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You don’t have to be a sugar addict to enjoy a sweet pick-me-up in the afternoon.

A few chunks of chocolate or sips of soda can carry you through the longest hour of the day, but there may be consequences of that brief buzz: jitters followed by crashes. By the end of the hour, your energy reserves may be even more drained than when you started.

Ending the vicious cycle seems intuitive: ditch the sweets. But the key to emerging from the brain fog battle may not require you to shun the sugars—or at least not all of them.

Feast your eyes on Panax ginseng, a Chinese herb with brain-boosting sugar molecules and calming compounds to sweeten your day.

A Bittersweet Beginning

There are two main compounds in Panax ginseng: ginsenosides and gintonin. Both contain the aforementioned sugars. Despite their saccharine substances, Panax ginseng retains a mostly bitter flavor after an initial hint of sweetness.Nag2012

Gintonin is a glycolipoprotein, which breaks down into the three macronutrients: sugar, lipid (fat), protein. Ginsenosides are molecules with varying sugar attachments, and they’re classified into four distinct categories based on the molecule being modified by the sugars.Nag2012 Research suggests that both compounds are active in Panax ginseng’s effects and that the two may have synergistic effects.Im2013

Derived from Greek, “Panax” proudly translates to “all-healing.”

“Ginseng” is a Chinese derivative meaning “man root,” a name lovingly given to the plant for its wrinkled roots exuding all the beauty of men’s legs.Nag2012 If that image isn’t clear, picture the love child of ginger and parsnip running through rural China.

This “all-healing man root” is a short plant classified three ways: fresh, white, and red. Like actual legs, these roots take a long time to fully develop, which is why panax ginseng takes four to six years to harvest.Nag2012

Panax ginseng is also called Asian ginseng or Korean ginseng to distinguish it from Panax quinquefolius, also called American ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus, also called Siberian ginseng. All three ginseng roots share similar physical characteristics, namely the twisting roots.

Panax ginseng has been used as an herbal medicine to boost immune function and normalize blood pressure and blood sugar levels in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

Honeyed Quality of Life

As we walk through the ample list of Panax ginseng’s capabilities, you’ll notice some key markers related to mood and brain function. A 2002 study best summarized the mental health and social functioning improvements as self-assessed “quality of life” markers.Ellis2002 To understand ginseng root’s effects on quality of life, we have to start with the central mechanism for its benefits: its antioxidative properties.

Powerful Antioxidant

You know the typical foods: berries, leafy greens, and, mercifully, dark chocolate. Antioxidants are essential because they help protect our bodies from oxidative stress and boost our immune system to fight anything from the common cold to cancer cells.

Oxidative stress damages cells and tissues in your body thanks to the work of excessive free radicals. Free radicals, which are missing an electron, never feel fulfilled, and thus seek out other electrons to steal. Guess what’s brimming with vulnerable electrons? Your cells. As free radicals snatch these electrons, they weaken your cells and tissues (also known as lipid peroxidation). Antioxidants are like cell crusaders. They hunt down the fiendish free radicals in your system to protect your body from damage.

In addition to dark chocolate, Panax ginseng is a sweet supplier to your antioxidant arsenal. The polysaccharides in ginseng have exhibited powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.Park2013 While test tube studies on ginseng extract have found increased antioxidant activity in skin cells,Hong2011 human studies have found significant reductions in the number of inflammatory markers in as little as one week.

The increases aren’t just in any old antioxidants though. Two words: superoxide dismutase.

The “super” doesn’t mislead; this antioxidant enzyme is referred to as the first line of defense against free radical damage.

Human studies on Korean red ginseng have observed that it can increase the levels of superoxide dismutase.Seo2014

Like any good front line, superoxide dismutase isn’t alone. The intrepid enzyme is blocking off free radicals with the increased assistance of two other front-line fighters: plasma gluthathione peroxidase and catalase.Seo2014 Together, these three fend off oxidative stress and its body-damaging effects, such as damaging the DNA in your blood cells.Kim2012

This antioxidative power supports the test-tube and animal studies showing ginsenosides have the ability to target the brain for protection against free radicals.Smith2014,Rausch2006,Oh2016

An illustration of brain, split in half, with all the benefits of panax ginseng for brain function on the inside

As a Neuroprotectant

Unfortunately, humans don’t age like wine—instead of developing more complex personalities, we develop things like Alzheimer's. Panax ginseng wants us to taste our full potential; when administered orally, red ginseng may be effective at reducing the rates of learning deficits and cognitive impairment.Petkov1993

When blood flow to the brain becomes inadequate (also called ischemia), it can induce cognitive deficits. Korean red ginseng extract may protect against ischemia-induced injuries by reducing lipid peroxidation caused by free radicals, which assists with defending the brain from harm.Tian2005

Even if the damage has already been done, Panax ginseng has been able to help with the repair process by boosting mitochondrial activity in the brain. Flashback to middle school biology: mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell because they break down nutrients and create energy-dense molecules to energize our cells. Increase this process, and you increase the amount of energy generated in the brain, which can assist with a speedy recovery from cerebral ischemia and its associated effects on learning and memory.Tian2005

Force for Focus: Improving Speed, Attention, and Accuracy

Protecting the brain is great, but how about enhancing it?

Panax ginseng can lead to faster simple reaction times and improve working memory performance.Neale2013 Working memory performance is as straightforward as it sounds—it’s the aspect of short term memory associated with immediate conscious processing of linguistic and perceptual experiences. It’s the memory equivalent of being attentive.

The best part? Chronically supplementing with Panax ginseng doesn’t appear to reduce this attention-getting effect.

A 2010 study observed that eight days of Panax ginseng administration resulted in improved mental arithmetic performance, with equally polished performances on day one and day eight.Reay2010

Attention as a separate category may also find an ally in Panax ginseng. In clinical trials on healthy adults, a twelve week dose of the herb produced a favorable effect on attention as well as logical deduction, mental arithmetic, and auditory reaction times.Dangelo1986

Similar studies found that Panax ginseng could improve performance in tasks designed to test intellectual efficiency. After supplementing with Panax ginseng, participants made significantly fewer errors when performing these tasks.Reay2005

Fatigue Fighter

Two studies have shown that Panax ginseng could be the key to battling that mid-afternoon slump that sets in every day between lunchtime coffee and afternoon snack. Panax ginseng and its extracts have been shown to reduce mental fatigue induced by extended periods of high-energy mental tasks, such as psychological testing.Reay2005 Even when your mood has fallen with your energy, this resilient root may help you perk back up while maintaining a calmness that lends itself to cool concentration.Reay2010

In animal studies, this balanced energy has been linked to the polysaccharides that fight off oxidative stress; as the oxidative stress on your cells is reduced, the energy production in the cells is increased, which allows you to slam the door on fatigue.Wang2014,Bao2016

Similarly, animal swim tests showed that both types of ginseng polysaccharides appeared to reduce physical fatigue by enhancing circulating blood glucose.Wang2010

These fatigue-fighting effects aren’t just reserved for the average person daydreaming about napping at their desk; even cancer survivors and others suffering from chronic fatigue reported significant reductions in their mental and physical lethargy.Barton2013,Kim2013

Body Candy

In addition to the vast array of benefits for your mind and mood, Panax ginseng has been reported to have some positive–and uniquely diverse–effects on your body.

Helping Stomach Ulcers

If you can stomach the bitter taste of Korean red ginseng, your tummy could benefit from the root’s multiple mechanisms for protecting against stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers are painful open sores that develop on the lining of your stomach or small intestine. They’re often caused by bacteria, but pain relievers and chronic stress can contribute to their formation as well.

The antioxidative properties of the root that are primarily associated with ameliorating the oxidative damage that contributes to the formation of stomach ulcers.Oyagi2010

Panax ginseng also may increase mucosal blood flow, which supplies oxygen to the mucous membrane and removes toxic agents.

When ulcers form, blood flow to the mucous membrane is inhibited, and restoring normal blood flow can contribute to faster healing times.Sorbye1994

An illustration of an ear, with an herb of panax ginseng next to it, showing how Panax ginseng helps keep hearing healthy

Can You Hear Me Now?

Have you heard? The ginsenosides in Panax ginseng may protect your ear cells from two compounds found in medications that can damage hearing: cisplatin and gentamicin.Choung2011

Gentamicin, found in antibiotics, can damage the inner ear balance and contribute to hearing loss.Schacht2012 In animal models, when ingested, Panax ginseng appears to have a preventative effect against gentamicin damage thanks to ginsenosides.Choung2011

Cisplatin is a chemotherapy drug that can cause damage to the inner ear (known as ototoxicity) by harming the outer hair cells in the turn of the cochlea.Schacht2012

These delicate hairs translate sound like the keys of the piano; each hair strikes like an individual key so that when they’re played together, they deliver a full symphony of sound for your ears to hear and your brain to understand.

When a hair is missing or damaged, the sound it would pick up also goes missing, leaving you with auditory gaps.HongB2011

Damage to these sensory hair cells can also occur through excessive noise. Imagine the hairs—waving peach fuzz calmly composing your everyday auditory experience. Suddenly, they’re hit with noise so loud that they bend or break from the vibrations, and you’re left with noise-induced hearing loss. These hairs can’t just grow back or repair themselves the way our skin cells can. However, the ginsenosides in Panax ginseng may be able to facilitate partial recovery from noise-induced hearing loss if taken soon after the injury. During this short window of time, the antioxidants in Panax ginseng may be able to scavenge the free radicals before they cause permanent damage.HongB2011


Testosterone Booster

Another positive effect we can add to the ginseng list: the possibility of normalizing testosterone levels.

Several studies on the effects of Panax ginseng on infertility and sexual function found that the root may increase testosterone in subjects where it has been suppressed.Salvati1996 The suspected mechanism is an antioxidative effect on damaged testicles. This poses Panax ginseng root as a possible treatment for other testosterone-related conditions, such as erectile dysfunction.KimT2009,Deandrade2007,Choi1995,Hong2002

Supplementing With Panax Ginseng

Daily doses of Panax ginseng range from 200mg - 400mg with higher doses well-tolerated. The most common side effects of Panax ginseng are insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, and headaches. Other adverse effects reported were low blood pressure and mood changes.Lee2011

There are no known adverse drug interactions for Panax ginseng, but as with taking any new supplement, talk to your doctor beforehand.


Sweet Ending

You may not be able to taste the abundance of sugars inside Panax ginseng, but you can still enjoy its sweet abilities to boost mood and cognitive function while protecting you from auditory and oxidative stress.

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