November 24, 2022

Can Ginseng Boost Your Immune System | Research Studies Breakdown

by Bryan Wellington

While the health benefits of Ginseng have been reported in traditional medicine for centuries, it has only been in the last decade that large bodies of work have come about to study, in detail, what the benefits of Ginseng may be. Rather than focus on the entire body of scientific research, I’ve found an aggregate study of the scientific literature regarding Panax ginseng (red or Korean ginseng) and its effects on the immune system.

These studies are important to understand in non-scientific, or lay terms because if the accurate information is kept obscure in medical journals, many people will be left wondering if there is any validity to the health benefits of this powerful herb. In the main, the literature has made it abundantly clear that red ginseng is a powerful immune booster, which is ever more important in a global environment with new viruses and infections seemingly every season.

The literature I’ll be using is a meta-study that references or cites over 120 clinical trials and chemical analyses. In this piece I’ll be focusing on the immunological responses most affected by treatment with ginseng.

Key Taekeaways

The current studies only provide evidence for the use of Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng. This doesn’t mean other ginsengs aren’t beneficial.T

Ginseng reaches its most bioavailable and useful form when steeped before drying, resulting in “red” ginseng.

✲ Ginseng has been seen to benefit multiple types of cells and chemical responses in the body.

Ginseng can help Arthritis, Sepsis, Yeast Infections, Ulcers, and even Cancer.

The Literature Review

In order to focus my search for what may or may not result in good scientific research, it was important to find as reputable a resource as possible. Using the National Institutes of Health website, I was able to find a study first published by the Journal of Ginseng Research, based in South Korea. While this does not immediately count as bias, it is important to look for corroborating data not drawn from the Journal’s own database. 

For this reason, I’ll draw attention to most of the data the literature review cites from third party trials or studies.

Why Steeped, Red Ginseng is Supreme

When food is heated–by cooking, boiling, steaming, or any other method–the chemical structure of the food is altered. In the case of meats, for instance, the process results in more energy.

Ginseng, in its dried or raw form, does provide important chemical benefits to the body, but it is easier to absorb in the intestinal tract when steamed. In fact, some compounds were not yet even present in ginseng until after it was cooked.

Most of the health benefits of ginseng are from compounds called ginsenosides. Without cooking or steaming the ginseng first, many of these ginsenosides are not available or digestible by the human body.

Regarding the Immune System

The immune system has a diverse role, and to meet these roles, employs dozens of processes to keep the rest of our systems and cells safe. I’ll break down ginseng’s benefits by each part of the immune system affected, with references to the exact study that the literature cited.


Unique among the white blood cells of the body are macrophages. These cells get their name, in part, because of their ability to grow and encompass bad-actor cells within our bodies. The science behind this is analogous to surrounding a sharp rock with sand, and the sand grinding away at the sharp rock until it’s harmless.

Macrophages are at work in our bodies at all times. In one study conducted for the Journal of Infection, researchers found a direct link between the introduction of ginseng into a system that also had a staph infection (Staphylococcus aureus), and a decrease in the sepsis caused by that infection. It’s important to note that the ginseng doesn’t kill the staph infection, but it reduces the symptoms of that infection dramatically.

In another study published in Europe, when ginseng was taken orally by adults, the amount of macrophage activity was reported to be much higher. Again, this doesn’t mean the macrophagic cells were eliminating all the infections. That largely depends on other parameters of immune health. But it stands to reason that with increased macrophage activity, immune responses in general will be much better.

Natural Killer Cells

Sounding like something from a science-fiction novel, Natural Killer Cells, or NKs are just what they sound like: white blood cells that attack infections and even cancerous cells in the body. What makes them so powerful is that, unlike other white blood cells, they do not need to be “triggered” by marker enzymes on the offending infection or tumor. They seem naturally able to identify harmful cells and they kill them.

A study published in the journal Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology found that the introduction of ginseng to immuno-compromised lab animals resulted in increased NK activity. There is limited application of these findings, however; ginseng does not cure cancer. But it does suggest that more human trials should be conducted.

The earlier European study I mentioned also found increased NK activity in humans, though that trial was only an 8 week trial, meaning the long term benefits are yet to be known. 

Large-Cell Immune Response

In the world of immunology, there is a system called the humoral system. This has nothing to do with comedy, or even the humorous (arm bone). Rather, it takes its name from the antiquated medical theory of humors, or fluids in the body.

Ginseng has been shown to stimulate the fluids around cells in the body, or the humoral immune system. These fluids are responsible for large-cell responses to pathogens in the body. Essentially, once a small-celled organism is attacked by a virus or bacteria, the larger cells in the humoral system have to react. Ginseng helps that system with its processes. It’s important to note, however, that long term use of oral ginseng also reduced spleen activity, an important organ for the filtration of blood.

Another study found that the introduction of a specific ginsenoside found in steeped ginseng could even induce a complete immunity to a deadly disease in animals, which the authors note is “worth further development.”

Specific Uses of Ginseng

It’s nice to know what ginseng can do on the microscopic level, but it’s another thing to know what real-world applications the average person can use ginseng for. In this section I’ll cover some easy to understand cases where ginseng proved highly effective.

Yeast Infections

In an experiment conducted in 2016, mice with a common yeast infection were given ginseng treatment, and developed a resistance to common yeast infections (Candida albicans). While this yeast lives naturally on human skin and in our surface orifices, when uncontrolled it can develop into dangerous infections.


Many of us have suffered from ulcers at some point in our lives. The scientific literature goes back and forth on the root causes of ulcers, and what makes them come back or stay around longer.

Gut health, diet, pathogens, and stress are related. But one thing that has been shown in the laboratory is that ginseng can help.

A study from 2010 showed that digestive tract ulcers and their symptoms can be helped by the introduction of ginseng. Compounds from the herb help with damage caused by the ulcers, and improve mucous flow (actually a good thing, here), to help with the discomfort associated with ulcers.


Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that affects millions of people, including: the elderly; long-term hospital patients; and people with diabetes. It is so dangerous that 1 out of 3 deaths in hospitals happened in patients who had sepsis.

Experiments carried out in 2006 showed not only that ginseng can help with the survival or sepsis, but the experiments even showed why. By helping clear bacteria that causes sepsis, and by reducing the over-activity of immune response, tissue with bacterial sepsis fought off and better survived the condition than the tissue treated normally.


Arthritis affects millions of people every day, and there a hundreds of treatments out there. Ginseng attacks arthritis at one of its root causes, the inflammation of connective tissue. By improving the total immune response of the body, Ginseng prevents the tissues of our body, like tendons and ligaments, from becoming swollen during an immunity event.


Cancer remains one of the biggest killers in all of medicine. Treatments for cancer usually involve painful proceduress like radiation or chemotherapy. But researchers in our main paper have noted that hundreds of studies have “reported the anti-cancer or chemopreventive effects of ginseng.” 

In fact, even the respected Mount Sinai medical group has written that Asian ginseng presents promising treatment for Cancer. They quote that studies have shown “Asian ginseng slows down or stops the growth of tumors.” That’s an incredible claim.


Many studies only cover what is observed, especially in herbal or alternative medicines. In some cases, the study only goes as far as to say, “we gave patients this herb, we saw these symptoms go down.”

I’ve made sure to find studies that not only show red ginseng is effective, but why. These experiments and trials looked at the chemical, biological responses to discern that not only is ginseng treating everything from ulcers to cancer, but that these effects are due to repeatable, reliable chemical and cellular reactions that occur not only in controlled Petri dishes, but also in live animal and human bodies.

Ginseng when taken orally, from the steamed-then-dried Panax ginseng plant can provide a multitude of benefits, with very little downside. It is important the more search be taken up in American science to make what is widely known in Asia and even Europe more accessible here at home.


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