Panax ginseng is an ivy-like ground cover originating in the wild, damp woodlands of northern China and Korea. Its use in Chinese herbal medicine dates back more than 4,000 years. In colonial North America, ginseng was a major export product. The wild form is now rare, but Panax ginseng is a widely cultivated plant.
Ginseng contains at least 13 different saponins, a class of chemicals found in many plants, especially legumes, which take their name from their ability to form a soap-like froth when shaken with water. These compounds (triterpene glycosides) are the most pharmaceutically active constituents of ginseng.
Thanks to these saponins, ginseng has gained legendary status amongst herbs. It has been shown to benefit a wide range of health conditions, including your heart, hormone production, immunity and the central nervous system. And now, a recent study finds that Panax ginseng also eases muscle damage and inflammation, while improving insulin sensitivity.
Ginseng and Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage
It has been shown that strenuous exercise can cause both muscle damage and inflammation, which are indicated by increased levels of creatine kinase, as well as interleukin-6. Creatine kinase is an enzyme that converts other substances into ATP, for energy. It is especially important in muscles, such as skeletal muscles, that use up ATP quickly. In fact, elevated levels of creatine kinase can indicate skeletal muscle injury as a result of strenuous exercise.
Interleukin-6 is a special protein that is released in response to trauma. In this role, it can and often does cause inflammation. It is also elevated when you have any type of muscle contraction, especially during exercise. So it’s no surprise that interleukin-6 levels are particularly high after vigorous exercise and usually indicate muscle inflammation.
Given these two situations, Spanish researchers set out to determine if Panax ginseng could protect against exercise-induced muscle damage by measuring levels of both creatine kinase and interleukin-6.
They divided 18 male college students between the ages of 19 and 22 into two groups. The first group took 20 grams of Korean ginseng (also called red ginseng or heated Panax ginseng) mixed with 200 mL of water (about 7 ounces). They drank this mixture three times a day for 10 days. The second group took 10 grams of another, non-medicinal herb mixed into the same about water. They also drank the mixture three times a day for 10 days.
After one week, both groups did two 45-minute high-intensity uphill treadmill running exercises at a 15% grade and 10 km/h speed. They had a five-minute break between the two sessions. Both groups also had their blood drawn immediately before and after the exercise, as well as two hours, three hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours and 96 hours after exercise. All blood samples were tested for creatine kinase and interleukin-6. Researchers also tested the blood samples that were taken the day after the exercise for insulin levels.
Save Your Muscles With Ginseng
They found that while creatine kinase levels were elevated in both groups immediately following exercise, the ginseng group had significantly lower levels 72 hours later as compared to the control group (223.5 IU/L versus 263 IU/L).
Interestingly, the exact opposite happened with interleukin-6. The ginseng group had significantly lower levels two and three hours later, as compared to the control group. But there was virtually no difference in interleukin-6 levels between the groups at 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours or 96 hours after exercise.
When it came to insulin levels, the ginseng group had significantly lower insulin levels 90 minutes after exercise than the control group (51 mM versus 79 mM). The ginseng group also had significantly lower glucose levels 60 minutes after exercise (5.6 mM versus 7 mM).
Researchers concluded that ginseng supplementation “blunted high-intensity exercise-induced increases in [creatine kinase] and [interleukin-6] levels.” They offered several reasons for why this may be.
First, ginseng has antioxidant benefits, which reduces free radical damage to the muscles. This may be why the ginseng reduced creatine kinase levels.
Ginseng also has proven anti-inflammatory benefits, which would help explain why interleukin-6 levels were reduced. However, the researchers went on to say that more studies need to be performed to determine exactly how ginseng helps to reduce inflammation.
And on the insulin/glucose front, they indicated that ginseng might have anti-diabetic properties that help to lower blood sugar levels. Additionally, other research has found that muscle damage reduces insulin sensitivity, i.e., makes you more prone to insulin resistance). Therefore, simply protecting your muscles from oxidative and/or inflammation-related damage may lower insulin and glucose levels as well.
If you are interested in giving ginseng a try, aim for Panax ginseng, also called Korean ginseng. If you are going to use the dried root (like they did in the study), mix 20 grams into one cup of water and drink up to three times daily.
If you prefer to take a supplement, the most commonly recommended dosage is 100 mg in capsule form twice a day. For maximum benefit, be sure to take a high-quality preparation, standardized for ginsenoside content and ratio. If this is too stimulating, especially before bedtime, take the second dose mid-afternoon, or only take the morning dose.
 Armstrong, RB et al. Eccentric exercise-induced injury to rat skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. 1983;54:80-93.
 Minetto, M et al. Differential responses of serum and salivary interleukin-6 to acute strenuous exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2005;93:679-86.
 Jung, HL et al. Effects of Panax ginseng supplementation on muscle damage and inflammation after uphill treadmill running in humans. Am J Chin Med. 2011;39(3):441-50.
 King, DS et al. Effects of eccentric exercise on insulin secretion and action in humans. J Appl Physiol. 1993;75:2151-6.