American Ginseng Can Help Protect Even Nondiabetics from High Glucose Levels Controlling Your Glucose May Help Slow the Aging Process

sign in the local U.S. post office proclaims that 16 million Americans have diabetes - a disease in which blood glucose levels are inadequately regulated - and that 5.4 million of them don't even know it. The message is clear: although diabetes is a very serious disease, people tend to disregard it until its horrendous consequences begin to catch up with them and compel them to take action.


Even outwardly healthy,
nondiabetic individuals have
much to gain by controlling their
blood glucose levels.

There are two distinct types of diabetes: type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% of the cases, usually occurs later in life and is appropriately called age-onset diabetes. Type 1, or juvenile-onset, diabetes arises in younger people (even children) whose bodies can no long produce insulin, the hormone whose function is to regulate blood glucose levels. As a result, type 1 diabetics must take insulin regularly, typically by injection. Type 2 diabetics still produce insulin, but their bodies becomes less sensitive to it, so their blood glucose levels are no longer regulated appropriately.

The onset of type 2 diabetes is usually related to age or lifestyle.1,2 Put simply, the older you get, the more likely you are to get diabetes. Long-term studies indicate that 10% of persons over the age of 60 have diabetes, while 16-20% of those over 80 are afflicted.3 Lack of exercise and being overweight increase the chances of developing diabetes even more dramatically. Obesity, in fact, is widely regarded as the leading cause of diabetes.

Why Is High Blood Glucose Dangerous?
The consequences of hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) may take years to become apparent. Complications of diabetes are typically the result of changes to the vascular system (arteries, veins, and capillaries) that result in uneven thickening of the vessel walls. Many years of high glucose levels induce small changes to the vessels that restrict blood flow to some especially sensitive tissues, such as the eyes, the nervous system, and the kidneys. As a result, these tissues may become poorly nourished by the bloodstream and start to die. This explains why loss of vision, numbness of limbs, and kidney disease are common in patients with advanced stages of diabetes.

Another consequence of hyperglycemia is the enhanced formation of deleterious chemical compounds called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs for short, in many tissues of the body. These are complex molecules formed by chemical reactions between sugars and proteins, and they are believed to be associated with the aging process. Keeping the blood glucose concentration under control is the best way to inhibit the formation of AGEs.

Since obesity is treatable in most cases, mainly through diet and exercise, it is within the power of most people to prevent diabetes. Sadly, however, many people don't follow these life-saving practices and suffer a variety of long-term health problems as a result. Complications arising from diabetes are the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, and they also lead to kidney disease and cardiovascular disease in many patients.

 

American ginseng

DIABETES IS A MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEM
Although diabetes and insulin have been familiar terms in our everyday vocabulary for a very long time, we should not allow ourselves to become blasé about the disease. A few simple facts should help to drive this point home:

  • Diabetes is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States
  • About 1 in every 18 Americans has diabetes
  • Diabetes costs us as a society about 100 billion dollars every year4

Currently there is no fully effective treatment for diabetes or the long-term complications that may arise from it. Recent research indicates, however, that American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) may be an effective means by which to control blood glucose levels, which is the primary goal of antidiabetic therapy. As this article will show, however, even outwardly healthy, nondiabetic individuals have much to gain by controlling their blood glucose levels.

REGULATING BLOOD GLUCOSE LEVELS IS VITAL
Carbohydrates and, to a very small degree, proteins are converted to glucose (a simple sugar molecule) by the digestive system or the liver. This is an important process because every tissue and cell in the body requires glucose as an energy source. Once the foods that we eat have been converted to glucose (as well as a variety of other compounds), our arteries and capillaries transport these nutrients to every cell in the body.

To understand this process better, let's consider how a simple food such as bread is converted to a usable energy source. Bread is rich in carbohydrates in the form of starch (also called amylose). Starch is a polysaccharide, which means that it is composed of numerous monosaccharides (individual sugar molecules - in this case, glucose) linked in a long chain. The digestive system breaks this chain down into individual glucose molecules that it then releases into the bloodstream. (Glucose from starch is the primary source of food energy in plants as well as animals, by the way.)

Glucose present in the blood is available to any cell that needs energy, such as a brain cell or a muscle cell in the heart or leg. Not all the foods that you eat release their glucose into the bloodstream at the same rate, however. Thus different foods have dramatically different impacts on blood glucose levels.

Additional Benefits of American Ginseng
The Toronto researchers cite literature describing a number of experiments with rats - those small, surrogate humans - that have shown a variety of benefits of American ginseng beyond glycemic control.1 They could find no evidence of clinical trials with actual people, but it is intriguing to speculate that there might be similar effects. Only time and research will tell. Here are the effects of American ginseng observed in rats:

  • Enhances sex drive
  • Improves memory and learning
  • Decreases aging
  • Regulates digestion
  • Protects liver function
  1. Vuksan V, Sievenpiper JL, Koo VY, et al. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) reduces postprandial glycemia in nondiabetic subjects and subjects with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Arch Intern Med 2000;160:1009-13.

Foods are assigned a glycemic index (GI) value based on how they behave in this regard. As a reference standard, a solution of pure glucose (which is absorbed by the digestive system very quickly because it needs no digestion) is given a value of 100. Foods with a high GI value (between 70 and 100) release glucose into the bloodstream very quickly (less than an hour after being consumed), causing a potentially unhealthy "spike" in blood glucose levels. Foods with a low GI (less than 55) release it more slowly, with more of a "bump" than a spike. Representative examples are shown in Table 1.

Our bodies prefer to maintain a fairly constant level of glucose in the blood - between 70 and 140 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). This is accomplished by releasing insulin from the pancreas into the blood when high glucose levels are detected. The insulin tells our cells (such as muscle, fat, or liver cells) to take more glucose from the blood so as to lower the blood glucose level. A deficiency in this critical regulatory system can be life-threatening (see the sidebar "Why Is High Blood Glucose Dangerous?").

EVEN NONDIABETICS MAY HAVE HIGH BLOOD GLUCOSE LEVELS
A recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that certain segments of the nondiabetic population are at greater risk of developing diabetes than others.6 The study examined 1342 men and women in Holland, aged 50-75, and followed them for over six years to determine whether they developed diabetes. Although none of the subjects had the disease at the outset, some of them did exhibit above-normal blood glucose levels under certain conditions.

For example, 106 individuals had impaired fasting glucose (IFG), meaning that their glucose levels were abnormally high after an overnight fast; they had normal glucose tolerance, however, meaning that their glucose levels were within the range normally seen after consuming a standardized dose of pure glucose (called a "glucose challenge"). On the other hand, 80 individuals had the opposite combination of conditions: normal fasting glucose levels, but impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), meaning that their glucose levels were beyond the range normally seen after a glucose challenge. If either or both of these glucose abnormalities was present (31 of the subjects had both IFG and IGT), the risk of developing diabetes rose dramatically.

Important Note Regarding Ginseng
There are many types of ginseng, such as American, Asian, Korean, and Siberian. While all of these herbs are believed to have beneficial health effects, only the botanically distinct American variety, Panax quinquefolius, has been investigated for glycemic control. All the data discussed in this article refer to the beneficial effects of American ginseng, not ginseng in general.

The 1125 completely normal individuals (those with both normal fasting glucose and normal glucose tolerance) had a 4.5% chance of developing diabetes by the end of the study. In sharp contrast, the risk for the 106 subjects with IFG was 33.0%, and the risk for the 80 with IGT was 33.8%. And in the 31 with both IFG and IGT, the risk soared to 64.5%! It is clear from this study that nondiabetics whose blood glucose levels are inadequately regulated are at great risk of getting the disease.

 

More exercise
typically results in improved
glycemic control.

HOW TO REGULATE BLOOD GLUCOSE LEVELS
The foods that you eat have a huge impact on your blood glucose levels. Foods high in protein, fat, or fiber typically have a low GI value and release glucose into the blood at a slow, steady rate. The glucose level thus remains fairly constant, and the pancreas doesn't need to release much insulin to maintain that condition. Other foods, including highly processed foods and many starchy foods that are easily digested, are quickly absorbed by the bloodstream. As a result, the glucose level spikes, and more insulin is required to bring it back to normal. The higher the glucose spike, the more insulin the body releases to counteract it.

On a cautionary note, you should realize that too high a level of insulin can also be harmful, as it may cause cells to remove too much glucose from the blood, leaving the blood deprived of the amounts needed to nourish the cells at a more or less constant rate, as they require. This dangerous condition, called hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), can cause serious tissue damage, especially in the brain and other vital organs. If it is not quickly corrected, it can lead to coma and death.

Some diabetics are able to control their blood glucose levels by changing their diet and exercise habits. For example, increased physical activity typically results in improved glycemic control for diabetic individuals.7 Exercise likely makes muscle and fat cells more responsive to insulin, so they remove glucose from the bloodstream more quickly to prevent glucose spikes.

Many people have found success in controlling diabetes by altering their diet to include a greater percentage of low-GI foods (including starchy foods with low GI values). And by decreasing the amount of food eaten at a single meal, the total amount of glucose entering the blood is reduced. This is why eating many small meals throughout the day is beneficial: it helps to prevent blood glucose levels from exceeding the desired range. You can still eat the same number of calories using this approach - they're just spread out over more meals.

AMERICAN GINSENG IS EFFECTIVE
Is there anything else one can do to help control blood glucose levels? Indeed there is. Dr. Vladimir Vuksan and his research group at the University of Toronto have conducted a series of studies to determine whether American ginseng is beneficial in controlling blood glucose - in normal individuals as well as in patients with type 2 diabetes. Their results indicate that a powdered extract of American ginseng has a significant impact on blood glucose levels if taken at an appropriate time before a glucose challenge, which is administered to each participant as a drink. The subjects' baseline glucose levels are measured before the drink is taken and are then monitored periodically for several hours. (The real-life equivalent of a glucose challenge is a high-GI meal.)

This series of studies was conducted with a total of 51 subjects (19 diabetics, average age 63, and 32 nondiabetics, average age 39). The researchers found that American ginseng was effective in both groups, lowering blood glucose levels by 18-22%. They discovered, however, that the effect differed in one significant way between the two groups. Diabetics saw the effect whether they took American ginseng 40 minutes before the glucose drink or at the same time as the drink, whereas nondiabetics benefited only if the herb was taken 40 minutes before the drink.8,9 In addition, American ginseng was found to improve the blood glucose response in nondiabetic patients with normal glucose tolerance.10

Together, these studies also demonstrated that doses of 1, 2, or 3 grams of American ginseng powder were equally effective in a variety of patients. Additional studies demonstrated that higher doses, even up to 9 grams, did not further reduce blood glucose levels in diabetics11 or in individuals with normal glucose levels10 to any significant degree. The researchers concluded that doses between 1 and 3 grams appeared to offer optimal glycemic control in all the study participants.

It is not clear exactly how American ginseng moderates blood glucose levels, although several possibilities have been suggested. For example, the herb may slow the digestion of food, increase the uptake of glucose by muscle and fat cells, or stimulate the secretion of insulin. All of these potential mechanisms would have the same result - to decrease the level of glucose circulating in the blood after a meal.

The reports of these studies have appeared in a number of medical and nutritional journals and clearly indicate that American ginseng may be an effective means by which to lower the glycemic response to foods. Further, they suggest that this herb may not only work for individuals with type 2 diabetes, it may also act as a preventive measure for people at risk for this disease who don't yet exhibit clearly defined clinical symptoms.

DON'T BECOME A STATISTIC
If you have diabetes, or suspect that you may be at risk for it, the scientific results described above should cause you to take heart. And perhaps they should cause you to take a nutritional supplement containing American ginseng. But even if you are not predisposed to diabetes, controlling your blood glucose levels can help you reduce your risk and inhibit the production of those damaging AGE compounds in your body.*


*For more information on this subject, see the sidebar on glucose levels, and articles in the July 2000, August 2000, and March 2001 issues of Life Enhancement. And for a comprehensive overview of the glycemic index, with GI values for hundreds of foods, see the book The Glucose Revolution,.


Now, in addition to improving your diet and getting more exercise, you can enlist American ginseng in your efforts to combat the very real threat of diabetes. Remember, the statistics show that one in eighteen Americans has this disease, but the odds grow much worse as you age, and by the time you are 60, you have a 10% chance of having it. Those are daunting odds, but you should also remember that you can beat them if you use your head. So use your head, and don't become a statistic.

References

  1. Mehnert H. Diabetes mellitus as a clinical model of the process of aging. Eur J Med Res 1997 Oct 30;2(10):441-4.
  2. Ulrich P, Cerami A. Protein glycation, diabetes, and aging. Recent Prog Horm Res 2001;56:1-21.
  3. Lipson LG. Diabetes in the elderly: diagnosis, pathogenesis, and therapy. Am J Med 1986;805:10-21.
  4. American Diabetes Association. Economic consequences of diabetes mellitus in the U.S. in 1997. Diabetes Care 1998;21:269-309.
  5. Brand-Miller J, Wolever TMS, Colagiuri S, Foster-Powell K. The Glucose Revolution. Marlow & Co., New York, 1999.
  6. de Vegt F, Dekker JM, Jager A, et al. Relation of impaired fasting and postload glucose with incident type 2 diabetes in a Dutch population.The Hoorn Study. JAMA 2001;285:2109-13.
  7. Mosher PE, Nash MS, Perry AC, LaPerriere AR, Goldberg RB. Aerobic circuit exercise training: effect on adolescents with well-controlled insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1998;79:652-7.
  8. Vuksan V, Sievenpiper JL, Koo VY, et al. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) reduces postprandial glycemia in nondiabetic subjects and subjects with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Arch Intern Med 2000;160:1009-13.
  9. Vuksan V, Sievenpiper JL, Wong J, et al. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) attenuates postprandial glycemia in a time-dependent but not dose-dependent manner in healthy individuals. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;73:753-8.
  10. Vuksan V, Stavro MP, Sievenpiper JL, et al. American ginseng improves glycemia in individuals with normal glucose tolerance: effect of dose and time escalation. J Am Coll Nutr 2000;19:738-44.
  11. Vuksan V, Stavro MP, Sievenpiper JL, et al. Similar postprandial glycemic reductions with escalation of dose and administration time of American ginseng in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2000;23:1221-6.

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