The People's Perspective on Medicine

Siberian Ginseng

This shrub, a Russian relative of China’s popular herb ginseng, also grows in northeast China, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and in Korea. In Russia, it occurs in forest undergrowth and margins.

In China, this herb is called ci wu jia, and this name has appeared on some packaging in the United States as well. It is also referred to as eleuthero, eleuthero-ginseng, or eleuthera.

Other nonscientific names include devil’s shrub, shigoka, and touch-me-not, presumably because of its thorns. Other Chinese herbs have names that can appear similar in transliteration and may be confounded with eleuthero: wu jia pi, the bark of E. gracilistylus; or wu jia, the bark of a totally unrelated plant, Periploca sepium.

This confusion can unfortunately make it difficult to be sure that the eleuthero on the U.S. market in any given package is truly E. senticosus. The medicinal use of ci wu jia was first described in the early Chinese Herbal Classic of the Divine Plowman around 100 b.c. In traditional Chinese medicine, this herb is considered to improve qi (pronounced chee), treat deficiencies of yang in the spleen and the kidney, and bring bodily functions back to normal.

It has been used in recent decades in northeastern China to treat heart problems, rheumatism, and bronchitis. Elsewhere in China, eleuthero is believed helpful in maintaining health and increasing vigor, rather like a general tonic. It is readily available, inexpensive, and widely used as a substitute for panax ginseng.

The Chinese use it for a wide range of problems, such as stomachache, headache, women’s problems, and impotence. It is also believed useful for maintaining memory into old age. The part of the plant used is the dried root together with the rhizome.

Most of the research on E. senticosus was conducted in Russia.

Like ginseng, eleuthera has been considered an “adaptogen.” In the Soviet Union it was far more widely available than Panax ginseng, which explains the popularity of this substitution. Studies published in the late 1950s and early 1960s were the basis for its approval as a human drug by the Soviet Ministry of Health.

As an adaptogen, it was believed to have minimal side effects and to have nonspecific benefits allowing the person taking it to withstand stress better. It was also expected to bring bodily functions back toward normal, regardless of the direction of their deviation. Because of the Soviet research, E. senticosus is popular in Russia with many different people whose jobs or athletic endeavors are taxing: soldiers, cosmonauts, athletes, deep-sea divers, and so forth.

Active Ingredients

E. senticosus root contains a number of glucosides, including the glucoside of beta-sitosterol, eleutheroside B1, which is a coumarin derivative, and eleutherosides C, D, E, F, and G. Nonglucoside constituents include l-sesamen and syringaresinol.

Other ingredients of eleuthero root may also be relevant to its activity. They include saponins, flavonoids, and polysaccharides.

At least thirty-five compounds have been identified in the root, and while the constituents of the leaves differ significantly, the leaves are not used medicinally.

Uses

Quite a bit of research has been conducted on the effects of E. senticosus, but most of the studies have been published in Chinese or in Russian.
As already noted, the herb is used in Russia to improve physical performance and to bolster individuals against the mental and physical effects of stress.

A placebo-controlled study in rats failed to confirm that either ginseng or eleuthero could increase the animals’ endurance for swimming in cold water. The rats given eleuthero did exhibit more aggressive behavior, however, suggesting a possible effect on the brain.

Eleuthero saponins did, however, increase survival time of oxygen-deprived animals in other experiments. Saponins extracted from eleuthero can lower blood sugar in mice with experimentally induced diabetes. It appears to have little effect on blood sugar in animals without hyperglycemia.

Eleuthero extracts added to cancer cells in a test tube increase the effectiveness of anticancer drugs. Further studies are needed in animals and in humans before anyone can evaluate whether this activity will prove clinically useful.

Eleuthero compounds have very little ability to protect animals against the harmful effects of radiation. In healthy humans, however, an injection of eleuthero polysaccharides increased immune system activity, especially boosting the number and activation of T cells.

Eleuthero extracts apparently bind to receptors for estrogen, progestin, glucocorticoids, and mineralocorticoids.

More than 2,200 people have received eleuthero in studies of its effects on atherosclerosis, diabetes, blood pressure abnormalities (both high and low), bronchitis, head trauma, and rheumatic heart disease. The findings in most of these studies were positive, although the herb should not be considered a “cure.”

In Germany, eleuthero is approved as a tonic to invigorate a person in times of fatigue, as an antidote to poor concentration and diminished work capacity, and as an aid to convalescence.

In China, it is used to treat the headaches and heart palpitations that result from altitude sickness. Research there has also shown that eleuthero saponins are able to block calcium channels and change the electrical reactivity of heart tissue cultures.

It has a calming effect on the central nervous system and is said to improve digestion.

One interesting study in rats showed that it prevents birth defects, but it has not been tested in pregnant women.

Dose

In healthy people undergoing stress, the dose of E. senticosus ranges from 2 to 16 ml of a 33 percent alcohol extract taken one to three times daily. This offers a wide range of possible dosing. It is taken for up to sixty days, and then at least two or three weeks elapse before it is taken again.

As many as five courses have been administered to people from nineteen to seventy-two years old in Russian studies.

People suffering from illnesses generally take lower doses. The same alcohol extract would be given in doses from 0.5 ml to 6 ml one to three times per day. They take the herb for one month, then cease taking it for at least two or three weeks before starting again.

Special Precautions

People experiencing acute health crises, such as heart attack or fever, should not take eleuthero. Eleuthero is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. Because of research suggesting that eleuthero may lower blood sugar, diabetics should carefully monitor blood sugar if they take this herb. Discuss this issue with your physician.

There is not adequate information to determine if this herb is safe during pregnancy. The most prudent approach is to avoid it.

Adverse Effects

Eleuthero, like Panax ginseng, appears to have a very good safety record. Millions of Russians have taken it over the years, and Chinese people have been taking ci wu jia for centuries.

Side effects, other than mild sedation, do not appear to have been reported. This may reflect the conventions of publishing scientific reports in China and in Russia as much as it demonstrates a true lack of adverse reactions, however.

At least one report of a negative consequence from eleuthero involved a child born with excessive hair. The baby’s mother had reportedly been taking a “Siberian ginseng” preparation; however, the herb was not eleuthero after all but Periploca sepium. Eleuthero does not appear to contain compounds likely to cause such an effect (nor, for that matter, does P. sepium).

Expectant mothers should be warned, however, that there is little information on the safety of this herbal medicine during pregnancy so it should not be used.

Possible Interactions

Animal research demonstrated that eleuthero can increase the effects of barbiturates. In theory, then, anyone taking Fiorinal might become more sedated than usual if he or she also took eleuthero.

Eleuthero may increase the effectiveness of antibiotics because it stimulates the immune response.

A Canadian physician reported another potential drug interaction. Her patient, a seventy-four-year-old man on digoxin, had an unexplained increase in serum digoxin levels when tested. The levels remained high after the medicine was discontinued.

When the man stopped taking his “Siberian ginseng,” his digoxin levels returned to normal, only to climb again some months later when he began taking the herb again. He had no other signs of digoxin toxicity. The physician was unable to determine whether the herb had digoxinlike action, or whether it interfered in some way with the test. Dr. Varro E. Tyler has suggested that the herb in question may actually have been P. sepium, which contains glycosides that might potentiate digitalis glycosides.

No other reports of an interaction between digoxin and eleuthero have been published, but for people taking Lanoxin, a plant-derived medicine, it might be prudent to avoid mixing it with medicinal plants such as eleuthero.

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    About the Author
    Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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