Before You Jump on the Ginseng Bandwagon, Be Sure You Know Its Benefits—and Side Effects

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Adaptogens have recently become the buzziest thing in mainstream wellness, but in Chinese and Ayurvedic cultures, their health benefits have been touted for centuries. Take ginseng. It's long been used in Eastern medicine, but Western science has only recently started looking into its benefits by comparison.

As more people around the world start working with the plant, it's important to understand both how it can boost your health, as well as its side effects, says Dana Nahai, RDN. First of all, when speaking about ginseng, Nahai notes that we're talking about a specific Panax variety, which is native to China, Korea, and North America. "It’s bitter on the palate, and the pharmacological effect is far more potent when used as a tea, tincture, or powder than when infused, fried, or eaten raw," she says.

And when you're looking for the herb, "quality and bioavailability count for everything," she explains, adding that you should do your research on the herb or supplement before you buy it. The registered dietitian nutritionist advises buying the whole root intact.

Read all about ginseng's supercharged benefits below.

1. It combats inflammation

"Ginsenosides, the class of plant that ginseng belongs to, may have anti-inflammatory effects, according to experimental results in Journal of Translational Medicine," Nahai says. The research suggests that these ginsenosides target immune system pathways that ultimately combat inflammation.

2. It's a potentially natural stimulant for focus and attention

"Ginseng acts as a natural stimulant and is prized for its effect on focus and attention; think of it as our earliest pharmacological treatment for ADHD" Nahai says. Although it's traditionally been revered this way, recent studies have found mixed results. One study, however, discovered that ginseng did have a positive effect on children with ADHD and another study found that it also has a positive impact on Alzheimer's.

3. It could improve sex drive in both women and men

"Like the sarsaparilla used to make old world root beer, ginseng contains compounds similar to cortisone. These materials stimulate the adrenal cortex, promoting the production of sex hormones, and making ginseng a centuries-long favorite for improving sex drive" Nahai says. Studies suggest that ginseng improves the sex drive in premenopausal women and can help men with erectile dysfunction. Researches aren't certain how ginseng affects sexual dysfunction, though.

4. It could prevent and alleviate side effects of cancer.

Nuhai says, "Research has linked a positive association of ginseng use in breast cancer survivors. Findings have shown that patients who used ginseng prior to cancer treatment had a higher rate of survival, with use after treatment increasing quality of life." Other studies have found that the fatigue associated with cancer treatment was lessened through the use of ginseng.

5. It can be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes

"Another study has linked ginseng supplementation with improved blood sugar control in type 2 diabetics," Nahai says. The studies found that when diabetics took ginseng while consuming sugar, they saw less of a relative increase in their blood sugar level. Another study found that ginseng was able to make people more responsive to insulin, another important part of alleviating diabetes since insulin resistance is one of the biggest issues.

6. It helps prevent and combat the flu

Since we're in the thick of flu season, you're going to want to stock up on ginseng. Numerous studies have found that it's effective in preventing the onslaught of certain strains of the flu.

But there are also potential side effects.

"Though considered safe, ginseng needs to be thought of as any compound with pharmacological effect: The poison is in the dose," Nahai says, advocating moderation. "Ginseng is meant to be used as a supplement; an occasional additive, not a part of your daily dietary routine."

Taking too much of the adaptogen has been linked to everything from headaches to digestive issues, sleep problems, high blood pressure, dizziness, heart palpitations, and more. Nahai says that people with high blood pressure or heart conditions should especially avoid ginseng.

Its environmental impact is something else to consider. And as is the case with any supplement, you should consult your doctor before adding it to your regimen.

If you are introducing adaptogens into your life, here are healthy snack recipes and a hot chocolate recipe to get you through the winter.

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