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Q.Ginseng is being added to popular drinks now. Wisconsin grows supposedly the "best" ginseng in the world. The Chinese have touted this root for centuries.

Has there been any research to substantiate its many claims?

A. Ginseng is a species within the genus panax, which means "all-heal" in Greek. For centuries, traditional Chinese medicine has used ginseng in the treatment of countless diseases and to promote whole-body wellness.

There are two major types of ginseng: American ginseng (also known as Canadian ginseng or North American ginseng), and Asian ginseng (also known as Korean ginseng or Chinese ginseng).

The root of ginseng is most often used in its dried form and is added to capsules, tablets, extracts, beverages and creams. Of note, the quantity of ginseng found in most energy drinks and other beverages is too low to produce any medicinal effect.

Herbalists classify ginseng as an "adaptogen" or an herb that improves the body's ability to fight off stress such as trauma, anxiety or fatigue. It has also been used to increase stamina and well-being; to treat erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C and menopause; to lower blood glucose levels and blood pressure; and to improve mental and physical performance.

The active compounds in ginseng are thought to be steroid-like substances termed ginsenosides that contain antioxidant and anticarcinogen properties. Over the past decade, a number of researchers have explored the reliability of ginseng's many health claims.

A study published in 2000 explored the use of ginseng along with traditional medications in the treatment of diabetes. This study found that 3 grams of American ginseng taken orally up to two hours before a meal significantly reduced post meal blood glucose levels in patients with Type II diabetes.

A similar study using 200mg of Asian ginseng observed a decrease in fasting glucose and hemoglobin A1C (an indicator of glucose levels over three months) in people with Type II diabetes.

A specific American ginseng extract termed CVT-EOO2 (Cold-FX) has been of recent interest to researchers for its potential use in the prevention of respiratory tract infections. Some evidence supports claims that 200mg twice daily over four months during flu season may reduce the number and duration of colds and flu.

Side-effects of ginseng may include insomnia, diarrhea, increased heart rate, headaches, high blood pressure and agitation. Pregnant or nursing women, children and anyone with a hormone-dependent illness should avoid ginseng.

People with diabetes or heart disease should consult their physician before taking ginseng, as this herb may cause low blood sugars and may alter the rate and force of heartbeats. Ginseng also may increase the effectiveness of blood thinners such as Coumadin.

Today's author, Amy Thompto, is a registered dietitian with the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. Send your nutrition question to a member of the Milwaukee Dietetic Association by e-mail to nstohs@journalsentinel.com, fax to (414) 224-2133; or mail to: What Should I Eat?, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, P.O. Box 371, Milwaukee, WI 53201.

Copyright 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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