It was used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and now, men and women everywhere are buying it for its supposed anti-stress, anti-inflammatory, sleep-promoting, brain-enhancing benefits.
In 2010 alone over 80,000 tons of ginseng was produced in Canada, South Korea, China and the United States. Global sales of the root now exceed two billion dollars annually.
The market is huge and there’s a lot of different varieties like American ginseng, Siberian ginseng, and many fraudulent imitations. The one we are concerned with is the original Panax ginseng, or Korean ginseng.
Today we will discover whether what appears to be a bona-fide miracle supplement is also a miracle for clearing acne. Without further ado, let’s discuss the scientific evidence.
Ginseng is a potent sleep aid
You have to sleep both for enough time and also restfully in order to keep stress hormones down, acne inflammation in check, and to prevent pore-blocking hormones like insulin from getting out of control. Picture the tired and grey skin of a sleep deprived worker, and the round panda rings around his eyes.
Sleep deprivation is an epidemic today and that’s one reason why acne is an epidemic too.
Since it is sleep deprived people that many of the ginseng dealers on the internet or supplement stores are selling their products to, there’s tons of studies examining whether it works:
This 1990 study on freely behaving rats found that after one week of supplementation with Korean ginseng extract, the rats’ amount of wakefulness and slow wave sleep (SWS) significantly decreased and increased, respectively. The scientists commented that “the well known health-improving effect of the ginseng may be, at least in part, related to an enhancement of sleep”.
Next we have this recent 2013 study examining the effect of red ginseng on human sleep patterns. 1500mg of red ginseng extract was fed to 15 volunteers aged between 15 and 37 three times a day for seven days. The ginseng reduced total waking time and substantially improved the amount of time spent sleeping out of total time in bed.
The conclusion: “From these results, it is presumed that RGE intake would improve the quality of sleep, thus having beneficial effects on sleep disturbed subjects.”
Finally, scientists in this 2012 study fed 200mg of Korean ginseng to rats for 9 days. Data on their sleep patterns was gathered on day 1, day 5, and day 9. In this study brain waves were specifically examined.
The scientists found that on day 1 and 5 of supplementation, there was no change in brain waves or rapid eye movement sleep duration. However after just 9 days, alpha brain waves were affected and there was both more total sleep and total non-rapid eye movement sleep.
The conclusion was simple: “These results demonstrate that RGE increases NREM sleep”.
It’s clear that ginseng has some strong sleep promoting powers, powers which can help acne. According to study 3 and this study here, it works by activating an area of your brain called the GABA receptor, which helps to inhibit neurotransmitters responsible for keeping you awake. What’s more, the ginseng root has long been used as a sedative in oriental countries.
Ginseng can accelerate the healing of old acne
This is a gas which is not to be confused with nitrous oxide, AKA laughing gas. Nitric oxide is responsible for vasodilation, controlling blood pressure and blood flow. Over the last decade or so it has been discovered to play a big role in wound healing.
Consequently, increasing your nitric oxide levels can improve the healing of your marks from dead or dying acne…
…and Korean ginseng does exactly that:
- Scientists in this study from May 2005 tested Korean red ginseng on human volunteers. The goal was to establish the effect on nitric oxide concentrations in exhaled breath and also on blood pressure. Hence, 12 males were fed a single 500mg dose of the extract. The ginseng significantly increased nitric oxide levels in their breath. Heart rate and blood pressure also declined. Ginseng is clearly great at increasing nitric oxide in the short term, with just one dosage.
- Next we have this review which discussed some other notable effects of Korean ginseng – like improved blood flow and blood pressure – and concluded that they are due to its nitric oxide boosting properties. They commented that the increase was stimulated by compounds called ginsenosides, a type of saponin which is the most powerful medicinal compound in Korean ginseng and hence are displayed as a percentage on the side of supplement boxes. Ginseng must be at least 4% ginsenosides to have strong medicinal effects.
- This study and this study both focussed on ginsenosides specifically. Both studies applied them to human cells and concluded that the compounds had promising effects on nitric oxide. One found that as well as stimulating NO release from human cells itself, ginsenosides also enhanced the ability of other vasoactive substances to do the same.
- Scientists in this study measured the blood pressure and nitric oxide levels of some conscious rats. Then they were supplemented with Korean red ginseng yet again and the rats later enjoyed lower blood pressure and higher nitric oxide concentrations. Additionally, the body’s main process for synthesising nitric oxide, the conversion of arginine to citrulline, was enhanced by ginseng.
- Finally, another study found almost identical results: ginseng and its ginsenoside compounds stimulate nitric oxide, and enhance its creation in the body.
So does Red Korean ginseng boost nitric oxide and thus the healing of your old acne?
The answer is almost certainly yes, looking at all those studies. It’s almost certainly the ginsenoside saponins that do the trick, so ginseng will be terrific for acne as long as the ginsenoside concentration is 4% or higher.
You can see the nitric oxide boosting effects elsewhere too. Lower blood pressure, improved heart health and blood flow are all classic signs. One of ginseng’s best documented effects is a sexual performance booster and erectile aid; in many Asian culture’s it is revered as a sexual tonic.
Ginseng may have anti-inflammatory effects
Lowering your inflammation is great news for any acne patient, because chronic inflammation is why acne forms in the first place. You can have pores that are clogged with oil and dead skin cells, but without an overactive immune system (chronic inflammation) there’s no fuel for acne to form.
It’s recently been discovered that chronic inflammation is an epidemic, behind all manner of diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, acne, and possibly even heart disease. Inflammation is an all too common menace which scientists are scrambling to find solutions for.
Good news then: the saponins in ginseng can directly inhibit the inflammatory chemicals responsible for acne:
- In our first study scientists investigated the effects of Korean red ginseng on atopic dermatitis patients. The results were excellent. KRG extracts inhibited two key inflammatory chemicals called TNF-a and interleukin-8. Interleukin 8 is a particularly vicious chemical; acne patients generally have higher levels in their skin than their clear-skinned counterparts. The extract also had an antioxidant effect as it reduced free radicals and boosted superoxide dismutase production. The conclusion was: “KRG extracts may be a useful immunosuppressive agent in the treatment of atopic dermatitis”. That’s promising news because dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition similar to acne.
- Next, we have this 2011 study from a Chinese medical journal. Two groups of sick rats were gathered, one of which had higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers than the other. After daily treatment with red Korean ginseng for 7 days, levels of interleukin 1beta, interleukin 6, and TNF-a in the inflamed rats were brought down to normal levels. Those chemicals can all cause acne when overabundant. Meanwhile an anti-inflammatory chemical called interleukin-10 was substantially increased.
- Finally, this interesting study on mice found that red Korean ginseng could reduce the strength of allergic reactions. All manner of inflammatory chemicals behind acne like IL-4 and IL-5 were reduced. That is excellent news because as you may have experienced, food allergies are a nightmare for acne breakouts.
The conclusion? Red Korean ginseng is clearly strong at inhibiting many types of inflammation behind acne.
You can see that in its effects on diseases related to acne. A big cause of arthritis is simply weakening bones with age, but another is an out of control immune system launching assaults on bones and muscles, steadily weakening them and causing pain.
Well, according to a study from 2007, where ginseng was fed to 84 humans, ginsenosides substantially reduced rheumatoid arthritis symptoms like joint tenderness, joint swelling and joint pain. One study believed that ginsenosides were so potent at reducing inflammation that they could be used for a new anti-arthritis drug.
Any downsides to ginseng?
Possibly the only downside for an acne patient is that in several studies, there’s good evidence that ginseng can boost testosterone levels too. You’ve got improved erectile strength, for instance, which is a pretty obvious sign. Then there’s this study which found that the steroidal saponins in ginseng can increase testosterone and DHT production.
Potentially, that could lead to greater stimulation of the sebaceous glands and ultimately blocked pores and acne…
…but as you’ll know if you’re a regular reader here, it’s not the end of the world at all for acne if your androgen levels are high.
Testosterone does cause oily skin but you can easily override those problems by eliminating other problems behind acne. You can read in this article about how for men, I don’t recommend lowering testosterone as an acne strategy, because it is so important for other aspects of men’s health.
The three strengths of ginseng for acne above will almost certainly outweigh the problems from higher testosterone. There’s hardly any studies examining the effects of Korean ginseng on acne specifically, but I don’t think we need them. There’s so much evidence that ginseng or ginseng extract helps the bodily conditions behind acne that it simply has to reduce your pimple count.
Then there’s the endless other health benefits. Unlike useless new products like deer antler velvet, this plant has proven medicinal properties dating back thousands of years. Korean ginseng has been linked to…
Cancer prevention – the Alternative Medicine Review had some interesting comments about Asian ginseng: “Asian ginseng has shown promise in the treatment of several specific types of cancer, including leukemia, melanoma, and colon, gastric, hepatic, kidney, ovarian, prostate, and pulmonary cancers”.
Hair renewal – ginseng can apparently improve the health of hair follicles and surrounding cells, and possibly encourage blood flow to the area.
Antiaging – ginseng reportedly boosts collagen formation in the skin, which boosts elasticity and reduces wrinkles (and happens to help your acne too).
Lower blood pressure – this happens thanks to the increase in nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator (it relaxes your blood vessels). This can indirectly make your skin look healthier, by boosting blood flow and delivery of nutrients.
Cold and flu prevention – despite its ability to lower inflammation, one study still found that those who took 400 mg of Asian ginseng daily for four months had fewer colds, and those they did catch were shorter in duration. Ginseng may turn you into a sickness-proof superhuman.
It’s clear that this is one powerful herb. It’s got some serious nutritional powers and in my reckoning, there’s a huge chance that your acne and skin will benefit by taking it. Not to mention that you’ll enjoy all the aforementioned benefits.
User reviews for ginseng on the acne-sphere are generally very good. There aren’t many stories on the internet overall; few acne patients have discovered the connection to clear skin yet. However, those that have taken a gamble and tried ginseng have reported great acne improvements like…
- Lighter and smoother skin after one week.
- Acne beginning to clear after using ginseng.
- Skin so clear of acne that everyone began to comment on it.
Ginseng will be particularly useful for acne if you’re sleep deprived. Also, both Korean red and American ginseng are widely touted as adaptogen herbs, herbs which normalise your body’s stress responses and stress hormones and such. Compared to the well-documented Rhodiola Rosea, there’s less evidence in studies that ginseng does have adaptogenic effects…
…however, Chinese women have used ginseng as a relaxation tonic throughout the ages. It was widely used across Asia for “calming the spirit”. I’ve heard a lot good stories about ginseng, where it dramatically increased mental focus and allowed athletes to blast their competition away on the field. There is one study which found that ginseng was particularly good at reducing chronic stress, rather than blunting acute stress.
Personally, I’d say there is something to ginseng’s stress reducing abilities; it probably calms anxiety through unknown means rather than simply reducing cortisol. Therefore you’ll want to consider ginseng if your suffering from chronic stress for whatever reason (since stress is a huge cause of acne).
Avoid scam artists and buy the right species
If you do decide to take ginseng for acne then it’s vital that you use the right species. The various types like American and Siberian ginseng found in supplements are all completely different species that have completely different effects on the body and hence acne.
Panax/Asian ginseng – this is the type used in the studies above and hence this is what you should buy. Asian ginseng originated in North Korea and China and is the species referenced throughout Chinese medical lore. Contains ginsenosides, but in superior ratios to American ginseng. Asian ginseng is most likely to have inflammation reducing qualities which are helpful for acne. It’s generally acknowledged as the best ginseng for increasing blood flow; so that means more nitric oxide. Chinese medicine considers Asian ginseng to be a “hot” stimulant, whatever that means.
American ginseng – this form originated in South Ontario and later spread to Georgia and Wisconsin. Historically, American ginseng is most famous for boosting immune system functioning. It also contains ginsenosides, but in proportions less healthy for acne. American ginseng contains 29 types of ginsenosides whereas Panax contains just 20. However the specific types in Panax are more powerful in the human body. One area where American ginseng is better for acne is for reducing stress, however; it’s the most potent adaptogen out of all ginseng species according to medical lore. Interestingly, it cannot be used for medical purposes until it’s six years old.
Siberian ginseng – this is not actually a ginseng at all; it’s just termed as such because it has similar adaptogenic properties. It doesn’t even contain the acne-clearing ginsenosides, so the nitric-oxide boosting effects are totally absent. Instead, Siberian ginseng contains active components called eleutherosides, which are healthy themselves (they can boost your immune system if it’s weak) but not specifically for clearing acne.
In my opinion, any acne patient should skip the Siberian ginseng and focus on the other two.
If you want the holy trinity of acne benefits outlined above – supercharged sleep, lowered inflammation, and accelerated wound healing – then pick good old Asian ginseng, Korean ginseng, or Panax ginseng (all the same plant). If you’re suffering from chronic stress then American ginseng will be most effective for acne.
Overall I’d pick Asian ginseng for acne, as that too may have stress lowering benefits, albeit not so strong ones.
Also important is to avoid a scam product. Because Panax Ginseng is such a powerful herb and hence, is now extremely popular and widely available, there’s a lot of dealers miracle peddlers and scam artists out there who just want to take advantage of the hype.
Hence, this review of the ginseng market found that 25% of Ginseng for sale is not as strong as promised on the bottle. They also found out that 45% of the products were contaminated or lacking in the all-important ginsenosides.
As with any supposed miracle herb then, you have to be careful that you’re not popping a pill that’s actually no more effective for acne than water.
With that in mind, the best brand you could possibly buy and not break your bank account is this Solgar Full Potency Korean Ginseng Root. Solgar’s ginseng passed the review’s tests with flying colours and it’s proper Asian ginseng as well.
As for dosage, simply taking the recommended dosage on the bottle will suffice for acne. Megadosing is not necessary.
Finally there’s the important question of side effects. The good thing is that there’s hardly any, and those that do happen are mild. Users have noticed a pulsating heartbeat, dizziness, and headaches, but they’re rare and only occur with high doses.
Important note: while ginseng is generally fine, it can interact with and reduce the effectiveness of certain medications, including…
- Diabetes medication.
- Anti-psychotic medications or stimulants.
- Blood-thinning medications such as warfarin.
- Antidepressants called MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors).
Therefore, do NOT take ginseng if you’re on any of those drugs.
Finally, it is very important to take any ginseng plant in cycles. The herb contains natural phytoalexins which build your body’s resistance to it, ultimately making the herb useless for acne with continued usage. The acne clearing effects will vanish.
You could take ginseng for acne every day for two to three weeks, then take a break for two to three weeks, or run a similar cycle on a shorter scale. The basic “secret” is to take regular breaks.
Korean ginseng may or may not clear your acne, but it’s possibly worth a shot, given its strong stress-busting, wound healing and anti-inflammatory properties.
Just remember to buy Korean ginseng, not American or Siberian. Siberian ginseng is not actually ginseng at all and lacks the ginsenoside saponins responsible for the biggest acne benefits. They’re not cheap knockoffs but their benefits aren’t as well targeted against acne.
Take Korean ginseng and as you can read above, you may enjoy all sorts of other improvements unrelated to acne, ranging from increases in energy, vitality and an improved quality of life thanks to supercharged sleep.
It’s best to do so for a couple of weeks at least, as the lowered inflammation and boosted nitric oxide will take time to show up in the form of substantially clearer acne.
Thanks for reading!