Finding the right herbal supplement can make all the difference in combating the effects of aging, an injury, or simply improving quality of life. It may also occur that a person can see so many benefits for a supplement that they start to think it may help with everything.
Ginseng has become one such herbal supplement, with people seeing it as a cure for everything. Fact is that’s always been the case (its scientific name, Panax ginseng, means “cure for everything”). But recent trends are striking: the US ginseng market hit nearly $400 million, and the global market will eclipse $12 Billion within two years.
I’ll examine one of the more popular uses for Ginseng, in treating low testosterone, sifting through what clinical studies exist, and trying to determine if there is an effect.
✲ No reliable clinical trials exist, to date, demonstrating a clear testosterone benefit for men taking Ginseng.
✲ Ginseng has been shown to raise testosterone in women.
✲ Discrepancies in data may be related to the mechanisms of androgen receptors.
✲ One study of bodybuilders actually showed testosterone decreases after ginseng.
Contrasting Study Data
After reading through several online databases of medical and scientific research, the short conclusion on Ginseng and testosterone is that no credible studies have been conducted. The overwhelming majority of data refers only to “sexual health,” “performance,” or other subjective points of reference.
Despite the strong correlation between testosterone and sexual health, the fact remains that there are a number of other factors that can lead to better performance while not touching on testosterone, at all. (Factors include blood flow and the presence of nitric oxide, to name a few.)
To put a finer point on it, a clinical trial that has garnered literally thousands of reads by professionals concluded that Panax ginseng does, indeed, help with erectile dysfunction, as well as several other parameters of male sexual health. Interestingly, though, Ginseng did not improve blood testosterone levels. Another study, however, did find higher levels of testosterone, but their data is not publicly available, and the study is well over 25 years old.
Another team of researchers, however, found that administration of Panax ginseng significantly increased the saliva testosterone levels among healthy women. There are two key possibilities for the differences in the data. This data is important because saliva testosterone points to DHEA created testosterone, which we’ll discuss below.
Production versus Synthesis
Hormones are essentially cholesterol molecules that carry signaling information to other parts of the body as they are transported through the blood. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is that when testosterone interacts with muscle tissue, it tells the muscle cells to intake more protein and perform better.
Other hormones, such as Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), are only just now being understood. One of their possible uses is in signaling other hormones to combine with each other to form needed hormones throughout the body. As an example, in the study of women mentioned above, it was seen that ginseng did not stimulate the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal axis to produce more testosterone. Rather, the Ginseng influenced the DHEA molecule to help produce more testosterone in the blood stream.
Because men already produce more testosterone, it could be that their DHEA sensitivity to triggering more testosterone is higher, which could explain the difference in data between men and women.
Several supplement manufacturers claim that various studies have proven the effect of Ginseng on testosterone. What they’re really pointing to, however, are animal studies, usually of rats or mice.
It isn’t meet to quote everyone of the literally dozens of Ginseng animal studies, but suffice to say, the data is pretty clear–in rats and mice, ginseng can stimulate higher testosterone. But that data, to date, has not necessarily transmitted to men. Why?
One study set about to find out, and a few years ago published findings that the trigger mechanism, in males, may be Ginseng’s effect on Androgen Receptors. The majority of their paper discussed the estrogen boosting effects of Ginseng, which we’ll discuss in the last section. But in their conclusion, they hypothesized that when Ginseng has increased testosterone among males of any species, it is through regulation of Androgen Receptors.
They cited multiple other studies suggesting that ginseng polysaccharides are able to help upregulate Androgen Receptor behavior, increasing the levels of total testosterone. Which brings us finally to why it may not be working in men.
I’ve discussed in multiple articles the differences between a human and an animal study. In simplest terms, animals can be controlled, humans cannot be. That means that in a testosterone trial of mice, scientists can control what the animal eats, when it sleeps, how much exercise it gets–even its genetic makeup, thanks to selective laboratory breeding.
In human studies everything becomes a variable, no matter how scientists try to control for them. With testosterone studies, there’s no guarantee that humans have the same Androgen Receptor mutations as seen in the above studies–without which mutations, there’s nothing for the ginseng to act upon, and so no testosterone increase.
Taking the estrogen boosting effects from one study, and the DHEA effects on women from another, we may also simply be seeing a fundamental difference in how men and women metabolize supplements.
To the point about Androgen Receptors, the last study we’ll examine is also the most recent, and perhaps the most well-executed. Using all the best testing parameters, a team of researchers found that testosterone levels actually went down in healthy men after taking ginseng.
This suggests that when all other hormonal systems are normal, or even high-testosterone already, ginseng’s estrogen-boosting effects (as noted in mice) will take over.
In researching this article, several things became clear that I hope have been communicated.
1) Some studies suggest Ginseng improves sexual health, but; 2) that doesn’t necessarily mean higher testosterone, and; 3) there is as much data suggesting testosterone goes down as there is that it goes up.
Nearly every study I read and cited for this piece had the caveat that more research is needed. It remains clear that ginseng improves testosterone levels in rats and mice, and it’s becoming more clear why this is the case. But translation to humans remains elusive, and until more data is available, no conclusions can be reached.