Diabetes type 2 and other high blood sugar related illnesses are among the prevalent health crises in the United States. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 10 Americans have type 2 diabetes, with many of them not realizing it. In addition to that, nearly a third of all Americans have pre-diabetic, with 90% of them having no idea.
A previous article of mine discussed how 6 million Americans are taking some form of Ginseng as an herbal health supplement. Given these diabetes and ginseng data, it is important to find out just what effect Ginseng has on blood sugar, and what we can know about how the effect is working.
✲ Conflicting results from studies indicate that not all ginseng is created equal.
✲ Transmission and bioavailability of ginseng plays a large role in efficacy.
✲ Under the right circumstances, ginseng can directly lower blood sugar.
✲ More research is needed on the specific compounds within ginseng that are showing positive results.
Where the Studies Differ
Many studies have been conducted on Ginseng, for everything from obesity to the immune system. What many studies of ginseng have found is that the different genuses of ginseng, and the different preparations of it, determine to a large degree how effective the ginseng is.
This has borne out especially in blood sugar studies. In reviewing the literature of 12 human trials of ginseng among diabetic humans, it becomes clear that the ginsenoside active in the treatment helped some patients significantly lower their blood sugar.
Ginsenosides are the medically active compounds in ginseng plants, and are part of the plant known as “saponins.” Saponins are chemicals found in plants that are usually toxic if consumed raw in large quantities. In ginseng, more than 200 ginsenoside have been isolated, with between 6 and 7 of them analyzed for help with glucose levels.
In general, reviews of the literature suggest that these compounds, namely Rb1, Rg3, Re, and Rg1, are all helpful in reducing fasting sugar levels and sugar levels after eating (postprandial).
Studies with No Effect
Some human studies had no significant effect on blood sugar levels, and the literature draws some distinction here between types of ginseng. Korean Red Ginseng and vinegar extract of ginseng had the most consistently positive results.
On the other hand, American ginseng and Korean White ginseng had the least effect in some studies, or the most inconsistent effect in others.
Researchers have concluded this is because of the different bioavailability of ginsenosides in the different kinds of ginseng and the different preparations of it. This bioavailability stems from the actual size of the ginsenoside molecules. It has been theorized that animal and in vitro studies are more successful because the ginseng doesn’t need to pass through the digestive tract.
Studies with no effect didn’t take any steps to prepare ginseng in such a way as to optimize how well the participants could absorb it into their body systems. Authors of reviews of these ineffective studies speculate that by finding more absorbable ginseng, researchers will get better results.
Two particular studies have been conducted recently to examine the potential benefits of ginseng berry versus ginseng root. While most compounds of ginsenosides from the root are used in trials, it has been noted that the berry contains more of the beneficial medical chemicals than the roots.
The first study, carried out on mice, showed significant reductions in blood sugar. The other study, however, was carried out with humans and had more mixed results. In this study, it was shown that the ginseng berry did reduce fasting and postprandial glucose levels, it did not prove any significant reductions in the hyperglycemic condition itself.
If this sounds confusing, something to keep in mind is that in scientific literature they must rely on statistical analysis and defend themselves against attack from the peer-review process. That means that even if scientists in a study find over half their participants do see positive results, they can’t make the claim that their trial worked because it’s not statistically significant.
The researchers in the human study of Ginseng Berry found that the ginsenoside Re has potentially massive impacts on how the body metabolizes sugars, but that in their study, they weren’t able to isolate and test for that.
How Ginseng Could Lower Blood Sugar
Just as important as finding that Ginseng can have an effect is trying to determine how it is having that effect. If researchers can isolate the mechanisms, they can improve the treatments. Four important mechanisms in ginseng interaction with the body have been identified by researchers, all of which may explain exactly how this herb reduces blood sugar.
When diabetics and prediabetic people have insulin resistance, their cells don’t absorb the glucose from the bloodstream, so sugar builds up. This results in the host of health problems anyone suffering with diabetes knows all too well.
One of the studies previously mentioned on ginseng berry, as well as at least 3 other studies, have found that certain ginsenosides can reduce insulin resistance in both live participants and in vitro. The ginseng compounds most associated with better insulin health were Rg1 and Rg3. Some of the research suggests that fermented red ginseng is the best for insulin resistance.
Closely related to insulin resistance, glucose uptake is the process whereby our muscles use sugar to burn during activity. This helps the body process sugar effectively, instead of storing it in fat around the liver or in triglycerides.
In studies looking at the expression of Rg1 and Re ginsenosides found them to be the most helpful in stimulating our muscles to burn sugar in the bloodstream. The two most cited forms of ginseng in these studies was Korean Red and fermented red ginseng.
Dozens of other studies have been reviewed to determine the exact way ginseng may be helping blood sugar levels, and the theories range from oxidation of certain compounds in our digestive tract to inflammation. One study even looked at the interplay of diabetes and stroke, and how ginseng could mitigate those casualties.
The conclusion of these other studies, however, is that more research needs to be done on these specific and isolated functions.
The evidence is quite strong that there is a positive connection between certain types of ginseng and lower blood sugar. These effects can vary based on whether a patient is diabetic or prediabetic, and whether their blood sugar is well-maintained, or not.
Importantly, none of the studies reported any side effects, and none reported higher blood sugar. This means that anyone looking to ginseng to supplement their current blood sugar treatment is in good stead seeking the advice of their primary care physician and finding a product with good bioavailability and the correct ginsenoside array.