Oral pharmaceutical medications – including Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra – have become the first-line therapy for erectile dysfunction. But even though these medications are convenient and generally very effective, they often have side effects and cannot be taken by men who take nitroglycerin or other nitrate medications. In addition, some men are opposed to medications in general and prefer to seek natural alternatives.
One natural alternative that has become popular among some men is red ginseng. Red ginseng (or Panax ginseng) is sometimes called the “herbal Viagra”. Ginseng is a plant that grows in Southeast Asia, most commonly in the cool climates of Korea and China. The root of the ginseng plant has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In addition to treating impotence, it is believed to boost the immune system, improve heart health, treat diabetes, increase energy, and decrease stress. It is also used for improving concentration, memory, physical stamina, and athletic endurance.
Ginseng supplements come in several different forms. Red ginseng is the root that has been steamed and then dried. When the root is dried but unprocessed, it is known as white ginseng. Most of the research on erectile dysfunction has been conducted on the red form. Red ginseng is sold in liquid extracts, powders, and capsules. A cream preparation is also available, although this is most commonly used for premature ejaculation rather than erectile dysfunction. Some stores sell the raw dried root, which can be extracted in boiling water to make a tea. About five or six slices of raw ginseng root are required to make one cup of tea.
The ginseng plant must grow for at least 5 years before it can be used, which is why high quality red ginseng can be quite expensive. In 1976, a 400-year-old ginseng root from the mountains of China sold for $10,000 per ounce!
The recommended dose of red ginseng for erectile dysfunction is 900 mg three times daily. Higher doses are generally used in traditional Chinese medicine than in Western medicine.
Red ginseng is usually taken in cycles. For example, it might be taken daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for two weeks.
How does red ginseng work? In traditional Chinese medicine, red ginseng was thought to contain yang energy, which is positive, stimulating, hot, and male in nature. More recently, Asian researchers have learned that red ginseng contains powerful phytochemicals called ginsenosides. Ginsenosides act as natural antioxidants which are known to reduce inflammation, boost energy levels, and help the body deal with fatigue. Ginsenosides may also improve blood flow through the body, including blood flow to the penis. The combined effects of minimal fatigue and enhanced blood flow may aid a man’s ability to perform sexually.
Is red ginseng really effective for erectile dysfunction? Unlike other dietary supplements that promise miraculous results without any scientific evidence, there is actually some solid research behind red ginseng. A study published in 2002 in Journal of Urology compared red ginseng to placebo in 45 men clinically diagnosed with erectile dysfunction. The study used a cross-over design in which patients were randomized to either red ginseng or placebo for 8 weeks, then crossed over to the other treatment group for 8 weeks. The dosage was 900 mg taken 3 times daily (total daily dose of 2700 mg). At the end of the study, the men treated with red ginseng reported significant improvement in their erectile dysfunction symptoms compared to those treated with placebo. Sixty percent of the men in the red ginseng treatment group reported improvement in erections.
In 2008, a systematic review of 7 studies was published in British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. All of the studies were randomized clinical trials comparing red ginseng to placebo. One of the studies had an additional treatment group (trazadone). A total of 363 men, ranging in age from 24 to 70 years, were evaluated. The doses ranged from 1800 mg/day to 3000 mg/day. In six of the seven studies, there was significant improvement in erectile function within the red ginseng group. The authors concluded that there was “suggestive evidence” for the effectiveness of red ginseng but that further research is necessary.
Is red ginseng safe? Although side effects of red ginseng tend to be relatively mild, there are concerns about how the plant can affect the body over a long period of time (more than 6 months). The most common side effect is insomnia. Other less common side effects include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, headache, itching, diarrhea, dizziness, and rash.
Are there any drug interactions with red ginseng? Red ginseng contains many active ingredients, so there is a moderate risk of interactions with other medications, including blood pressure medications, blood thinners, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and insulin for diabetes. Ginseng and caffeine should not be combined, as the supplement can enhance the effects of caffeine. Ginseng and alcohol should be combined with caution, since ginseng may affect how fast the body gets rid of alcohol.
Red ginseng seems to interfere with blood clotting, so it should not be used by men who have a bleeding condition. In addition, red ginseng seems to boost the activity of the immune system, so it should not be used by men who have an auto-immune condition.
Consumers should be aware that the manufacturers of dietary supplements don’t have to show that their products are safe and effective. The following warning must appear on each label: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” In addition, consumers should realize that the contents of a product can vary greatly. Many supplements labelled as red ginseng or Panax ginseng contain very little actual red ginseng.
Although there is preliminary evidence for the efficacy of red ginseng, there just hasn’t been enough good research for most health care providers to recommend it. Men who are interested in non-medicinal treatments are certainly free to investigate further. However, it is important to note that just because a product claims to be natural doesn’t mean that it is completely safe.
Since erectile dysfunction may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, a complete physical examination by your doctor or healthcare provider is essential. You should always talk to your doctor before trying a new treatment, especially if you take medications or have a chronic health problem such as diabetes or heart disease.