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Sports Nutrition

The Multifunctional Herb

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 your health.

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.

Boosts Physical Performance

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.

Healthy Benefits

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.