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Ginseng: The Root Of Improving Athletic Performance?

Learn how this supplement can benefit you as an endurance athlete.

Ginseng refers to a group of adaptogenic herbs from the plant family Araliacae. Commonly, ginseng refers to “true” ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer), as well as a related plant called Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), or Eleuthero for short.

A Brief History of Ginseng and Its Uses

Panax ginseng root extracts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years as a tonic indicated for its beneficial effects on the central nervous system, protection from stress, anti-fatigue action, enhancement of sexual function, and acceleration of metabolism.

Siberian ginseng did not really come into the picture as a botanical remedy until the 20th century. Found in the northern regions of the former Soviet Union, the roots of Eleutherococcus senticosus were sought out as a cheaper substitute for the expensive Chinese ginsengs. Soviet researchers found Siberian ginseng to be an excellent tonic to enhance athletic performance as well as to strengthen the body during times of stress.

Acanthopanax Senticosus, also called Siberian Ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus berries are a widely used herb in traditional Chinese medicine. Eleuthero may also possess mild to moderate benefits in promoting recovery following intense exercise — perhaps due in part to an enhanced delivery of oxygen to recovering muscles. Photo: Getty Images

Several other “ginsengs” are used as adaptogenic tonics throughout the world; among them are Panax quinquefolium (also known as American ginseng and with a rich history of use by Native Americans) and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), sometimes called “Indian ginseng” (although not a true ginseng, but with a long history of medicinal use by Ayurvedic healers in India). American ginseng is the most similar to “true” (Panax) ginseng and is highly prized in Eastern Asia, where it is thought to provide a “cooler” invigoration than the native Panax ginseng (considered “warming” by traditional Chinese healers).

In general, the various ginseng supplements available in the U.S. market are claimed to increase energy levels, relieve stress, enhance athletic performance, enhance immune system function, control blood sugar, improve mental function, and promote general well-being. In most of these functions, ginseng, whether Siberian, Panax, or one of the other varieties, is often termed an “adaptogen.”

An adaptogen is defined as a therapeutic and restorative tonic generally considered to produce a “balancing” effect on the body. The properties generally attributed to adaptogens are a non-specific increase in resistance to a wide range of stressors, including physical, chemical, and biological factors, as well as a “normalizing” action irrespective of the direction of the pathological changes. In general, an adaptogen can be thought of as a substance that helps the body deal with stress.

Some studies of ginseng extracts have shown benefits in increasing energy levels in fatigued subjects, while the majority of studies on ginseng as an athletic performance aid have shown no effect. The differences between study results may have been due, in part, to the fact that many commercially available ginseng supplements actually contain little or no ginseng at all — and researchers too often assume that a given product selected off the shelf for study will actually contain what it claims. That doesn’t make for great science.

The clearest indication that a supplement contains something other than real ginseng is the price — ginseng root is a very expensive ingredient and “bargain” ginseng products may either not contain real or enough ginseng, or the active saponin compounds that are thought to deliver ginseng’s anti-fatigue and adaptogenic effects.

Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero), is not truly ginseng (it’s a shrub rather than a root) but it’s a close enough cousin to deliver some of the same energetic benefits. Eleuthero is also known as Ciwujia in popular sports products. The Siberian form of ginseng is generally a less expensive alternative to “true” Asian or Panax ginseng, though it may have more of a stimulatory effect rather than an adaptogenic effect (not necessarily a bad thing if you just need a boost). Often promoted as an athletic performance enhancer, eleuthero may also possess mild to moderate benefits in promoting recovery following intense exercise — perhaps due in part to an enhanced delivery of oxygen to recovering muscles.

Ashwagandha is an herb from India that is sometimes called “Indian ginseng” — not because it is part of the ginseng family, but to suggest similar energy-promoting and anti-stress benefits that are attributed to the more well-known Asian and Siberian ginsengs. Although there has been very little human research done on ashwagandha, herbalists and natural medicine practitioners often recommend the herb to combat stress and fatigue — and it does appear to be particularly suited to relaxation uses following stressful events.

Scientific Support

The active components in Panax and American ginseng are thought to be a family of triterpenoid saponins that are collectively referred to as “ginsenosides.” In general, most of the top-quality ginseng products, whether whole root or extract, are standardized for ginsenoside content. The active components in Siberian ginseng are considered to be a group of related compounds called “eleutherosides.”

It has been theorized that ginseng’s action in the body is due to its interaction within the hypothalamic-pituitary axis to balance secretion of adrenal corticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH has the ability to bind directly to brain cells and can affect a variety of stress-related processes in the body. These behaviors might include motivation, vitality, performance, and arousal.

In a widely cited study of student nurses on night duty, 1200mg of Panax ginseng appeared to improve general indices of stress and mood disturbances. Levels of free fatty acids, testosterone, and blood sugar, which were all elevated by night work, were significantly reduced to those levels observed under day work. In another study, 2,700mg/day of Panax ginseng was able to reduce blood sugar levels and insulin requirements in a group of diabetic subjects following three months of supplementation.

One study on the effects of 200mg/day of Panax ginseng extract for 12 weeks showed improvements over baseline values of mental performance — attention, mental processing, logical deduction, motor function, and reaction time.

Over a period of several decades, German and Soviet researchers have studied the effects of Panax ginseng extract, typically standardized to 4 percent ginsenosides, on the performance of athletes. One study compared 200mg/day of Panax ginseng extract in 14 highly trained male athletes versus a placebo. The ginseng group showed an increase in its maximum oxygen uptake when compared to the placebo group, as well as a statistically significant improvement in recovery time and lower serum lactate values.

Other studies in various groups of young athletes have shown Panax ginseng extract to provide statistically significant improvements in performance measures such as forced vital capacity and maximum breathing capacity as compared to the placebo groups.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence for ginseng is far from proven. For every study showing a positive benefit in terms of energy levels and/or physical or mental performance, there is at least one other study showing no benefits. Part of the discrepancy in results from well-controlled studies may have to do with differences between the ginseng extracts used in various studies (non-standardized extracts with unknown quantities of active components).

Safety And Dosage

Ginseng illustration surrounded by supplements.
Photo: Getty Images

Generally, plants in the ginseng family are considered to be quite safe. There are no known drug interactions, contraindications, common allergic reactions, or toxicity to Siberian ginseng, Panax ginseng, or American ginseng. A word of caution is recommended, however, for individuals with hypertension, as the stimulatory nature of some ginseng preparations have been reported to increase blood pressure. Additionally, those individuals prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) should use ginseng with caution due to the reported effects of ginseng to reduce blood sugar levels.

Ginseng is one of the many herbal supplements that can be purchased readily as a whole root, a dried powder or a standardized extract. The most precise approach would be to use a standardized extract to ensure that you are getting an effective product. Products should be standardized to contain 4-5 percent ginsenosides for Panax and American ginseng, and 0.5-1.0 percent eleutherosides for Siberian ginseng. A daily intake of 100-300mg for 3-6 weeks is recommended to produce adaptogenic and energetic benefits.


About The Author:

Shawn Talbott is an avid endurance athlete (multiple-Ironman and ultramarathon finisher) and scientist (PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry and MS in Exercise Science) in Salt Lake City.