Many of us will be familiar with the stresses and strains that are part and parcel of modern-day living. From work-related pressure and relationship difficulties, to financial concerns and child-rearing issues, life can sometimes seem like a never-ending stream of problems and pitfalls. The challenges that are so inherent in our culture can have profound effects on our physical and emotional well-being. Stress increases the risk of conditions as diverse and cold and flu, heart disease, depression and insomnia. What is more, statistics show there has been a five-fold increase in stress-related illness in the last 40 years alone. One way to mitigate against the effects of stress is to build up the body’s internal reserves, enabling it to cope better with the demands life brings. In this respect, natural medicine has much to offer. For literally thousands of years, plant extracts have been used as ‘tonics’ to enhance the function of both the body and mind in times of stress. One of the most popular agents, Siberian ginseng, has a history of traditional use which dates back more than 2000 years. More recently, Siberian ginseng has been the focus of several scientific studies designed to elucidate the precise action of this herb on the body. The evidence suggests that Siberian ginseng can do much to protect us from the effects of stress and enhance our vitality.
The chief organs in the body responsible for dealing with stress are the adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands secrete a variety of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which have important roles to play in the body’s response to stress. However, the adrenal glands only have a certain capacity to respond to stress, and prolonged demands can cause them to weaken in time. Common symptoms of weakened adrenal glands include fatigue (which is often worse just after stress of physical exertion), dizziness on standing, anxiety and/or depression.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has been shown to have a number of beneficial effects on the physiology of both animals and humans. One of this herb’s most important effects appears to be an ability to protect the adrenal glands, increasing their capacity to withstand prolonged stress. In animals, Siberian ginseng has been shown to protect against the effects of a wide range of potential stresses, including heat, cold, surgery, blood loss and infection. Studies on humans have shown that Siberian ginseng can be of benefit in diverse array of work settings: explorers, sailors, deep sea divers, rescue workers, truck drivers, pilots and factory workers have all been shown to respond positively to this herb. In one study published in 1997, proof-readers were found to work more quickly and make fewer mistakes when taking Siberian ginseng.
Another of Siberian ginseng’s specific effects is that it appears to enhance the action of the immune system. This, coupled with its general strengthening effects may explain why long term use of this herb has been shown to reduce the rate of infection and absenteeism in workers. A study performed in 1000 Siberian factory workers found that taking Siberian ginseng for just 30 days reduced days lost due to absenteeism by 40 p.c. over the next year. General illness rates for the same period were cut by half.
In the 1950s, Russian scientists became interested in Siberian ginseng’s potential to enhance athletic performance. There is certainly some evidence which supports Siberian ginseng’s use for this purpose. In a Japanese study published in 1996, Siberian ginseng was found to increase maximal work capacity by almost a quarter, while individuals taking inactive medication (placebo) saw a modest rise in output of only 7.5 p.c. Siberian ginseng was consistently used by Soviet athletes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and some believe that their success in the era was at least in part due to the supportive effects of this herb. It seems that, in addition to helping combat the effects of long-term stress, Siberian ginseng also has the capacity to enhance performance and vitality in healthy individuals.
Siberian ginseng is widely available in health food stores. The normal dose is 1 ” 4 g of dried herb per day, or 2 ” 8 ml per day of a liquid extract. Sometimes, Siberian ginseng products will be standardised to the content of one of its active ingredients, a compound known as eleutheroside E. 1.25 g tablets containing 0.7 mg of eleutheroside E should be taken 1 ” 3 times a day. Traditionally, it is recommended that Siberian ginseng be taken periods of six weeks, interspersed with breaks of two weeks. Siberian ginseng appears to be safe to take in the long term.