Parts used medicinally: Root and berries
Siberian ginseng has been used for over 2000 years according to Traditional Chinese Medicine for the prevention of colds and flu and increase in vitality and energy. It was picked up by the Russian cosmonauts in the 1950s to increase mental focus out in space and has since become well known as a nootropic herb that improves cognitive function.
By Lily Canetty-Clarke - Medical Herbalist
What is Siberian Ginseng?
Eleutherococcus senticosus, more commonly known as Siberian Ginseng, has been used medicinally for over 2000 years in China and was later discovered by the Russians in the 1950s where it is coined ‘Russia’s secret plant’.
Its traditional use in China focused on its immunomodulating activity, where it was used to prevent colds and flu. It was also used for its general adaptogenic qualities to increase vitality and energy. It is still used for these purposes today, particularly by sports people who use it as an ergogenic aid in their athletic performance. Today it is used for both athletic and mental performance.
Siberian Ginseng is approved in Germany by the Commission E as a herb for a declining capacity for work or concentration. In Ayurveda, this herb has long been recognized for this action as it is classed as a Medhya Rasayana, a nootropic herb that improves cognitive function.
Native to northeast Asia, Siberian ginseng is a member of the Araliaceae family, the same family as the more famous Panax ginseng. It is a hardy perennial shrub that grows up to 2m tall with spikes and yellow flowers. It is the root of the plant that is used medicinally and this can only be harvested from the 3rd year of growth.
Siberian ginseng has a modulating activity on the immune system rather than a purely stimulating effect. This makes it useful for inflammation, infections and autoimmune conditions. It has been shown to increase the activity of natural killer cells, prevent the replication of RNA viruses and increase the activity of cytokines, which are the immune system communication cells.
Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are classes of herbs that have allostatic actions, meaning they are able to moderate the body's adaptation to stress. Studies have shown that Siberian Ginseng may work to a cortisol threshold, below which it increases the cortisol and above which it decreases it. This is such a useful action for attention as raised cortisol levels and stress increase your alertness, attention and focus but in excess lead to overwhelm, anxiety and underperformance. Conversely, low cortisol levels are good for keeping things relaxed and calm but in excess result in boredom, fatigue and a lack of focus. Therefore, mediating cortisol levels, which studies have illustrated Siberian Ginseng can, directly impacts your ability to stay at the peak of your focus with optimum cortisol levels.
Russian cosmonauts have used Siberian ginseng since 1950s to improve mental alertness. They preferred the use of this plant medicine to amphetamines that had previously been used as they only had a very short-term effect and serious side effects in the long term. Russian researchers secretly studied the medicinal effects of Siberian Ginseng on earth and in space and found that it improved mental function. This has been re-studied in recent years with the same results finding it improves attention and increases speed and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks compared to placebo.
NB: Unlike traditional stimulants that can produce a temporary increase in work capacity followed by a period of marked decrease below basal levels (coffee for example), the initial increase in performance from Siberian ginseng is followed by only a slight dip but performance remains above basal level.
Ways to Use Siberian Ginseng at Home?
- Siberian ginseng is commonly taken in powder form from the dried root - you can mix the powder into smoothies, soups or boiling water to make a tea.
- Alcohol extract/tincture of Siberian ginseng can be purchased from your local medical herbalist.
- Supplements are available from health food shops.
- Some Chinese supermarkets stock fresh Siberian ginseng which can be sliced and infused in boiling water to make a fresh tea.
Caution with high doses in those with cardiovascular disease or hypertension.
Contraindicated during acute infections.
Did You Know?
Siberian ginseng was taken by Dr Valeri Polyakov who set a world record for time spent in orbit, 437 days, which remains the longest single stay in space.
If you are pregnant/breastfeeding or on drug medication, be sure to consult with a professional before trying these remedies.