Ginsengs are popular adaptogenic herbs whose roots and rhizomes (underground stems) have a revitalising, tonic effect especially during times of stress. When you have high blood pressure, however, you need to be careful which one you take as some ginsengs may raise blood pressure, some have a neutral effect, while others can actually lower blood pressure as a side effect.
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The main types of ginseng
Many herbs are referred to as ginsengs, and while some are closely related, botanically, others come from a different family of plants. The most commonly used ginsengs are:
- Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), also known as Chinese ginseng, Asian ginseng or Korean red ginseng
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), also known as Canadian ginseng or Anchi ginseng.
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Acanthopanax ginseng, Eleuthero, or Eleuthero ginseng.
- Mountain ginseng (Rhodiola rosea), also known as Arctic root, Rose Rood, Siberian golden root or golden root.
The Panax ginsengs and blood pressure
The roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of Panax ginsengs (Korean ginseng and American ginseng) contain several unique substances, known as ginsenosides, of which 29 have now been identified. Those with a sedative action are mostly derived from small lateral roots, while those with a more stimulating action are mostly derived from the main root.
American ginseng has a more gentle action, as it contains more of the calming and relaxing Rb1 ginsenosides, while Korean ginseng contains more of the stimulating Rg1 ginsenosides.
Many of the ginsenosides have a similar in structure to human corticosteroid hormones, and adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) which regulates adrenal gland function. Because of this, there were concerns that taking Panax ginseng may increase blood pressure.
Researchers assessed the results of 17 clinical trials, involving 1381 people, and found that taking Panax ginseng for 4 or more weeks did not have a significant effect on systolic or diastolic blood pressure, compared with placebo. If anything, there was a slight reduction in systolic blood pressure of 2.76 mmHg in people who also had diabetes, metabolic syndrome or who were obese, but this was not statistically significant. The researchers, writing in the Journal of Human Hypertension, concluded that Panax ginsengs appear to have a neutral effect on the cardiovascular system, and that people should not be discouraged from taking it due to previous concerns that it may increase blood pressure.
Panax ginsengs are traditionally taken in courses, usually for no more than 6 weeks without a break eg a two weeks on, two weeks off cycle or in a six weeks on, six weeks off cycle.
Siberian ginseng and blood pressure
The roots and rhizomes of Siberian ginseng contain triterpenoid saponins known as eleutherosides, some of which are similar in structure to the saponins in Panax ginseng. Siberian ginseng is often regarded as an inexpensive substitute for Korean ginseng.
Some people prefer it as they find it more stimulating, while others find it too strong and prefer the gentler effects of American ginseng. If you have high blood pressure, however, Siberian ginseng is best avoided.
Siberian ginseng raises blood pressure according to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension. However, when following up the references supplied, they appear to be based on a Russian study in which children aged 7-10 years, with low blood pressure, were treated with Eleutherococcus. Treatment raised their systolic and diastolic blood pressure to normalise their blood pressure readings. Given that Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen, this is to be expected as, by definition, adaptogens have a normalising effect on the body.
I don’t consider this compelling evidence for avoiding Siberian ginseng if you have high blood pressure, but until further evidence is provided, it may be best to avoid it. If you want to take Siberian ginseng, check with your doctor if you are on medication, and monitor your blood pressure carefully. Stop the supplement if your blood pressure rises.
Rhodiola mountain ginseng and blood pressure
The roots and rhizomes of Rhodiola rosea contain a number of unique substances (such as rhodioflavonoside, rhodosin, rhodiolin, rosin and rosarin) which reduce anxiety and fatigue, partly by reducing adrenal secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Mountain ginseng has a beneficial lowering effect on blood pressure and may be the better choice if you have hypertension. Russian research even suggests that Rhodiola can reduce stress-induced damage to the heart. However, you need to be cautious if you are on antihypertensive medication, as Rhodiola rosea extracts can inhibit angiotensin converting enzyme in a similar way to ACE inhibitor drugs. An ethanol extract of Rhodiola had the highest ACE inhibitor activity (38.5%) followed by a water extract (36.2%).
This makes Rhodiola a great choice if your blood pressure is borderline and you are not yet on antihypertensive medication.
If you are on antihypertensive drugs, however, Rhodiola might have additive effects and increase the risk of hypotension (but could also improve your response to treatment if your blood pressure is not well controlled). If you are on medication, and want to take Rhodiola, check with your doctor first, and monitor your blood pressure carefully.
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