Brain health may be the single aspect of health that contributes most to our well-being. It affects every aspect of life, including daily tasks, memory, thinking, and communication. Many people experience cognitive impairment as they age, which can be distressing to them and their loved ones.
Medical researchers are actively working to find medications and supplements that can help treat cognitive decline and maintain brain health. One treatment that has shown promise in clinical trials is the herbal supplement ginseng. Evidence to support using ginseng for brain health continues to grow, as I will show you below.
Ginseng, the “all-healing” herb.
Ginseng is the common name for perennial plants belonging to the genus Panax and family Aralliaceae, the ivy family. There are several species of ginseng, including Korean, American, and Chinese ginseng. Ginseng roots, stems, and leaves have been used in herbal medicine for over 2000 years and for all varieties of ailments. Its family name, Panax, even means “all-healing” in Greek.
In the modern era, ginseng root remains popular as a dietary supplement, and science has uncovered new information about the plant. Studies have found that the main active components of ginseng are a group of molecules called ginsenosides. These molecules react with the body in a variety of ways which are still being discovered.
In studies with both cellular and animal models, ginsenosides have been found to produce effects related to cognition. Ginsenosides have antioxidant properties, protecting the brain from oxidative stress. They also produce anti-neuroinflammatory substances and modulate molecular signaling pathways which are used in cognitive functioning.
Let’s now look at the clinical evidence to support ginseng for cognitive health in humans, as well as discuss the work that still needs to be done in this field.
Ginseng for improving Alzheimer’s.
Out of the many ginseng species, only Korean ginseng (P. ginseng) and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) have been studied in clinical trials. Both species have been shown to have benefits for cognitive health.
Korean ginseng has shown benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in several clinical trials. In one study, patients’ scores on cognitive performance tests improved after 12 weeks of treatment with 4.5 g of Korean ginseng per day. However, after the treatment was discontinued, scores declined to the level of the control group. This suggests that continuous use is needed to reap the full benefits of ginseng.
Another study examined the effects of Korean ginseng treatment on AD symptoms over the long term.
Patients took 4.5 or 9.0 g of ginseng per day, and their cognitive performance was tested every 12 weeks. The test scores improved significantly at 24 weeks, further supporting the importance of long-term use.
Based on these results, Korean ginseng makes a helpful addition to a treatment plan for AD. However, patience and consistent, long-term use are needed to see significant improvements.
Ginseng for cognitive enhancement.
Ginseng is clearly a good choice for older adults with AD, but even healthy people can reap the cognitive benefits of this powerful root.
In one study, Korean ginseng had a cognitive enhancing effect on healthy individuals without cognitive impairments compared to a placebo group. In another study, people with mild cognitive impairments experienced improved functioning when they were treated with Korean ginseng. After 6 months of treatment, the ginseng-treated group showed significant improvements on a visual learning test and visual recall test.
Korean ginseng is not the only effective species of ginseng for brain health. American ginseng also appears to have cognitive-enhancing effects on healthy individuals. After treatment with 100, 200, or 400 mg of ginseng, improvements were recorded in working memory, choice reaction time accuracy, and calmness.
These intriguing results demonstrate the potential of ginseng to help brain function in people at all levels of health.
Therapeutic potential of ginsenosides.
As we have seen in the studies described above, ginseng has great potential to improve brain health in both healthy individuals and those with dementia. However, large doses of ginseng root are needed to obtain maximal benefits, which can be inconvenient. To work around this problem, there have been efforts to isolate the ginsenosides, the active beneficial compounds, for use as medication.
So far, the use of ginsenosides alone has been unsuccessful because of limited bio-availability. Essentially, the molecules are not efficiently delivered to the brain where they can work their beneficial effects. A few different formulations are being developed to improve delivery to the brain. These include liposomes (tiny sacs made of lipids that carry the ginsenosides) and a nasal spray that directly targets the brain.
These treatments are in the process of development and still have to go through pre-clinical and clinical trials. In the meantime, high-dose supplements made from whole ginseng root remain a good option for enhancing brain health.
Ginseng for brain health in all.
The numerous benefits of ginseng and its active compounds are still being discovered, even after 2000 years of use as an herbal supplement. The use of ginseng for brain health is a particularly active and important field of research. Laboratory studies have uncovered some special properties of ginsenosides, the active compounds in ginseng. They have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and they regulate certain molecular signaling pathways. All of these properties can help to explain how ginseng affects brain health.
In clinical studies to date, both Korean and American ginseng have been found to significantly improve several measures of cognitive function. These benefits are seen in adults of all ages and levels of cognitive function.
More research is planned in this field to further uncover the molecular signals that ginseng affects in the brain. Also, clinical trials on isolated ginseng components are needed to clarify which compounds are most helpful for brain health. This information could then be used to formulate potent medication to be used for people with AD and other forms of dementia.
Through its power to enhance brain health, ginseng has improved the lives of many people. Hopefully, ongoing research in this field will mean more potent and effective supplements are developed to help patients achieve a better quality of life.
Jakaria, Md., et al. “Active Ginseng Components in Cognitive Impairment: Therapeutic Potential and Prospects for Delivery and Clinical Study.” Oncotarget, vol. 9, no. 71, 2018, doi:10.18632/oncotarget.26035.