What is ginseng?

Ginseng is an herbal remedy that is sometimes used to treat headaches, fatigue, lack of sex drive, and a weak immune system. It has been around for more than 4,000 years and is one of the most popular herbal remedies used today.

Active ingredients in American and Asian ginseng may help lower blood sugar. Because of this, some people have started taking it as a supplement to their diabetes treatment plans.

Ginseng is a perennial plant with fleshy roots that is grown in several different locations throughout the world. American and Asian (Panax) ginseng is characterized by the presence of compounds called ginsenosides.

Over the centuries, people have used ginseng to:

  • boost energy
  • relieve depression
  • improve physical performance and fertility
  • prevent conditions like heart disease and cancer

Is ginseng effective in controlling blood sugar?

Insulin is the hormone that moves sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells after you’ve eaten a meal. In people with type 2 diabetes, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the cells don’t respond effectively to it. As a result, sugar builds up in the bloodstream. Over time, that sugar buildup can damage organs like the eyes, blood vessels, nerves, and kidneys. 

Research showed that ginseng helped stimulate insulin release, made cells more sensitive to the effects of insulin, and lowered blood sugar significantly. There is some evidence that when ginseng is taken before a meal, it might help lower blood sugar after that meal. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

Ginseng might also help with other diseases related to diabetes, like heart disease. Both Asian and American ginseng may reduce stiffness in the arteries and lower blood pressure in people who have diabetes. This is due to their anti-inflammatory properties.

Remember that research on ginseng and diabetes is ongoing. More studies are needed before doctors can say that this herb is effective in lowering blood sugar. Because there are so many different types of ginseng supplements, it’s hard to know which type might be most effective.

Is ginseng safe?

In general, ginseng is safe to take. But it can cause side effects, especially when you take it in large doses.

Some side effects reported with ginseng include:

  • headaches
  • sleep problems (insomnia)
  • agitation, irritability
  • stomach problems (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting)
  • breast tenderness
  • irregular periods and vaginal bleeding in women
  • high blood pressure

There are also a few safety warnings with ginseng, one of which is for people with diabetes. Ginseng lowers blood sugar. It’s possible that your blood sugar might dip too low if you take ginseng, particularly if you’re also taking diabetes medicines that lower blood sugar.

Check your blood sugar levels regularly while taking ginseng. If you’re planning to have surgery, stop taking this herb at least two weeks beforehand. It could make your blood sugar harder to control during the procedure, a condition called ginseng hypoglycemia.

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should avoid using ginseng. Ginsenosides can act like estrogen. Use caution if you have a type of cancer that responds to estrogen, like breast or uterine cancer.

Certain medicines can interact with ginseng. Avoid taking ginseng with the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin). Use caution when taking it with diabetes drugs or prescription drugs for depression.

Pros and cons of ginseng for diabetes

Q:

As someone who has diabetes, if I choose to use ginseng to supplement my treatment plan, what’s the best way to incorporate it into my diet in a safe, healthy way?

A:

Ginseng could lower your blood sugar in unpredictable ways, making it difficult to find the right dose for you. Since ginseng is classified by the FDA as an herbal supplement, manufacturers do not have to provide any proof of it working, or recommend any standardized dose to take. Because the effects are unpredictable and different bottles of the same brand may not have the same amount of active ginseng in each tablet or capsule, there is no safe way to incorporate ginseng into a healthy diet if you have diabetes.

Alan Carter, PharmDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Types of ginseng

Ginseng comes in different forms, but the two most studied types are Asian (Panax ginseng) and American (Panax quinquefolius L) ginseng. Asian ginseng (also known as Korean or red ginseng) is grown in China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. American ginseng grows in the United States. 

The main active ingredient in ginseng is a group of compounds called ginsenosides. More than 150 different ginsenosides exist. You may get different amounts of these substances, depending on which ginseng supplement you try. 

Both American and Asian (also called “Korean”) ginseng belong to the genus “Panax.” The roots of Panax ginseng are a tan color, thick and gnarled, with long tendrils curling outward.

The chemical makeup of American and Asian ginseng differs, but the effects that these plants have on blood sugar are similar (though not interchangeable).

Siberian ginseng is a distinct species of plant that is related to Panax ginseng. It is not as popular in America as it is in Russia. Siberian ginseng does have medicinal uses and is known to help boost the immune system and increase energy. But Siberian ginseng does not have the same active ingredients as Panax ginseng, and it has not been demonstrated to lower blood sugar.

Takeaway

Check with your doctor before you take ginseng or any other herbal remedy for the first time. Make sure that it’s safe for you and that it won’t interact with other medicines you’re already taking.