Massey University researchers are now well down the path to better understanding what it is in ginseng that bestows health-giving properties on it.
However, there is still considerable work to determine the why behind those properties.
Massey Food Science and Technology Institute human nutrition senior lecturer Dr David Popovich said the herb is characterised by having no less than 250 bio-active compounds or ginsenosides.
“That is a lot but which one of these is the active?”
Researchers have established a way to identity the different molecules and have started compiling a reference library using mass spectrometry. So far it contains sample profiles of 26 ginsenosides.
Popovich has a long-running interest in plants used in traditional Chinese medicine and said ginseng has long been held suitable for dealing with heart palpitations, insomnia, impotence, diabetes and forgetfulness.
“When we look at what is actually known now, it includes work by the Mayo Clinic that reviewed 149 articles on its effect on chronic fatigue.
“It found there was a definitive positive effect taking ginseng.
“However, while it improved the symptoms and the evidence is it works, how is the question.”
A hot off the press finding is that ginseng also helps reduce inflammation and with that helps lower rates of diabetes, heart conditions and arthritis.
“It appears that it turns off the destructive immune response.”
Latest research has also found ginsenosides have a direct impact on the brain.
“That is something not thought possible before but if it is good, bad or indifferent, we don’t know yet.”
Given the molecular diversity and complexity of the ginsenoside molecule, Popovich is optimistic it might provide a source for other enhanced extracts, possibly including cytotoxins that can kill cancer.
“The evidence for ginseng and diabetes is becoming quite strong.
“There have been a number of studies showing this but, again, in terms of how it works, we are working on that.”
With 11% of Chinese already diabetic and a third pre-disposed, the potential for a herb already culturally accepted that could help treat it presents a huge potential market.
Popovich said the herb has the potential to be rated in a way similar to the UMF manuka honey standard in terms of its active healing molecule quality.