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Ginseng Helps You Remember Better

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Ginseng is a popular remedy in traditional medicine. The active principles in ginseng belong to a class of phytochemicals known as ginsenosides. These are only present in true ginseng. Numerous studies have shown that ginseng can enhance memory. Read on to find out how ginseng improves memory and if it is safe to use.

What is Ginseng?

Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb with fleshy roots and predominantly found in cooler climates especially in Eastern Asia and Northern America.

Ginseng belongs to the plant genus, Panax. There are many Panax ginsengs including Asian ginseng, Panax ginseng itself as well as Panax quinquefolius, the American ginseng. All true ginsengs contain a group of phytochemicals called ginsenosides. Some related species such as the Siberian ginseng are not true ginsengs and do not contain ginsenosides.

Ginseng is known as an adaptogenic herb. This means that it is very useful for relieving stress.

Both the leaves and roots of ginseng contain medicinal compounds. However, the root is the most commonly used plant part in traditional medicine. Therefore, ginseng is usually sold as dried root herb that can be added to tea and beverages. It is an ancient traditional remedy that is still used for the same purposes today.

The various uses of ginseng in traditional medicine include as a stimulant, memory enhancer and aphrodisiac. It is also used in the treatment of sexual dysfunction and type II diabetes.

Ginseng also produces a number of positive effects on the endocrine system. For example, it stimulates the release of gonadotropins by acting on pituitary gland. The herb also contains compounds known as phytoestrogens.

However, most of the medicinal benefits of ginsengs are derived from ginsenosides.

Side Effects and Contraindication of Ginseng

Given the fact that the phytochemicals in ginseng are active in the nervous system and cardiovascular system, the side effects of taking this herb include headache, insomnia and changes in blood pressure. Ginseng can also cause nausea, diarrhea, nose bleeds and breast pain.

Ginseng should not be taken along with antidepressants such as phenelzine (the combination is known to cause mania). It should not also be taken with anticoagulants such as warfarin (the combination will cause excessive bleeding).

Bleeding is the most common symptom of acute overdose of ginseng.

Mild overdose will also cause dry mouth, edema, hypertension, hyperthermia, irritability, hyperactivity, insomnia, decreased appetite, itching, fatigue and blurred vision.

Gross overdose may add the following to the symptoms above: fever, decreased light sensitivity, blue/red facial discoloration, convulsion and delirium.

What are Ginsenosides?

Ginsenosides are also called panaxosides. They are steroid glycosides and also saponins complexes.

Ginsenosides are classified into 2 broad groups: Rb1 and Rg1. The ginsenosides in the Rb1 group are more active in the reproductive system but they are also known to increase the uptake of choline (a precursor of acetylcholine and a memory enhancer).

The ginsenosides in the Rg1 group are most abundant in Panax ginseng than other ginseng species. They have been shown to improve spatial learning and increase neuronal activity in the hippocampus, one of the seats of memory in the brain.

Rg1 ginsenosides is also known to prevent memory impairment by preventing the death of brain cells that could lead to dementia.

Ginsenosides and Links to Memory

Most of the early studies involving ginseng and memory were done with specific ginsenosides fractions.

For example, the Rb1 ginsenoside extracted from the North Africa ginseng was used to reverse the effect of scopolamine on memory.

Scopolamine blocks the action of acetylcholine in the brain, and it is commonly used to induce memory deficits resembling dementia in test animals. In one study, 5 mg/kg/day of Rb1 was able to partly relieve the amnesia caused by scopolamine by stimulating the release of more acetylcholine to unblock cholinergic transmission in the brain.

To increase the release of acetylcholine in the brain, Rb1 increased the uptake of choline by nerve cells especially in the hippocampus and the cortex, the two major seats of learning and memory.

The secondary mechanism by which Rb1 improves memory is by preventing the neurological damage caused by reactive oxygen radicals released from lipid peroxidation in the brain. Once released these free radicals slowly destroy nerve cells and cause cognitive decline.

By protect the nerve cells, Rb1 reduces the risk of vascular accidents in the brain.

Studies on Ginseng and Memory

Animal Studies

A 1995 study published in China Journal of Chinese materia medica compared the effects of the saponins obtained from the roots and stem-leaves of Chinese ginseng on learning and memory in rats.

In this study 50 mg/kg (daily dose for 7 days) each of root saponins and stem-leaf saponins were given to two identical groups of rats suffering from shock-induced memory impairment.

The results showed that both types of ginseng saponins were able to increase the concentrations of biogenic monoamines (such as the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is important for memory and learning) although the stem-leaf saponins produced a higher increase.

A 1987 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine studied the dose-dependent effect of ginseng on learning and memory.

For this study, 5 doses (3, 10, 30, 100 and 300 mg/kg) of standardized ginseng extract were administered to a group of 10 rats for 10 days.

The result of this study showed that ginseng extract follows the same bell-shaped dose-response curve common to nootropic (memory enhancing) drugs. In this case, the best results in learning and memory tests were obtained with 10 mg/kg of the standardized ginseng extract. At 30 mg/kg, there was a significant improvement in retention and the only improvements at 100 mg/kg are locomotor skills.

This study demonstrates the need to determine the effective dose of ginseng extract that provides the most benefits for cognition and memory. Such a dose will make it possible to avoid the increased side effects associated with higher doses of the herb.

A 1987 study published in Acta Physiologica et Pharmacologica Bulgarica compared the efficacies of ginseng extract and piracetam (a known nootropic drug) in reversing induced amnesia in rats.

The albino rats used in this study were induced with memory impairment with electroconvulsive shock.

Thereafter, 600 mg/kg of piracetam was administered to these rats for 5 days before their training sessions and memory tests. The same procedure was done with an identical group of rats but with 30 mg/kg of ginseng extract for 10 days before the training and memory tests.

The results showed that both piracetam and ginseng extract were able to eliminate the induced retrograde amnesia.

Human Studies

A 2001 study published in the journal, Nutritional Neuroscience, investigated the effects of increasing doses of ginseng on cognitive performance and mood in health, young volunteers.

The 20 healthy, young adults recruited for this placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study received 200 mg, 400 mg and 600 mg of a ginseng supplement, G115. Before changing doses a washout period of 7 days was allowed. However, the effects of the ginseng doses on cognition and mood were measured 1, 2.5, 4 and 6 hours after administering each dose.

The 4 components of cognition measured were quality of memory, speed of memory, quality of attention and speed of attention. Each set of measurement after administering the supplement was compared with the baseline measurement taken before any of the subjects received the first dose of ginseng.

The results showed that at 400 mg and above, ginseng caused significant improvements in quality of memory. The 400 mg dose also produced the best speed of attention scores.

This study demonstrates the right dose of ginseng can improve memory even in healthy individuals and not only those with memory impairment.

This finding was further confirmed by a 2000 study published in the journal, Psychopharmacology.

This study recruited healthy middle-aged adults and used a combination of ginseng (G115, 100 mg) and ginkgo (GK501, 60 mg). This multi-center study involved 256 healthy middle-aged volunteers and took 14 weeks to finish.

The dosing regimen for this study included taking the 100 mg ginseng and 60 mg ginkgo twice daily or combined at once. Testing was done on select days of the week at weeks 0, 4, 8, 12 and 14.

The results showed that the ginseng-ginkgo combination was effective for improving the quality of memory. The combination improved working and long-term memory by an average of 7.5%, and the memory enhancement continued throughout the supplementation period as well as the 2-week washout period.

However, another study (a subset of The Betula Prospective Cohort Study: Memory, Health and Aging) contradicted the findings of this study.

That study found that none of the 40 subjects taking ginkgo nor the 86 who were receiving ginseng scored better than the control who received no such supplementation in the 8 memory tests administered.

In Conclusion

All of the studies reviewed agree that ginseng provides clear benefits for people with memory impairment. Most studies even agree than normal, healthy adults can also benefit from the memory-enhancing abilities of ginseng.

Granted that there are more positive studies with animal models than in human studies, ginseng at least provide a modest benefit in the treatment of memory impairment.

This shows that ginseng works but it may not be the dramatic “cure-all” the supplement industry claims it is.

The body of clinical studies done on memory and ginseng so far shows there is a need for more studies on the subject especially as it relates to finding the right dosage for ginseng to provide the best improvement in cognition and the least side effects.

Those hoping to prevent and reverse cognitive decline and memory impairment with ginseng should do so because there is enough evidence to justify using ginseng for this purpose. However, ginseng should not be the sole drug or supplement used to improve memory. Rather, it should only complement the primary therapy.





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