Millions of Americans struggle with weight and obesity. According to the CDC, more than 40% of us have some weight issues, up from 30% just twenty years ago. Given that data, it’s no surprise that many of us have turned to some form of supplement or herbal remedy to help. In fact, 15% of Americans have used a dietary supplement at some point in their lives.
Ginseng remains a popular option for many of us as we turn away from pharmaceuticals and toward natural remedies. Some numbers put the number at 6 million Americans who take ginseng on some regular basis.
Taking these data into account, it’s imperative to look at what scientific evidence may or may not conclude about the weight loss efficacy of Panax ginseng. In a review of all the relevant, recent scientific findings, it becomes clear that there is some cellular evidence for mechanisms related to obesity being regulated by ginseng, though there is no conclusive evidence that it can directly treat weight disorders in humans.
✲ Animal studies have shown promising weight and fat reduction when ginseng is introduced
✲ Human studies have offered conflicting evidence, however
✲ In cellular and molecular analysis, there is strong evidence that ginseng supports weight and fat reduction processes
✲ Ginseng remains well-tolerated, and part of a healthy lifestyle, can provide benefits in weight loss.
Ginseng in Animal Studies
Studies going back as far as 2013 have positively established a link between ginseng and reduced adipose fat tissue. (Adipose refers to how the body stores fat, as differentiated from fat in the blood or digestive tract.) One such study found that giving ginseng to obese mice reduced their body weight and their total fat levels.
A total of five other studies reached the same results, with strong data to support the mechanisms behind the fat loss. In some studies, the genes in the mice that are responsible for turning food into fat were suppressed. Other researchers found that the fat the mice were fed was delayed in getting absorbed by the intestinal system.
These results are promising, and the theory is that these processes can be duplicated in humans. Despite the fact that mice and humans share very similar body systems, however, the fact is that humans have many more variables in their eating habits, stomach chemistry, and behaviors than mice do. That means that the exact results from the animal studies haven’t been replicated in humans.
A total of seven human studies have been reviewed for their effect on obesity, body fat, and total weight. The overwhelming majority did not produce significant weight loss or fat loss. There is one important outlier, however, that did produce results. It’s worth noting that this study also used 33% more ginseng than the next leading study.
Conducted and published in 2014, a clinical trial of 10 obese women was held over an 8 week span. The study had a special focus on gut microbes and baseline samples from each participant were taken before the trials.
While all participants had an overall beneficial gut microbe reaction to the introduction of ginseng, only some of the participants had weight loss. The researchers then turned to analyzing the gut microbe data to determine if differences could be found.
When sequencing the different bacteria in the participants, the scientists did indeed discover clues as to what led to weight loss in some but not in others. The key findings were:
- 1Participants with an overall richer gut bacteria level before the trial began had more effective fat and weight loss
- 2Gut bacteria that seemed to indicate weight loss were: Tenericutes, Bacteroidetes, and Firmicutes
- 3These bacteria are thought to better process the fat-inhibiting functions of ginseng
For people who aren’t sure what exactly gut microbes and bacteria are, the buzz word surrounding this field is “probiotics.” Famously found in yogurts, certain red meats, and specialized vegetables like chicory root, all of these “good” bacteria can be readily found in common foods.
The indication, here, is that combined with a high level of ginseng (8 g a day), these good bacteria can stimulate fat and weight loss effects.
The Other Studies
All of the other studies produced some or no effect on weight loss. But that does not mean that there were no cellular or molecular indications that the ginseng was working. It only means that the overall effect was not significant.
To break that down, the following processes were seen to have been affected by the introduction of ginseng, though because of differences in body type, exercise, diet, and genetics, no direct causation of ginseng and weight loss could be concluded.
Recent studies into gene markers have led to exciting possibilities in the treatment and diagnosis of several diseases. Scientists are finding out that certain genes can indicate everything from addiction to personality. Weight loss science is no different.
In a study from 2012, Korean scientists performed genetic analysis before a ginseng study, to find out if our genetic make-up may play a role in how the root can affect weight loss. They found that participants having a certain gene mutation were more likely to have a high Body Mass Index before the study. More importantly, those were the same participants that had significant weight loss due to the ginseng.
Interestingly, the study also looked at food intake among all the participants. They found that people who did not have the gene mutation (and so had a lower BMI) had cravings to eat go down, while the higher BMI group did not.
These findings indicate that if a person has a genetic predisposition to obesity, ginseng may benefit them in losing weight, but won’t decrease food intake, necessarily. On the other hand, if a person does not have a genetic marker for obesity, ginseng may not lead to weight loss, but could lead to eating less.
While the rest of the literature does not support ginseng interventions as a direct cause of weight loss, studies have found significant improvements in areas related to obesity, namely:
While some of these issues are caused by excess weight, some of them can also lead to it. What’s important to understand in relation to ginseng is that in these studies, only these factors were affected by the ginseng–not the weight or obesity itself.
Safety of Ginseng
The last, but not least, important note on ginseng treatment in human studies is that none of the trials reported any side effects or adverse health issues related to taking ginseng. That means that if a person believes they may be a candidate for taking ginseng for weight loss, due to genetic or microbial factors, there’s little to no risk in trying the supplement.
Animal studies and human studies vary for more reasons than can be discussed in one article. The basic fact is that mice aren’t people. But beyond that, and within that, are other differences. In a laboratory, scientists can strictly control what mice eat, how often they exercise, and what their sleep patterns are.
In human trials, scientists are at the whim of all the differences that individual people bring to the table. These variables are part of why scientists see solid, causal relationships between ginseng and weight loss in animal studies, but not as much in human studies.
Despite these incongruities, there is evidence that under certain genetic and bacterial conditions, ginseng in humans can lead to fat and weight loss. More studies, under better controls, are needed to explore these concepts further.