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Energize Your Mind or
All in Your Head?
September 24, 2007
Last night you stayed up studying for an exam. Your exam is two hours from now, but your eyes are heavy and you just want to crawl back into bed. What are you to do? Most likely, you will head to the closest place to find some sort of caffeinated drink to wake you up. You could grab a cup of coffee but you would have to sip the hot liquid. No, you need something NOW! You head over to the compartment with energy drinks. So many choices, so many “natural ingredients” to stimulate your mind for the exam. After browsing for a minute, you notice that ginseng is a common ingredient among the variety of drinks. What is ginseng? Why is it in energy drinks?
What is ginseng?
Ginseng is a common herb used in Chinese medicine for centuries. There are many types of ginseng, but the most commonly used type of ginseng is the Korean or Asian ginseng, or panax ginseng. The main active ingredient in ginseng is ginsenosides, steroid-like compounds that are responsible for ginseng’s adaptogenic effects. (http://herbal-powers.com/ginseng1.html). Adaptogens are derived from natural plants. According to research by I. I. Brekhman and I. V. Dardymov, adaptogens meet three requirements:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor (Brekham and Dardymov, 1969: 421).
What does it do?
The claimed effects of ginseng are numerous from impotency to indigestion. “Due to its adaptogenic properties, ginseng is used to lower cholesterol, increase energy and endurance, reduce fatigue and effects of stress, as well as prevent infections. It can alleviate some major effects of aging, such as degeneration of the blood system and increase mental and physical capacity. It even appears to help people with diabetes” (http://herbal-powers.com/ginseng1.html). Ginseng is recommended for a number of health problems including asthma, digestive problems and heart problems, lack of appetite, weak pulse and insomnia. Retailers also state that it can increase longevity, improve memory, stimulate the mind and increase energy (http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/ginseng).
Why is it used in energy drinks?
Ginseng is combined with caffeine in energy drinks to give a nice energy boost. Many energy drink companies claim that adding ginseng to their product improves memory and maintains health while under stress (http://www.sourcedrinks.com/section18.html). Companies market the herb as a “natural” ingredient falsely promoting consumer belief that if a supplement is natural, then it must be safe and healthy. However, drinking too many energy drinks can be a health risk. The danger does not lie solely with one ingredient but the interaction of the combination of ingredients.
So how safe is ginseng? Some sources list that the abuse of ginseng can lead to hypertension, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, agitation, restlessness and insomnia (http://www.healthline.com/galecontent/ginseng). Why is it that an herb so natural can cause such side effects?
Is ginseng really a magical tonic that cures many ailments? Can it really give us energy and improve our memory? Or is ginseng just a “natural” ploy that retailers use to reel in consumers? Many studies have been conducted on the efficacy of ginseng.
Ginseng and Cognition
Many research studies have been conducted concerning the effect of ginseng on cognition, but very few warrant significant results. D’Angelo et al. conducted an experiment using a double blind placebo controlled procedure. Young healthy volunteers (ages 20-14) were given either 110mg of ginseng or placebo twice a day for 12 weeks. The participants were tested prior to the herbal regimen to obtain a baseline measure and after the 12 weeks to measure any results. Subjects were tested on motor skills, reaction times, attention tasks, mental arithmetic problems and logic deductions. Results indicated that the ginseng group, not the placebo group, did perform better in reaction time and logical deductions but improved greatly in the attention and mental processing tasks. However there was no significant difference between groups in the motor function task. Sorenson et al. also conducted a study on the effects of ginseng but with older participants (age 40-70). Half the group received 400mg of ginseng daily for 8-9 weeks; the other half received a placebo. Tests also included a motor functioning task (finger tapping), reaction time tests, a cancellation task, a verbal fluency test, memory tests, complex figure tests and the Wisconsin Card Sort Test. In the Wisconsin Card Sort Test, the participant is given a certain number of stimulus cards, and then given additional cards. They are asked to match the additional cards to the stimulus cards, forming many stacks of cards. However, the participant is not told how to match the cards but they are told if the match is correct or incorrect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_card_sort) Researchers concluded that the ginseng group outperformed the placebo group significantly only in the fastest reaction time tests and in the Wisconsin Card Sort task.
Ginseng and Performance
Several studies have reported a positive effect in animals, most specifically rats and mice. Mice were reported to have increased endurance, longer swimming time and a buildup in muscle mass (Lexell 2003, 197). On the other hand, the ginseng effects in animals do not carry over to humans. Engels et al. conducted a study using nineteen healthy adult females (ages 21-35). One group was administered a regimen of 100mg of panax ginseng twice a day. The other group took placebo pills that looked and weighed exactly the same as the panax ginseng supplements. Before and after the women began their regimen, baseline measures were taken with a physical work capacity test. While the subjects exercised, their respiratory rate and heart rate were taken. During the experiment, the women were given specific dietary instructions. Blood samples were also taken to measure any changes in metabolism. The results of the study indicated that daily ingestion of panax ginseng has no effect on physical performance or energy metabolism.
Concerning fatigue, Hartz et al found inconclusive results on reduction of fatigue with daily ingestion of ginseng. The results did not support the help of ginseng for chronic fatigue but suggests that further research needs to be done to determine the effect of ginseng on moderate and less extreme fatigue.
Ginseng and overall well being
Coleman et al reviewed studies that examined the effect of ginseng on overall well being and quality of life. They concluded that every study showed some sort of improved quality of life. Kim et al examined how ginseng affected cancer patients’ quality of life. The cancer patients were diverse in their diagnoses, for example, rectal cancer, prostate cancer, uterine cervix cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, etc. Half the patients were told to take 1000mg three times daily for twelve weeks. The other half of the patients received placebo pills. The patients completed the World Health Organization Quality of Life Assessment-Bref (WHOQOL-BREF) and the General Health Questionnaire-12 (GHQ) before given the supplement and after the twelve week trial period. “The WHOQOLBREF consists of 26 items that are subdivided into four different domains: physical health, psychological health, social relationships and environment. A higher score indicates a higher quality of life. The GHQ-12 is a 12-item self-rating questionnaire that covers a range of psychological symptoms: anxiety, depression, as well as somatic symptoms and social dysfunction” (Kim et al 2006, 332). Researchers found that ginseng was effective in improving quality of life among the cancer patients. However in the conclusion, the researchers state that the results are limited to a specific population of patients with gynecologic and hepatobiliary cancer.
However compelling the previous results may seem, Cardinal et al conducted a study that contradicts those findings. Participants were recruited from a university community and health clubs. The experiment included three phases in which the participants were randomly assigned to. In the first phase, women were recruited for the 200mg ginseng group or the placebo group. For the second phase, men were recruited for the 200mg ginseng and the 400mg ginseng. In the third phase, women were recruited for a placebo group or the 400mg group. Measures of negative and positive affect taken by the PANAS and total mood disturbance taken by the POMS were recorded before taking the caplets and after 56-60 days of the treatment. The results concluded that after eight weeks of chronic ingestion of the supplement ginseng, regardless of the dosage, there were no differences in positive and negative affect or mood among the treated groups and placebo groups.
Image taken from Panax Ginseng. American Family Physician. Oct 2003; Vol. 68: 8.
Ginseng in Energy Drinks
Ginseng is added to energy drinks to enhance the effects of caffeine (Henemen et al, 2007). It gives the consumer an energy boost (http://www.chinese-holistic-health-exercises.com/what-is-ginseng-used-for.html). “Ginseng increases awareness, focus and energy. It also causes stress and anxiety if used to excess. The energy boost that comes from consuming ginseng is not as concentrated as that of caffeine. Ginseng is often used to help patients recover their energy levels after long illness (http://www.wcyh.org.uk/nutrition/food/energy-drinks/). But of course, these claims are from companies trying to market their products. Because ginseng is mixed with several other ingredients like taurine, caffeine and high amounts of sugar in the energy drinks, its single effect is hard to determine. However, the combined effects of ginseng and other ingredients along with excess consumption can put a person at risk for fatigue, nausea, and even induced seizures (Iyadurai et al 2007, 504).
For centuries, ginseng was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its effect claimed to be miraculous, but like most natural supplements, it may be just hype created by retailers. Scientific evidence finds that a daily supplement of ginseng, alone, can have mild effects on cognition. Ginseng does have an effect on energy in rats and mice, but not in humans. Research suggests that ginseng can have an effect on well being, specifically in cancer patients. However, competing evidence states that there is no effect of ginseng on healthy young subjects. More research needs to be done to find the true efficacy of ginseng. There are many varieties of ginseng. The ginseng used in the studies was not uniform. Different types and different dosages were administered in the experimental trials.
With other ingredients, ginseng can have different effects than ingesting ginseng alone. Energy drinks contain a high amount of caffeine, ginseng, guarana and taurine. They also contain a large amount of sugar. There are not many studies that study the effect of only ginseng and energy drinks because of the ingredient combination.
The conflicting evidence of ginseng can cause possible health risks. We do not know exactly what ginseng can do to us. Like any other supplement, do not exceed the recommended dosage of ginseng because doing so can have adverse effects.
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