Ginseng and Adult-Onset Diabetes
The Glucose-Reducing Properties of Ginseng Can Help Control Excessive Levels

Herbal products are becoming ever more popular with American consumers for maintaining and optimizing their health. There are several reasons for this trend, including:

  • The low cost of herbals compared with prescription drugs
  • A growing awareness of herbals' efficacy, which often rivals or even exceeds that of drugs
  • The high degree of safety of most herbal supplements, which typically have low or no toxicity and few or no side effects (in dramatic contrast with most drugs)
  • The increasing level of quality and consistency of herbal extracts, thanks to improved production and testing methods
  • The increasing acceptance of herbals by an American medical establishment that has traditionally been skeptical and even hostile to the idea of using such remedies

The last point is important because it signals a growing willingness of American doctors not only to open their minds to the value of healing practices in ancient cultures of the Far East, such as China and India, but also to begin to embrace the scientific ecumenism of some of Western society's most advanced nations, such as Germany, where herbal remedies are routinely prescribed by physicians as a major part of mainstream medical practice.

As recent evidence of the American medical community's growing interest in herbal products for the treatment of disease, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto's medical faculty and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto conducted a study of the effects of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) in the treatment of one of our most prevalent - yet largely preventable - diseases, adult-onset diabetes.1 (OK, Toronto is technically in Canada, but that's pretty close to the United States, isn't it?)

In an earlier study, the authors had demonstrated that administration of 3 grams of American ginseng either with, or 40 minutes before, a 25-gram oral glucose challenge significantly reduced the blood glucose levels in patients with adult-onset diabetes.2 (A glucose challenge is simply a dose of glucose given for the purpose of observing its results on blood glucose levels - also called blood sugar levels - either with or without the administration of some other agent.) The new study is described later in this article.

In humans, blood glucose levels typically rise after a meal - sometimes very sharply, to potentially unhealthy levels, especially if foods with a high glycemic index* were consumed - and decline to normal within about two to three hours. The levels tend to be lowest in the morning, after our overnight "fast," before we break it by eating . . . breakfast. Throughout the day (and night), our glucose levels are regulated by the pancreatic hormone insulin. If this feedback control system goes awry, the result is diabetes, a very serious disease with countless potential complications. It is a leading cause of kidney failure and blindness and is a gateway to many other afflictions, including heart attacks and strokes, which are about two to four times as likely to occur in diabetics as in nondiabetics.

* For authoritative information on the important subject of the glycemic index and how you can use it to optimize your diet in terms of blood glucose levels, see the book The Glucose Revolution by Jennie Brand-Miller et al.

Diabetes is the name for any of a complex group of hormonal disorders that are typically characterized by excessive thirst and urination. In fact, the word comes, via a tortured etymology, from the Greek words for "standing with feet apart" and "siphon," and diab et es was used by the Greeks as the name for a disease involving the discharge of excessive amounts of urine. The cause of this symptom is high blood glucose concentrations, which the body tries to dilute by drawing water from the tissues into the bloodstream. The kidneys sense this extra water and extract it as urine, which is eliminated in large quantities. This leads to dehydration, which intensifies thirst, and the cycle continues.

The most common form of diabetes is diabetes mellitus (melli tus means honey-sweet in Latin), a disorder in which blood glucose levels are abnormally high, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to control it or because the body's cells (all of which need glucose as an energy source) have developed a resistance to insulin. There are two main kinds of diabetes mellitus.

Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile-onset or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a severe, chronic, nonpreventable condition caused by insufficient production of insulin and resulting in the abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It is characterized by increased levels of glucose in the blood and urine, acidosis (an increased acidity of the bodily fluids), and wasting, along with excessive thirst and urination.

Type 2 diabetes, also called adult-onset or non-insulin-dependent diabetes (a misnomer, because insulin is often used in treating it), is a largely preventable and much more benign form of the disease - although if left untreated, it can cause severe damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. It often has no overt symptoms and is diagnosed by tests that indicate glucose intolerance. It is exacerbated by obesity and sloth, and the usual treatment consists of appropriate dietary measures and exercise, which would probably have prevented it in the first place. Sometimes drugs are used as well.

The onset of type 2 diabetes usually occurs in people over 40. The disease afflicts about 14 million Americans, about half of whom are unaware that they have it, and it is three times more common today than it was 40 years ago, presumably because of our increasingly sedentary, high-caloric lifestyle.

A third kind of diabetes mellitus, similar to type 2 (but not called type 3), is gestational diabetes, a temporary condition that can afflict pregnant women, especially older ones. Although it usually ends after delivery, it predisposes women who have it to acquire type 2 diabetes later on.

In addition to, or instead of, drugs (along with diet and exercise), there is growing use of herbal supplements in treating diabetes. It is always best to do this with the advice of a physician, as diabetes can be a difficult disease to manage.

One of the most commonly used herbs for the treatment of type 2 diabetes is American ginseng, which has traditionally been considered to be a tonic - a substance that restores or increases body tone and promotes a sense of well-being. Its use in diabetes derives from its hypoglycemic effect (its ability to lower blood glucose levels), which has been established in both animal and human studies. Which brings us back to the Toronto researchers and their latest study.

The participants in this study were ten type-2 diabetic patients (six men and four women) who had had diabetes for anywhere from 2 to 12 years (median 6.5 years). Seven were being treated with antidiabetic drugs, and three with diet alone. They were aged 63 ± 2 years, with a body mass index of 27.7 ± 1.5. Body mass index is an objective measure of obesity and is thus also a rough predictor of general health and life expectancy. The value 27.7 is within the range considered overweight (a moderate threat to health and longevity), but not obese (a serious threat).

The objectives of the study were to determine whether progressively higher doses of American ginseng (AG) would produce progressively lower postprandial glucose levels (i.e., the levels after the glucose challenge), and whether progressively earlier administration of the AG before the glucose challenge would affect the outcomes. To be able to observe the combined effect of the AG dose and its lead time, each patient in the study received each of three doses of AG (3, 6, and 9 grams) at each of four lead times (0, 40, 80, and 120 minutes) before the glucose challenge, which was a 25-gram dose administered orally. A fourth "dose" of AG - 0 gram - constituted the placebo, which was actually a corn-flour preparation made to look just like AG and tailored to approximate closely the caloric and carbohydrate content of the real AG capsules.

Thus, each patient was tested 16 different times (four doses, four lead times), at three-day intervals, following a randomly selected pattern. In accordance with World Health Organization guidelines for the administration of glucose tolerance tests, the trial was conducted on a single-blind basis, in which the patients did not know whether they were receiving AG or placebo, but the researchers did.

At the start of each test, the patient took his or her regular diabetes medications, if any. Then a blood sample was taken, a dose of AG or placebo was given at the same time, and the patient waited for the duration of the scheduled lead time before administration of the glucose challenge - at which time another blood sample was taken. This was followed by six more blood samples taken at 15, 30, 45, 60, 90, and 120 minutes. In this way, 2-hour profiles of postprandial blood glucose were built up, representing the different dosages of AG taken at the different lead times. The patients reported no side effects of any kind.

The results were gratifying. The American ginseng again showed a clear benefit, reducing total postprandial blood glucose by about 15-20% over the 2-hour trial period. There was no significant effect of the dosage used - all three dosages produced similar results - nor was there any significant effect of the lead time. Thus, a 3-gram dose of AG, taken 2 hours before the glucose challenge (meaning a meal, in real life) is just as effective as a much higher dose with a much shorter lead time.

These results have established apparently solid answers to valid questions, which is what research is all about. The answer to your questions about dietary glucose control, whether you’re diabetic or not, may well be found in American ginseng. By controlling glucose levels, it may be possible to resist one of the significant ways in which nature tries to age us.


  1. Vuksan V, Stavro MP, Sievenpiper JL, Beljan-Zdravkovic U, Leiter LA, Josse RG, Xu Z. Similar postprandial glycemic reductions with escalation of dose and administration time of American ginseng in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2000 Sep;23(9):1221-6.
  2. Vuksan V, Sievenpiper JL, Koo VYY, Francis T, Beljan-Zdravkovic U, Xu Z, Vidgen E. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L) reduces postprandial glycemia in nondiabetic and diabetic individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Arch Int Med 2000;160:1009-13.

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