Anyone who’s ever seen a ginseng root will understand why
its name is derived from a Chinese term that literally means “man root.”
Ginseng roots fork at the bottom and resemble a man’s legs. Ironically, taking
an extract of this root will definitely give you legs, as in stronger, more
durable legs, as well as upper body. So consider giving the world’s oldest
supplement a try to boost your performance in the gym, your physique and even
Ginseng in General
Ginseng refers to the species Panax ginseng, known less formally as Chinese ginseng, Korean
ginseng or just plain old Asian ginseng. Other ginsengs that provide similar
benefits are also available and include American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Japanese ginseng (Panax japonicus) and tienqi
ginseng (Panax notoginseng). However,
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus
senticosus) is not a true ginseng and therefore is a completely different
supplement that will not be discussed here.
Ginseng is the most studied
physical-performance herb on the planet. It has been used for thousands of
years in traditional Chinese medicine and has been popularly used as an energy
enhancer and sexual stimulant. Today, we know that the primary active
ingredients in ginseng are saponins referred to as ginsenosides. There are 13
known ginsenosides, and these provide the wide range of benefits that ginseng
is touted for.
Several studies have reported that ginseng can help boost
physical performance. Although most of these studies were concerned with muscle
endurance, one study reported that male and female subjects taking 1 gram of Panax ginseng every day for six weeks
increased muscle strength in the upper and lower body. Ginseng may increase
strength because it enhances the body’s own creatine production. A 2010 study
by Chinese researchers found that mice that were fed ginseng for 15 days
experienced less fatigue during forced swimming. The researchers discovered
that one of the main ways that ginseng blunted fatigue in the mice was by
increasing levels of enzymes involved in creatine production. This allowed them
to have more quick energy and burn fewer carbohydrates. Greater levels of the
kind of quick energy creatine promotes can lead to more strength in the gym, as
well as muscle growth.
In athletic circles, ginseng is
best known for its ability to boost muscle endurance. One study from Germany
reported that trained athletes taking Panax
ginseng experienced significant improvements in their aerobic capacity. A
study from California State Polytechnic University reported that subjects
taking Panax notoginseng for 30 days
increased their exercise time to exhaustion by more than seven minutes.
Canadian researchers reported that rats receiving ginseng for just four days
increased their exercise time to exhaustion because ginseng causes the body to
spare glucose and burn more fat for fuel. This not only explains why ginseng
increases muscle endurance but also why it can aid fat loss.
Ginseng also may delay fatigue by
directly affecting the brain. Korean researchers found that rats given ginseng
before exercise showed increased time to exhaustion for treadmill running because
of lower serotonin production from tryptophan in the brain. Serotonin signals
fatigue, which reduces muscle strength and endurance. By inhibiting serotonin
production, you can train stronger for longer.
Spanish researchers, on the other
hand, discovered that rats given ginseng for 12 weeks experienced higher
mitochondria numbers and greater blood-vessel density in their muscles. This
means that ginseng may enhance endurance by getting more nutrients and oxygen
from the blood into the muscles. With more mitochondria, muscles are better
equipped to convert those nutrients and oxygen into fuel. Italian scientists
reported that trained subjects taking ginseng for six weeks increased their
aerobic performance through increased oxygen consumption. This may have been a
result of greater blood-vessel density, as reported in the Spanish study. Or it
may be because of a boost in nitric-oxide levels, which ginseng has been shown
to provoke by increasing activity of the enzyme that converts arginine into NO
in the body. Having higher NO levels during workouts means that ginseng not
only will increase your endurance but also will boost your muscle size and strength
gains, as research confirms.
Aids Muscle Recovery
In addition to aiding workout performance, ginseng can aid
muscle recovery after the workout is over, which also encourages greater gains
in muscle mass. Spanish scientists found that rats that were fed Panax ginseng after completing a bout of
downhill running — exercise that for rats is the equivalent to doing negative
reps and is known to cause muscle damage — had significantly less damage to
their thigh muscles and reduced inflammation. Korean researchers also reported
that male college students taking ginseng for one week experienced less thigh-muscle
damage and inflammation after an intense uphill running test as compared to
those receiving a placebo. This allowed the subjects taking ginseng to maintain
higher insulin sensitivity after the workout, which could further enhance
recovery and muscle growth because insulin is an anabolic hormone. Chinese
researchers reported similar findings in male college students following four
weeks of ginseng supplementation.
Another group of Korean researchers
found that eight weeks of Panax ginseng supplementation
in men decreased exercise-induced oxidative damage by increasing free-radical
scavenging. This not only helped prolong their exercise time to exhaustion but
also aided their ability to recover from the workout. Similar results also were
reported in animal studies.
Ginseng not only protects muscles
from oxidative damage following aerobic exercise but also appears to protect
the muscles from mechanical damage, like the kind that weightlifting can
produce. Brazilian researchers have reported in several studies that ginseng
supplementation protects the muscle fibers from damage during eccentric
exercise (negative-rep training). They discovered that ginseng better protects
membrane integrity and decreases the accompanying oxidative damage. This can
result in better muscle recovery and growth.
In addition to performance and recovery benefits, which can
create physique benefits, as well, ginseng provides many health benefits.
Numerous studies confirm that ginseng supplementation lowers blood glucose
levels and insulin levels. Although the precise mechanism is not known, it may
be because of ginseng’s previously discussed ability to increase insulin
sensitivity at muscle cells. It also may be because of ginseng’s ability to
slow down gastric emptying, which means it takes longer to digest food.
Regardless of how it works, this benefit could clearly help keep body fat off and
reduce the risk of diabetes.
Ginseng has been found to boost
alertness and cognitive function in studies that go back decades. It also has
been found to significantly improve mood. One way that ginseng may improve mood
in men, at least, is by boosting their sexual performance. Yes, ginseng has
been used for thousands of years — and found in current research studies — to
boost men’s sexual performance. This may be because it increases the release of
luteinzing hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain, which encourages the
production of testosterone in the testicles. Or it may be because of ginseng’s
ability to boost NO levels. NO increases blood flow not just to the muscles but
down below, too.
In addition to all this, research
suggests that ginseng can boost immunity and help prevent colds and flu as well
as decrease their duration. It may even help prevent cancer and improve general
well-being and quality of life.
Dosing Out Ginseng
Take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of Panax ginseng (Chinese ginseng), Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), Panax japonicus (Japanese ginseng) or Panax notoginseng (tienqi ginseng),
standardized for at least 3 percent total ginsenosides, two to three times per
day, with one of those doses taken 30 minutes before workouts.