Ginseng is a perennial plant that grows in cooler climates. As an herb, it's been used for thousands of years by herbalists and Chinese medical practitioners for healing various conditions and bringing the body back into balance. The Panax species of ginseng is a rich source of compounds called ginsenosides that are responsible for some of its purported health benefits.
Research shows that the ginsenosides in ginseng have an anti-inflammatory effect. These natural anti-inflammatory compounds may ward off some diseases associated with aging including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Ginseng ginsenosides may also benefit people with allergies and autoimmune disorders, although more research is needed to confirm this. Research results in these areas have been mixed, likely due to differing quantities of ginsenosides in the ginseng plants used in the studies.
There's also some evidence that ginseng boosts libido and improves erectile dysfunction in men. In addition, other research suggests that Siberian ginseng reduces the frequency of infections with a virus called HSV-2 that causes genital warts. When used with another herb called andrographis, it may shorten the duration of the common cold. Research also shows that ginseng helps to fight fatigue in people undergoing cancer chemotherapy. Panax ginseng may be helpful for treating chronic fatigue syndrome and depression according to preliminary research.
Ginseng even seems to have benefits for the skin. In one small study, a group of females over the age of 40 took either a red ginseng extract (3 grams a day) or a placebo for 6 months. Not only did their facial wrinkles appear less pronounced by the end of the study, when they took skin samples, they found collagen synthesis had increased in the dermis and enzymes that break down collagen were less active.
Why is this important? Through sun exposure and due to the natural aging process, collagen synthesis in the dermal layer of the skin becomes less active. Exposure to ultraviolet light also activates enzymes called metalloproteinases that break down collagen. Collagen is a protein that gives skin its support and youthful firmness, so increased collagen synthesis is a good thing when it comes to keeping skin youthful.
What about topical ginseng? There hasn't been a great deal of research looking at the benefits of topical ginseng, although preliminary studies look promising. One study carried out in mice showed that red ginseng applied topically reduced the severity of atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions in mice. Atopic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin disorder that involves itching, irritation and skin cracking. The itch can be quite intense for some people. Because ginseng has anti-inflammatory properties, it may help to relieve the symptoms of this common and frustrating skin problem.
Due to its potential skin benefits, manufacturers of cosmetic and personal care products sometimes add ginseng to their products. Some products that ginseng can be found in include facial moisturizers, anti-aging skin treatments, soaps and some cosmetics. Ginseng is also touted as a treatment for hair loss which is why you may find it in some shampoos and hair treatments designed to treat thinning hair. Ginseng also appears to have hair conditioning benefits, and emollient properties that make it beneficial for dry hair or skin.
Is it safe? When ginseng is used orally, it blocks platelet activity at higher doses and can increase the risk of bleeding. It also has estrogen-like activity, which means it may not be a good choice for women at high risk for breast cancer. It can also cause insomnia, headache, changes in mood, changes in blood pressure or menstrual irregularities and abnormal bleeding when taken as an oral supplement. In cosmetic and personal care products, it appears to be safe. The Environmental Working Group classifies ginseng as a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient.
All in all, ginseng appears to have health benefits, and its anti-inflammatory properties make it a desirable ingredient in skin care and anti-aging products.