Ginseng: an anti-ageing tonic?

Korean red ginseng anti-oxidant anti-ageing
Panax ginseng. Image by FloraFarm GmbH / Katharina Lohrie via Wikimedia Commons.

Ginseng has been used for thousands of years in Asian countries to treat inflammation, infections, wounds, chronic fatigue, type II diabetes and sexual dysfunction. Now there’s evidence that Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) might have anti-ageing effects as well.

It is easy to dismiss natural remedies as ‘not real medicine’. But many plants are drugs – they contain active molecules that affect the human body. No one would argue with the power of the poppy. The active ingredients in ginseng, called ginsenosides or panaxosides, are steroid gycosides. Korean red ginseng has more than 30 different ginsenosides. It also has salicylic acid (which is in aspirin), caffeic acid (in coffee) and vitamins A, B1, B2, B12, C and E.

A recent study found that fruit flies given ginseng-supplemented food lived longer, were more resistant to starvation and had less age-related weight gain than unsupplemented friends. These results depended on how much ginseng the flies were given. At the lowest dose, 0.12 micrograms of ginsenosides/ml, flies lived on average 5.6% longer, but were no more resistant to starvation and still gained as much weight as unsupplemented flies (who beefed up from 1.94mg at ten days of age to a whopping 2.1mg at 30 days). Flies given 10 times as much ginseng lived 14% longer, but also still gained weight and did not deal any better with starvation. The flies that were given 100 times as much ginseng lived 14% longer overall, lived 13-17% longer when starved and weighed significantly less at 30 days than all other groups of flies (1.66mg). These results suggest that, at the highest dose, ginseng may have had an anti-ageing affect by altering the flies’ metabolism. Many other studies have shown that altering metabolism, either through diet restriction, or through changing the insulin pathway, can have anti-ageing effects in yeast, flies, mice and monkeys.

A second study showed that ginseng might delay ageing by working as an anti-oxidant. Oxidative stress is believed to be a major cause of ageing. Normal metabolism in the cell and pollutants from the environment can cause a buildup of free radicals in cell. These free radicals can damage cell membranes and DNA. Naturally occurring antioxidants – enzymes and vitamins – mop up the free radicals to prevent this process. But as we age, we have more free radicals, and less antioxidants in our cells. It isn’t clear whether this is a cause, or a sequela of ageing. This study compared levels of antioxidants and amount of cellular and organ damage in young rats, old rats fed a normal diet, and old rats supplemented with ginseng extract for 120 days. The ginseng-treated rats ate the same amount and had the same weight gain as untreated rats. The old untreated rats had more lipid peroxidation (oxidative damage to fats in the cell membrane) than young rats. They also had increased metabolic markers of liver (AST and ALT) and kidney (BUN and creatinine) disease. And they only had roughly half the level of antioxidants as young rats. Ginseng almost completely prevented the age-related increase in lipid peroxidation in the liver, kidneys, hearts and lungs of old rats. Ginseng also significantly lowered the markers of liver and kidney disease. And ginseng supplemented rats had almost the same level of antioxidants in their liver, kidney, heart and lung tissue as young rats.

These two studies suggest that ginseng might be an effective anti-ageing treatment. It is encouraging to see that ginseng can affect the ageing process in two separate species. However, these studies were quite small, and the rat study was funded by the Korean Society of Ginseng. Also, it isn’t clear whether ginseng is safe for humans to take long term. Therefore, the jury is still out on whether ginseng can prevent ageing.

The Scientific Papers:
Kim. Korean red ginseng tonic extends lifespan in D. melanogaster. Biomol Ther. 2013

Ramesh et al. Panax ginseng reduces oxidative stress and restores antioxidant capacity in aged rats. Nutr. Res. 2012

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