Soviet cosmonauts and Olympic athletes have used it; the German government endorses it. It’s said to improve stamina, performance, endurance, reflexes, and concentration. Siberian ginseng isn’t really a ginseng, but it’s a natural for boosting athletic performance, and it combats stress as well.
The root of the matter
The word ginseng is of Chinese origin and means “the essence of earth in the form of a man”. For Chinese medicinal plant diggers, the word seng refers to any nonwoody, fleshy rootstock (picture a carrot pulled fresh from the garden) used to make a medicinal tonic.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes only one true ginseng, known as either Panax ginseng or Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng). Both are members of the Araliaceae, or ginseng, family, which includes more than 800 species and is composed mostly of tropical trees, shrubs, and vines.
The plant known on the American market as Siberian ginseng is also a member of the Araliaceae family, but is a different genus than Panax (for more information about P. ginseng, see “Ginseng–Facts and Folklore” in the March/April 1997 issue of Herbs for Health). Siberian ginseng is actually Eleutherococcus senticosus, or eleuthero, a shrub that grows to about 9 feet tall in northeastern China, Korea, far eastern Russia, and the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. Eleuthero has a woody rootstock, so can’t be considered a seng-producing plant in the traditional Chinese sense. But it has played an important role in TCM for at least 2,000 years: its root bark has been used to create an herbal drug known as ci-wu-jia, which is used as a tonic and appetite enhancer and to relieve lower back and kidney pain, among other purposes.
Eleuthero became known as Siberian ginseng during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when extracts of its root were first marketed in the United States. Some contend that labeling this herb a ginseng was the result of a marketing campaign to capitalize on the emerging popularity of ginseng, rather than to provide an accurate description. Members of the American Herbal Products Association suggest that eleuthero is the more appropriate name. Nevertheless, the name Siberian ginseng has stuck.
Modern interest in Siberian ginseng as an herbal medicine stems from Russian studies during the 1950s and 1960s, when researchers developed it as an inexpensive substitute for true, or Panax, ginseng, which they believed possessed the ability to enhance athletic performance. They called this ability “adaptogenic”, a term coined in 1947 by a Russian scientist to describe substances that increase resistance to adverse influences. Adaptogens do so in nonspecific ways, modulating stress and improving performance under a wide variety of stressful conditions while causing little disruption to the body.
Most of the Russian studies on eleuthero’s adaptogenic properties used a 33 percent ethanol root extract (currently unavailable in the United States). Initial studies generally showed that those who took the extract demonstrated improvements in stamina, performance, endurance, reflexive action, and concentration. News of these results prompted more studies, and by 1962 the Soviet health ministry had accepted the extract as an official medicine.
The most comprehensive English-language review on eleuthero was published in 1985 by Dr. Norman Farnsworth and his colleagues at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The review was based primarily on Russian clinical studies published from 1960 to 1980. Studies involving healthy individuals included more than 2,000 people who were often exposed to stressful conditions (high heat, noise, motion, workload increase, and exercise) and used the 33 percent root extract at doses ranging from 2 to 16 ml taken one to three times daily for up to sixty consecutive days. Participants ranged in age from nineteen to seventy-two.
Among other things, the studies measured the effect of the extract on hearing during times of increased noise, on mental alertness, on work output and quality under stress-inducing conditions, and during athletic performance. Results were generally positive, with no reports of side effects.
The largest study included 1,000 adult men and women in a Soviet city with an average daily temperature of about 23°F. Study participants were factory workers involved in metallurgical work or mining. They took 4 ml of the extract daily for thirty-day periods five times in one year. The results, published in 1977, stated that the participants reported improvement in their performance (details weren’t included in the report), with a 40 percent reduction in lost work days and a 50 percent reduction in general illness. The individuals involved in these studies were generally described as normal or healthy, but they had very stressful jobs, such as working in mountain and mine rescue units or as deep-sea divers, sailors in tropical seas, telegraph operators, airplane pilots, and proofreaders.
Also during the 1960s and 1970s, at least thirty-five clinical studies were conducted to determine whether the eleuthero extract could help patients suffering from neuroses, artheriosclerosis, diabetes, hypertension, hypotension, chronic bronchitis, cancer, acute head trauma, rheumatic heart disease, and other ailments. Participants in these studies took from 0.5 to 6 ml one to three times daily for periods of thirty-five days. Patients showed measurable improvement with few side effects.
Although the studies of the 1960s and 1970s in the former Soviet Union involved thousands of people, it’s difficult to assess the quality of the research because the Russian journals aren’t easy to find or translate. However, the research must have proved convincing because by 1976, it was estimated that three million Soviet citizens were using the extract on a regular basis, including Soviet cosmonauts orbiting the earth.
Soviets have attributed the outstanding performance of their athletes at the 1980 Olympics to the athletes’ use of eleuthero. Russian researchers have identified at least fourteen compounds called eleutherosides that contribute to the herb’s effectiveness. One, eleutheroside E, may play a large role in the herb’s stimulating and antistress action. Additionally, eleuthero has so far appeared to be as useful as, or perhaps stronger than, echinacea as an immuno-stimulating agent in pharmacological tests comparing the effects of the two herbs.
American skepticism,European endorsement
Farnsworth and colleagues concluded that the eleuthero extract is nontoxic, based on extensive animal testing, clinical trials, and human experience. Although it is unknown how the herb works, they also concluded that eleuthero improves performance under a wide range of stressful conditions, and that the extract can modulate or inhibit various disease conditions in nonspecific, or adaptogenic, ways.
Members of the Western scientific community generally agree that eleuthero is safe for human consumption, but some discount the Russian studies for containing incomplete data and lacking adequate controls. Nevertheless, the volume of data has convinced many of eleuthero’s value, including the German government. It allows eleuthero to be used as a tonic for invigoration and fortification during times of fatigue and debility; for declining work capacity and concentration; and to help speed convalescence. The German government endorses a daily dose of 1 g of the powdered root for up to three months, with a repeated course if necessary.
Steven Foster, a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board, is an herbalist, writer, and photographer who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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