Ginseng: The Root Of Improving Athletic Performance?

Ginseng offers many benefits for runners and other endurance athletes, which includes boosting energy levels. Photo: www.shutterstock.com


Learn how this supplement can benefit you as an endurance athlete.

Ginseng refers to a group of adaptogenic herbs from the plant family Araliacae. Commonly, ginseng refers to “true” ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer), as well as a related plant called Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), or Eleuthero for short.

Panax ginseng root extracts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years as a tonic indicated for its beneficial effects on the central nervous system, protection from stress, anti-fatigue action, enhancement of sexual function, and acceleration of metabolism.

Siberian ginseng did not really come into the picture as a botanical remedy until the 20th century. Found in the northern regions of the former Soviet Union, the roots of Eleutherococcus senticosus were sought out as a cheaper substitute for the expensive Oriental ginsengs. Soviet researchers found Siberian ginseng to be an excellent tonic to enhance athletic performance as well as to strengthen the body during times of stress.

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Several other “ginsengs” are used as adaptogenic tonics throughout the world; among them are Panax quinquefolium (also known as American ginseng and with a rich history of use by Native Americans) and Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), sometimes called “Indian ginseng” (although not a true ginseng, but with a long history of medicinal use by Ayurvedic healers in India). American ginseng is the most similar to “true” (Panax) ginseng and is highly prized in the Orient, where it is thought to provide a “cooler” invigoration than the native Panax ginseng (considered “warming” by traditional Chinese healers).

In general, the various ginseng supplements available in the U.S. market are claimed to increase energy levels, relieve stress, enhance athletic performance, enhance immune system function, control blood sugar, improve mental function, and promote general well-being. In most of these functions, ginseng, whether Siberian, Panax, or one of the other varieties, is often termed an “adaptogen.”

An adaptogen is defined as a therapeutic and restorative tonic generally considered to produce a “balancing” effect on the body. The properties generally attributed to adaptogens are a non-specific increase in resistance to a wide range of stressors, including physical, chemical, and biological factors, as well as a “normalizing” action irrespective of the direction of the pathological changes. In general, an adaptogen can be thought of as a substance that helps the body deal with stress.

Some studies of ginseng extracts have shown benefits in increasing energy levels in fatigued subjects, while the majority of studies on ginseng as an athletic performance aid have shown no effect. The differences between study results may have been due, in part, to the fact that many commercially available ginseng supplements actually contain little or no ginseng at all — and many researchers often take it for granted that a given product selected off the shelf for study will actually contain what it claims. That’s not always a good assumption.

The clearest indication that a supplement contains something other than real ginseng is the price — ginseng root is a very expensive ingredient and “bargain” ginseng products may either not contain real or enough ginseng, or the active saponin compounds that are thought to deliver ginseng’s anti-fatigue and adaptogenic effects.

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Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero), is not truly ginseng (it’s a shrub rather than a root) but it’s a close enough cousin to deliver some of the same energetic benefits. Eleuthero is also known as Ciwujia in popular sports products. The Siberian form of ginseng is generally a less expensive alternative to “true” Asian or Panax ginseng, though it may have more of a stimulatory effect rather than an adaptogenic effect (not necessarily a bad thing if you just need a boost). Often promoted as an athletic performance enhancer, eleuthero may also possess mild to moderate benefits in promoting recovery following intense exercise — perhaps due in part to an enhanced delivery of oxygen to recovering muscles.

Ashwagandha is an herb from India that is sometimes called “Indian ginseng” — not because it is part of the ginseng family, but to suggest similar energy-promoting and anti-stress benefits that are attributed to the more well-known Asian and Siberian ginsengs. Although there has been very little human research done on ashwagandha, herbalists and natural medicine practitioners often recommend the herb to combat stress and fatigue — and it does appear to be particularly suited to relaxation uses following stressful events.

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