Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ginseng for Colds and Flu

Two populations that are most vulnerable to the common cold and influenza are young children and the elderly. Fortunately, a special extract of North American ginseng is building a strong reputation as a safe and natural way to change that trend. It seems that the extract in question, known commercially as COLD-fX, contains high levels of a group of substances known as polysaccharides. These naturally occurring chemicals have been shown to support the body’s immune system by increasing the numbers and activity of natural killer cells, macrophages and t-lymphocytes – major players in various stages of the immune response. (1,2)
In March 2006, a study investigating the effects of COLD-fX on “acute respiratory illness” (ARI) appeared in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 43 healthy seniors were given a 200 mg capsule of N. American ginseng extract or a placebo twice a day for a total of 4 months. After one month of treatment, all the participants were also administered an influenza vaccine. The volunteers were asked to document their experiences for any signs of respiratory illness and take note of any adverse effects that might be due to either “medication”. Here’s what the study results revealed:
  • No adverse reactions were reported in the placebo and treatment volunteers.
  • During the first two months of the trial, both groups reported similar outcomes.
  • The second half of the study demonstrated a 48% reduction in ARIs in those using ginseng and a 55% decrease in ARI symptom duration.
The authors of the study concluded that, “Daily COLD-fX administration can thus be a safe, natural therapeutic means of prevention of ARI in healthy seniors”. (3)
A larger trial, presented in the journal Canadian Family Physician, examined the impact of N. American ginseng or a placebo on a total of 279 volunteers of all ages (18-65). The one common trait they possessed was having had at least 2 colds during the previous year. Approximately half of the group was given 200 mg of N. American ginseng twice daily. The remainder took an identical looking placebo. Once again, the duration of the trial was 4 months.
The results of this investigation clearly indicate that the ginseng users had a lower incidence of colds, fewer instances of multiple colds, less severe symptoms and fewer days where they exhibited any cold symptoms. As in the previous study, no side effects were noted. (4)
Ginseng’s effects may be even more profound when it’s pitted against influenza. Two trials published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society point to an “89% relative risk reduction of acute respiratory infections” during influenza season. What’s encouraging about these studies is that they were shorter in length (8 and 12 weeks) and involved volunteers with an average age of over 80. This may indicate rapid immune boosting effects and a broad degree of safety, even in populations that may be more vulnerable to adverse reactions. (5)
There is a very real safety concern about giving young children any type of preventive medicine, natural or otherwise. Therefore, a toxicity experiment was conducted and appeared in the August 2008 issue of the journal Pediatrics. It studied the relative safety of COLD-fX in a group of 46 children (aged 3-12) who developed upper respiratory infections. No adverse effects were noted in the children given a low or moderate dose of the ginseng extract or the inert placebo. (6)


All of the above research was conducted on North American ginseng. But other varieties of this root, such as Korean red ginseng, may also promote a vital immune system. However, different kinds of ginseng may impact immunity differently. For instance, Korean red ginseng is theorized to keep the body’s defenses strong with a stress reducing effect. Ginseng has historically been known as an adaptogen, a substance that aids the body to adapt to physical and psychological stressors. Researchers in Matsuyama, Japan have recently determined that this stress adaptation can possibly support efforts to prevent the common cold and flu. (7)
Finally, I want to mention an Italian study from way back in 1996. It’s an example of ginseng being used as part of an integrative approach. 227 volunteers were given either a once daily ginseng supplement (Ginsana G – 100 mg) or a placebo for a total of 12 weeks. At the 4 week mark, they all were administered an influenza vaccine. Those receiving the ginseng were nearly three times less likely to catch a cold or flu in the subsequent 2 months, as compared to the placebo + vaccine group. Blood tests revealed that antibodies rose significantly more in the ginseng users, as did natural killer cell activity – two markers of enhanced immune function.(8)
The issue of whether or not to get the flu vaccine is shrouded in controversy. The decision needs to be carefully examined on a case by case basis. I personally choose not to have a yearly “flu shot”, but from here on out, I will strongly consider using ginseng during those times when my immune system may need some additional support.

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