From energy drinks to traditional medicine, it feels like you can’t go anywhere these days without running into ginseng. Some claim it’s an antioxidant powerhouse. Others will tell you it can do everything from improving brain function to regulating blood sugar.

Various species of ginseng have been used for thousands of years across different nations and cultures. It’s treasured for its healing properties, but it can be hard to separate the myths from the facts.

We sat down with California-based dietitian Lori Zanini to talk about what ginseng can and can’t do, how and if you should integrate it into your diet, and the best ways to harness its power.

Find out why thiamine is an essential nutrient »

First, let’s talk about what ginseng isn’t: a miracle drug, a cure-all, or a one-size-fits-all remedy.

Some claim that it can reduce stress, alleviate erectile dysfunction, ward off dementia, strengthen the immune system, prevent cold or flu, reduce infections, improve digestion, and even cure cancer. However, there isn’t much research to support any of that.

“The only two conditions where American ginseng has been found to be possibly effective is with regulating type 2 diabetes and upper respiratory infections,” says Zanini. However, she’s quick to point out that it shouldn’t be used to treat any kind of disease without medical supervision, and to be wary of anyone who tells you it can.

While it’s often added to energy drinks and foods — to boost energy, productivity, and even memory — there’s no evidence to support those claims, either.

One of the main reasons people take ginseng is because of its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants, which are molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules, are very much in vogue right now.

Since oxidation can cause the growth of free radicals, a lot of research has gone into determining if antioxidants can actually fight cancer. According to one study, ginseng does indeed contain enough antioxidants to help boost your body’s immunity shield.

Like any supplement, ginseng has its share of side effects, some of which are serious. Many drugs interact poorly with it. Zanini tells us that she’s seen reports of ginseng users experiencing diarrhea, insomnia, headaches, rapid heartbeat, blood pressure fluctuations, and more.

Women may experience additional side effects, such as vaginal bleeding and breast tenderness. These side effects are serious enough that women battling breast cancer are told to avoid ginseng.

If you do choose to take ginseng supplements, always buy it from a reputable source and make sure not to consume too much of it.

Ginseng has been reported to help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar. However, you should talk to your physician before you add ginseng to your existing regimen. “There isn’t an appropriate dose,” says Zanini. “It depends on age, health status, and other factors.”

Would Zanini recommend adding ginseng to her patients’ diets? Yes and no. “I would feel most comfortable recommending it for individuals not taking other medications where potential interactions could occur, but I would not recommend ginseng to treat a disease.”