Ginseng for Colds and Flu

June 18, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Summer is nearly upon us and the last thing anyone wants is to come down with a dreaded summer cold or flu. The fact that many people vacation during this season makes it even more important than usual to keep the immune system in prime shape. One way to do this is to utilize the fortifying power of ginseng, an ancient medicinal root. My most recent encounter with Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng) was kind of like running into an old friend. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were many new developments in the life of this traditional remedy. I’ll share some of my recent findings about ginseng in today’s column and in a second part that I’ll post next week.

Two populations that are most vulnerable to the common cold and influenza are young children and the elderly. Fortunately, a special extract of North American ginseng is building a strong reputation as a safe and natural way to change that trend. It seems that the extract in question, known commercially as COLD-fX, contains high levels of a group of substances known as polysaccharides. These naturally occurring chemicals have been shown to support the body’s immune system by increasing the numbers and activity of natural killer cells, macrophages and t-lymphocytes – major players in various stages of the immune response. (1,2)

In March 2006, a study investigating the effects of COLD-fX on “acute respiratory illness” (ARI) appeared in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 43 healthy seniors were given a 200 mg capsule of N. American ginseng extract or a placebo twice a day for a total of 4 months. After one month of treatment, all the participants were also administered an influenza vaccine. The volunteers were asked to document their experiences for any signs of respiratory illness and take note of any adverse effects that might be due to either “medication”. Here’s what the study results revealed:

  • No adverse reactions were reported in the placebo and treatment volunteers.
  • During the first two months of the trial, both groups reported similar outcomes.
  • The second half of the study demonstrated a 48% reduction in ARIs in those using ginseng and a 55% decrease in ARI symptom duration.

The authors of the study concluded that, “Daily COLD-fX administration can thus be a safe, natural therapeutic means of prevention of ARI in healthy seniors”. (3)

A larger trial, presented in the journal Canadian Family Physician, examined the impact of N. American ginseng or a placebo on a total of 279 volunteers of all ages (18-65). The one common trait they possessed was having had at least 2 colds during the previous year. Approximately half of the group was given 200 mg of N. American ginseng twice daily. The remainder took an identical looking placebo. Once again, the duration of the trial was 4 months.

The results of this investigation clearly indicate that the ginseng users had a lower incidence of colds, fewer instances of multiple colds, less severe symptoms and fewer days where they exhibited any cold symptoms. As in the previous study, no side effects were noted. (4)

Ginseng’s effects may be even more profound when it’s pitted against influenza. Two trials published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society point to an “89% relative risk reduction of acute respiratory infections” during influenza season. What’s encouraging about these studies is that they were shorter in length (8 and 12 weeks) and involved volunteers with an average age of over 80. This may indicate rapid immune boosting effects and a broad degree of safety, even in populations that may be more vulnerable to adverse reactions. (5)

There is a very real safety concern about giving young children any type of preventive medicine, natural or otherwise. Therefore, a toxicity experiment was conducted and appeared in the August 2008 issue of the journal Pediatrics. It studied the relative safety of COLD-fX in a group of 46 children (aged 3-12) who developed upper respiratory infections. No adverse effects were noted in the children given a low or moderate dose of the ginseng extract or the inert placebo. (6)

All of the above research was conducted on North American ginseng. But other varieties of this root, such as Korean red ginseng, may also promote a vital immune system. However, different kinds of ginseng may impact immunity differently. For instance, Korean red ginseng is theorized to keep the body’s defenses strong with a stress reducing effect. Ginseng has historically been known as an adaptogen, a substance that aids the body to adapt to physical and psychological stressors. Researchers in Matsuyama, Japan have recently determined that this stress adaptation can possibly support efforts to prevent the common cold and flu. (7)

Finally, I want to mention an Italian study from way back in 1996. It’s an example of ginseng being used as part of an integrative approach. 227 volunteers were given either a once daily ginseng supplement (Ginsana G – 100 mg) or a placebo for a total of 12 weeks. At the 4 week mark, they all were administered an influenza vaccine. Those receiving the ginseng were nearly three times less likely to catch a cold or flu in the subsequent 2 months, as compared to the placebo + vaccine group. Blood tests revealed that antibodies rose significantly more in the ginseng users, as did natural killer cell activity – two markers of enhanced immune function.(8)

The issue of whether or not to get the flu vaccine is shrouded in controversy. The decision needs to be carefully examined on a case by case basis. I personally choose not to have a yearly “flu shot”, but from here on out, I will strongly consider using ginseng during those times when my immune system may need some additional support.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, General Health, Nutritional Supplements

4 Comments & Updates to “Ginseng for Colds and Flu”

  1. Anonymous Coward Says:

    After tons of experience I figured out the cure to the common cold. It’s very simple actually. Open windows and let your house ventilate and you’ll start to get better in like an hour. Then, unless you have a very good reason to keep windows closed (ie: a bad fire outside or toxic air outside for some reason) always keep at least one window slightly open with no obstructions in the way of its ability to ventilate the entire house almost at all times (except for when no one is home, then it’s OK to close all your windows to lock them). Even if it’s cold, wear warm clothes if you have to or turn on the heater. and air filters aren’t good enough, you need constant gas exchange between the air in your house and the air outside your house. Try it, it really works. I suspect many many health problems and a lot of bad health in general is caused simply by poor ventilation.

  2. JP Says:

    Indeed! Proper ventilation is an important consideration.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

    Be well!


  3. JP Says:

    Update 04/21/15:

    BMC Fam Pract. 2015 Feb 25;16(1):24.

    The effectiveness of high dose zinc acetate lozenges on various common cold symptoms: a meta-analysis.

    BACKGROUND: A previous meta-analysis found that high dose zinc acetate lozenges reduced the duration of common colds by 42%, whereas low zinc doses had no effect. Lozenges are dissolved in the pharyngeal region, thus there might be some difference in the effect of zinc lozenges on the duration of respiratory symptoms in the pharyngeal region compared with the nasal region. The objective of this study was to determine whether zinc acetate lozenges have different effects on the duration of common cold symptoms originating from different anatomical regions.

    METHODS: We analyzed three randomized trials on zinc acetate lozenges for the common cold administering zinc in doses of 80-92 mg/day. All three trials reported the effect of zinc on seven respiratory symptoms, and three systemic symptoms. We pooled the effects of zinc lozenges for each symptom and calculated point estimates and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI).

    RESULTS: Zinc acetate lozenges shortened the duration of nasal discharge by 34% (95% CI: 17% to 51%), nasal congestion by 37% (15% to 58%), sneezing by 22% (-1% to 45%), scratchy throat by 33% (8% to 59%), sore throat by 18% (-10% to 46%), hoarseness by 43% (3% to 83%), and cough by 46% (28% to 64%). Zinc lozenges shortened the duration of muscle ache by 54% (18% to 89%), but there was no difference in the duration of headache and fever.

    CONCLUSIONS: The effect of zinc acetate lozenges on cold symptoms may be associated with the local availability of zinc from the lozenges, with the levels being highest in the pharyngeal region. However our findings indicate that the effects of zinc ions are not limited to the pharyngeal region. There is no indication that the effect of zinc lozenges on nasal symptoms is less than the effect on the symptoms of the pharyngeal region, which is more exposed to released zinc ions. Given that the adverse effects of zinc in the three trials were minor, zinc acetate lozenges releasing zinc ions at doses of about 80 mg/day may be a useful treatment for the common cold, started within 24 hours, for a time period of less than two weeks.

    Be well!


  4. JP Says:

    Update 06/26/15:

    J Support Oncol. 2012 Sep-Oct;10(5):195-201.

    A randomized, controlled trial of Panax quinquefolius extract (CVT-E002) to reduce respiratory infection in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

    BACKGROUND: Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients are at high risk for acute respiratory illness (ARI).

    OBJECTIVE: We evaluated the safety and efficacy of a proprietary extract of Panax quinquefolius, CVT-E002, in reducing ARI.

    METHODS: This was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of 293 subjects with early-stage, untreated CLL conducted January-March 2009.

    RESULTS: ARI was common, occurring on about 10% of days during the study period. There were no significant differences of the 2 a priori primary end points: ARI days (8.5 ± 17.2 for CVT-E002 vs 6.8 ± 13.3 for placebo) and severe ARI days (2.9 ± 9.5 for CVT-E002 vs 2.6 ± 9.8 for placebo). However, 51% of CVT-E002 vs 56% of placebo recipients experienced at least 1 ARI (difference, -5%; 95% confidence interval [CI], -16% to 7%); more intense ARI occurred in 32% of CVT-E002 vs 39% of placebo recipients (difference, -7%; 95% CI, -18% to 4%), and symptom-specific evaluation showed reduced moderate to severe sore throat (P = .004) and a lower rate of grade ≥3 toxicities (P = .02) in CVT-E002 recipients. Greater seroconversion (4-fold increases in antibody titer) vs 9 common viral pathogens was documented in CVT-E002 recipients (16% vs 7%, P = .04).

    LIMITATIONS: Serologic evaluation of antibody titers was not tied to a specific illness, but covered the entire study period.

    CONCLUSION: CVT-E002 was well tolerated. It did not reduce the number of ARI days or antibiotic use; however, there was a trend toward reduced rates of moderate to severe ARI and significantly less sore throat, suggesting that the increased rate of seroconversion most likely reflects CVT-E002-enhanced antibody responses.

    Be well!


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