Ginseng is a herb that has been attributed many, many powers. Many years ago, wars were fought defending ginseng lands. These days, products still line the shelves of pharmacies, promising all sorts of things – from virility to improved brain power. Some of these claims have been scientifically substantiated, others – well, they are just claims, and scientific proof is still lacking.
I was surprised at the number of different plants that go under the name of ginseng. Most ginsengs are Panax ginsengs – this includes the American ginseng, Korean ginseng and Himalayan ginseng. These are very rare and hence expensive. Siberian ginseng belongs to the same family, but is a different genus – Eleutherococcus. It is more easily available and much cheaper.
The use of ginseng dates back to prehistoric China. The Chinese noticed that the root was shaped like a man and believed it to be a symbol of human health, promoting long life, wisdom and fertility. It soon became hugely popular. Wars broke out over ginseng lands and smuggling of the root was punishable by death.
Much later, interest in western countries was stimulated after Soviet scientists used Eleutherococcus as stress medication for cosmonauts.
The following actions have been attributed to ginseng:
- physical and mental performance enhancer
- resistance stimulation
Soviet scientists were the first to investigate ginseng. It became classified as an important adaptogen (a substance which improves the body’s ability to adapt to stressful situations). They showed that Siberian ginseng improves mental and physical performance under stressful conditions. In athletic events, ginseng shifts the metabolism to favour the utilisation of fat over carbohydrates for energy. This delays lactic acid build-up. Which, as any athlete will tell you, is a good thing, as lactic acid causes muscle fatigue and cramps.
Ginseng has also been shown to have immunostimulatory activity. In other words, it fights pathogens (disease-causing entities). Ginseng does this by increasing the number of white blood cells (fighting cells) and by helping with antibody formation.
Ginseng has also recently been found to be useful in the treatment of Type II diabetes in humans.
The Nutraceutical Alliance in Canada has been specifically researching ginseng in horses. They have found evidence that substantiates both the fatigue reducing and the immunostimulatory effects of ginseng.
Ginseng has withstood toxicity tests, with no known side-effects except occasional cases of insomnia in humans, when taken too close to bedtime. There are also no known interactions with other drugs.
Very high doses should be avoided, however, as they can result in high blood pressure. The dose depends on the form of ginseng used. For the dry powdered root, not more than 6 grams should be taken daily.
The potential for the use of ginseng in horses is enormous. Our horses are constantly coming into contact with other horses and places, and as a result are being exposed to a wide variety of nasty foreign pathogens. The immuno-stimulatory properties of ginseng could be put to good use in helping the horse fight these pathogens.
As for the fatigue reducing effect of ginseng, the advantages are obvious – more stamina, better recovery, less muscle fatigue, more energy.