Can Siberian ginseng help feelings of stress and fatigue?

Recently a friend recommended that I try taking some Siberian Ginseng to boost my energy levels during a particularly busy time.  Siberian ginseng was not a herb that I knew very much about.  Korean ginseng, often known as panax ginseng or Asian ginseng is the ginseng that I have read a lot about in the past and seems to have immune and metabolism boosting properties.  So what about Siberian ginseng?

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is also known as Eleuthero, Eleutherococco, Ciwujia, Devil’s Bush, Touch-me-not and ussurian thorny pepper bush.  It is a herb that is native to Siberia, Korea and parts of China.  Since Siberian ginseng does not belong to the Panax family it cannot be considered as a ‘true’ ginseng.  Although the beneficial actions of Siberian ginseng seem to be similar to those of Korean ginseng there is some debate as to whether it may be better to rename the herb Eleuthero so as to dissociate it from Korean ginseng.

Herbalists refer to Siberian ginseng as being an ‘adaptogen’.  The term is used to describe herbs that seem to help the body to adapt during times of stress, trauma, fatigue and anxiety.  Sometimes adaptogens are simply referred to as rejuvenating herbs and their use dates back thousands of years in China and India.  It is not entirely known how these herbs work, many of them have antioxidant properties but this does not explain all of their reported benefits.  It could be that adaptogenic herbs can balance the hormonal and immune systems in the body.  I wanted to have a look to see if there was much research evidence to back up the claims that Siberian ginseng can help during times of stress.

A review paper, released very recently (1), was carried out to assess clinical trials of different adaptogenic herbs in fatigue.  The authors who collated the research say that good scientific evidence has been recorded in trials in which Siberian ginseng increased endurance and mental performance in those with mild fatigue and weakness.  The scientists also propose that the beneficial, stress protective, effect of adaptogenic herbs is related to a variety of complex mechanisms in the body that involve hormones and brain activity.

Many of the studies done with Sibersian ginseng have been animal or laboratory studies and the results have been quite positive for the use of the herb to help during times of stress or fatigue.  However, not many studies have yet been conducted in humans.  The few trials that have taken place have been small, but certainly interesting, and further evidence is warranted before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Two studies were published in 2004 (2,3) which look specifically at Siberian ginseng and fatigue in human subjects.  The first (2) took place in elderly individuals who were suffering from fatigue and feelings of lack of energy.  The study was small and preliminary involving only 20 individuals aged 65 or over.  The participants were given either 300mg a day of died extract of Siberian ginseng or a placebo for 8 weeks.  A health related quality of life questionnaire was taken at the study and then again at 4 and 8 weeks.  At the start of the study the two groups had similar health related quality of life scores.  The participants did not know if they were receiving the Siberian ginseng or the placebo.  After 4 weeks the individuals receiving the active herb had higher scores in the health related quality of life questionnaire (in the social functioning section) than those receiving placebo.  However after 8 weeks the differences did not seem to persist.  The authors of the study conclude that Siberian ginseng may improve some aspects of mental health and social functioning in the short term.  Further studies are necessary to investigate long term effects.

The other study (3) took place in sufferers of chronic fatigue.  Siberian ginseng seemed to be most helpful for individuals with more severe fatigue.  Overall the authors conclude that the findings for the use of Siberian ginseng in chronic fatigue are not yet strong but that “the findings of possible efficacy for patients with moderate fatigue suggests that further research may be of value”.

Siberian ginseng has been used for many years as a tonic for vitality and health and I believe we can learn a lot by looking at ancient herbal treatment regimens.  However, I also feel that it is important to investigate the science behind the claims and test the efficacy and safety of herbs before promoting them.  Laboratory evidence for Siberian ginseng is fairly strong and human trials are beginning to emerge to strengthen the health claims.

If your energy, vitality and stamina seem to be waning, rather than reaching for a coffee (which can further stress the body systems) you might want to investigate whether short term use of Siberian ginseng works for you.  Consulting a herbalist is a good option and always read the manufacturers dosage suggestions before use.  The most commonly recommended therapeutic dosage for Siberian Ginseng (20:1 concentration, containing at least 1% Eleutheroside E) is 300 mg – 600 mg per day.

(1) Panossian A, Wikman G.  2009.  Evidence-Based Efficacy of Adaptogens in Fatigue, and Molecular Mechanisms Related to Their Stress-Protective Activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep 1. [Epub ahead of print]
(2) Cicero AF et al.  2004. Effects of Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus maxim.) on elderly quality of life: a randomized clinical trial. Arch Gerontol Geriatr Suppl.  9:69-73.
(3) Hartz AJ et al.  2004.  Randomized controlled trial of Siberian ginseng for chronic fatigue. Psychol Med.  34(1):51-61.

Written by Ani Kowal