Ginseng for Longevity?

Ginseng is the oldest traditional longevity tonic, with a history going back 4,000 years (though I know of no one individual who has been taking continuously over this time period).  According to the Doctrine of Signatures, the shape of the root, reminiscent of human form, is a sign from the gods that it is a tonic meant for you and me.  The Chinese word 人参 means “human root”.  The Latin genus Panax is derived from the name of the goddess Panacea  (Πανάκεια, pronounced PON-ay-kyah, with a hard ‘c’), daughter of Asclepius, who cured every disease.  Marco Polo brought ginseng to Europe in the 13th Century, and Thomas Jefferson grew ginseng in his herb garden at Monticello.

In traditional Chinese medicine, which has been blended with Western knowledge and continues to be practiced widely throughout the East, ginseng is prescribed as a tonic for stress and fatigue.  But despite the abundance of Chinese literature beginning in the first century AD describing the use and benefits of ginseng, they contain surprisingly few double-blind case-controlled studies.  This deficiency began to be addressed only in the latter part of the twentieth century.

In scientific studies that meet modern Western standards, ginseng has been found effective for combatting feelings of fatigue [ref], reducing the frequency of winter colds [ref], improving cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients [ref], reducing cancer risk [ref, ref], and treating erectile dysfunction [ref].  Ginseng has also been used by cancer patients to mitigate DNA damage from radiation therapy [ref]. But life extension?  There is one small study in humans suggesting that ginseng lowers overall mortality in men and cancer risk in women.  (It is difficult to interpret the study’s finding that ginseng failed to lower cancer mortality in men, or overall mortality in women. This is a reminder that long-term human epidemiology is a difficult discipline, full of subtleties about correlated behaviors, and ambiguities about causality.  In the present case, the smoking rates differed between men and women.) I have found only two studies that asked whether ginseng might increase life span in mice, and both were negative [1979, 2014].  (Perhaps the take-home message is that if the gods had intended ginseng for mice, the root would be shaped like a mouse.)

Related to longevity, there is good support for cancer prevention, but the best-established benefit of ginseng is for insulin sensitivity.  This is nothing to sneeze at.  As we get older, we all develop insulin tolerance, and the body pours out more and more insulin to compensate.  What would be considered diabetes in a young person is considered “normal aging” in a 60-year-old.  This proto-diabetes contributes to cancer, heart disease, and all the other maladies of old age.  Can ginseng help?

A 2005 study found that rats fed a high-fructose diet developed insulin resistance more slowly when ginseng was added to their diets.  Last week, it was reported that ginseng improves insulin sensitivity and decreases weight gain in mice on a high-fat diet.   A Canadian study (2000) found that ginseng could dampen the blood sugar spike following a meal of pure sugar…and there are many studies in the same vein, for animals an humans.

The standard (Western) treatment for high blood sugar is metformin, which is a life extension drug in rodents, and probably in people.  How does ginseng compare to metformin?  The good news is that ginseng acts in a way complementary to metformin, so their benefits add, or possibly synergize.  Metformin decreases the chemical production of sugar in the liver.  Ginseng pulls sugar out of the blood and burns it.  Both increase insulin sensitivy.

In addition to suppressing hepatic glucose production, metformin increases insulin sensitivity, enhances peripheral glucose uptake (by inducing the phosphorylation of GLUT4 enhancer factor), decreases insulin-induced suppression of fatty acid oxidation, and decreases absorption of glucose from the gastrointestinal tract. [Wikipedia]

One mechanism of ginseng’s anti-diabetic action involves the mitochondrial metabolism.  Mitochondria are the part of the cell that turn sugar (fuel) into the form of energy the cell can use (ATP).  Several studies have confirmed that ginseng improves the mitochondria’s efficiency in creating ATP [for example].

In a Korean study published in English [2007], metformin and a metabolite of ginseng were compared directly in their effect on mouse sugar/insulin metabolism.  Benefits were found to be best for metformin and the ginseng metabolite taken together.

Ginseng&Metform

Another Korean study [2008] used mice that were genetically modified to give them diabetes.  Those treated with 100mg/kg of ginseng for 10 weeks had reductions in fasting glucose that were about ⅓ as great as those treated with 300mg/kg of metformin.

Both ginseng and metformin contribute modestly to weight loss.  Serious side-effects from metformin are rare, but ginseng is considered even safer.

These two reviews [2003, 2011] point out that the data is thin and sample size small compared to standard pharmaceutical studies.  Yes, larger studies with better controls are warranted for ginseng, both in rodents and in people.  But who will fund studies of a 4,000-year-old herb that grows widely in the wild and cannot be patented?  All too frequently, capitalism and medical care proves to be a dysfunctional combination.  Most modern pharmaceutical products had their origins in traditional herbal medicine, and it is a crime against humanity that patent law and profit motives are holding back the scientific exploration of therapeutical potential of thousands of traditional herbs.

 

The Bottom Line

The insulin metabolism is a natural modifier of the rate of aging, worth a few years of added life.  It is the easiest and best-studied means that we have to affect our own longevity.  Low calorie diets, intermittent fasting, low-carb diets, and exercise all work through the insulin metabolism to increase life expectancy.  Metformin and ginseng are supplemental ways we can address our own aging through the insulin pathway.  (Traditional Chinese medicine says that ginseng should not be taken daily for more than a few weeks without a break.)

As we age, we are all losing insulin sensitivity.  Everything we do to keep insulin sensitivity up is helpful, but we know that this pathway can saturate, so we don’t expect additive benefits from supplements and dietary changes.  In this context, the suggestion that metformin and ginseng may synergize is very promising.

Both metformin and ginseng are likely to be more effective for people who are overweight or have high blood sugar.  For people who exercise a great deal and are already trim, the benefits may be small–unless you’re interested in having more energy, better mental focus, fewer colds and enhanced libido.

7 thoughts on “Ginseng for Longevity?

  1. “unless you’re interested in having more energy, better mental focus, fewer colds and enhanced libido.”

    Maybe you should open a supplements store Josh ;-). Just joking, I would have never guessed that Ginseng is a life extension food.

    You are talking about large trials and studies but wouldn’t it be better if someone took the time to dissect the Ginseng and found out what exact chemical causes the benefits?

    This way we might learn something new, improve on it and the capitalists would be interested in funding it because it’s patentable.

  2. Josh,

    if I remember is important the type of ginseng, there are many differences between them. American Gingseng could be as good or better for insulin metabolism and cheaper.

    Best.

    • The studies I cited were for Korean ginseng = red ginseng. There’s a closely-related American plant and a more distantly related Siberian plant. I believe that Chinese ginseng is the same species grown in a different place.

  3. Happy New Year Josh,

    Reading this article reminds me that drugs and supplements can only treat the symptoms of the disease.
    I like almost everyone else, will of course continue to treat the symptoms of aging as best I can, whilst waiting for the “cure”. The average life expectancy for a man my age (58) is about 84 years at the moment, anything I can do to extend it by taking supplements such as Ginseng is money well spent.
    If exercise, supplements and drugs can get me to 115-120 years, that’s all I could hope for or optomistically expect; it’s not what I want, but at the moment it’s all we’ve got.
    Which reminds me, how did the plasma exchange experiment go? Personally I don’t think a single injection/ transfusion could do the job but I’m just a layman.
    Have a great new year

    Mike

  4. I apologize for my English.
    We have to be careful when comparing only the final effect of a drug on a herbs. The cumulative effects and safety for years of used are not known for Metformin, some for Ginseng http://www.itmonline.org/arts/ginseng.htm
    Moreover, Pharmacokinetics is not the same and the pharmacodynamics should be studied more in detail for both substances, if we take them for a certain time.
    For example is very interesting and controversial this work for Metformin: http://omicsonline.org/open-access/modelling-the-absorption-of-metformin-with-patients-post-gastric-bypass-surgery-2155-6156.1000353.pdf and Clinical Pharmacokinetics of Metformin Garry G. Graham, Jeroen Punt et to the. 2011.
    Ginseng have other details to consider and related interactions detailed in: Ginsenoside Re: Its chemistry, metabolism and pharmacokinetics Dacheng Peng, Huashan Wang et al http://www.cmjournal.org/content/pdf/1749-8546-7-2.pdf or Pharmacokinetic comparison of ginsenoside fermented and non-fermented Hui Jin et al the http://www.gs15-4.org/Kyung_Hee_Absorption_Published_Paper.pdf or, Metabolism of Ginseng and its Interactions with Drugs Lian-Wen Qi et to the. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291795/
    If I should choose a substance to take a prolonged time for problems with Acute liver failure (ALF), I would suggest taking the substance that has more test for compatibilities and testing human as well as the positive results: Ginsenosides Rg1 from Panax ginseng: A Potential Therapy for Acute Liver Failure Patients? Zhao J, et at the. 2014 http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/538059/
    An inspiring question, when will some input on He Shou Wu, Reishi, Cordiceps or Jiaogulan? are very interesting products.
    I clarify that I do not sell supplements, nor offer health tips. My work is a specialist in computer science.
    (The Eleutherococcus senticosus or Siberian ginseng is less potent but good what Ginseng red http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/siberian-ginseng)
    Very thanks for you work!, Angel, Argentina

    • Angel –
      I appreciate all your research and suggested readings. Of the 4 herbs you mention at the end, I know only of Reishi, and I have come to suspect that Reishi is good for the immune system, both in the short term and the long term.
      Can you tell me what interests you about He shou wu, cordiceps and jiaogulan?
      – Josh

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