For many, ginseng remains a basic herb, used as a simple supplement to boost immune systems or battle fatigue. But Western researcher Ed Lui is showing therapeutic uses for the traditional plant may reach much further – including treating cardiovascular ailments and even cancer.
“The public still think it’s a myth; they don’t know the real story of ginseng,” said the Physiology & Pharmacology professor in Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “There is a need to reach out to more people to get the message across. I don’t think people know there is so much scientific information to support some of the old historical stories about why it is considered the ‘king of herbs.’
“But once you have the research and the data, it is easy.”
Through his research, and a $7-million grant from the Ministry of Research and Innovation in 2008, Lui established the Ontario Ginseng Innovation & Research Consortium. He said there have been great advancements in the study behind the agriculture, phytochemistry, pre-clinical medicinal effects, safety and advanced processing of North American ginseng.
After the funding ended in 2012, Lui established the Natural Products and Integrative Health Consortium in the summer of 2014. Since, he has applied for Ontario Research Fund support of $12 million and submitted a pre-application to Genome Canada for $10 million under the Food for the Future program to continue his research.
In the last few years, Lui has conducted a wide range of studies on the benefits of ginseng, with the strongest results, he said, being related to the cardiovascular system.
“It is known to be beneficial for injuries, like heart attacks, but it is also good for heart failure,” he said. “Those who survived heart attacks will eventually have failure, and it is very effective in not only preventing but, more importantly, reversing the effects of heart failure. I’m even doing more research into other areas related to the heart.”
Ginseng was discovered more than 5,000 years ago in the mountain provinces of Manchuria in northeast Asia. In Asian medicine, ginseng has been used for more than 2,000 years to replenish energy, build resistance, reduce susceptibility to illness and promote health and longevity.
The long-stemmed plant, with its characteristic red berries and leaves, has been coveted in many Asian cultures for centuries for its countless medicinal powers. Wild ginseng is believed to be even more powerful than the cultivated herb, to the point it is being poached to extinction.
In Canada, ginseng is considered an endangered species.
“You can’t even touch it. People are poaching and it’s disappearing,” he said.
Ginseng is a capital-intensive crop, and a risky one, since there is no crop insurance, and no crop to harvest for the first three years.
Ginseng root is harvested after three or four years: cleaned, dried and stored in barrels until it is sold. Harvesting has improved enormously with mechanical harvesters, however, much of the ginseng production process is still people-intensive.
Once harvested, it cannot be replanted in the same soil.
“Once you plant and harvest you cannot reuse the same piece of land for another 30 years,” he added. “That first crop leads to an accumulation of fungus and bacteria that will kill the next crop. You need to find a way to clean it up, but no one has been successful. So growers are panicking and looking around for room.”
Ontario is North America’s largest grower of ginseng, with more than 140 growers. Ginseng production has been increasing over the last 25 years, as the Ontario government’s support of tobacco has been declining. At least 80 per cent of Ontario ginseng is sold to the Asian market overseas, where it is exported, processed and often shipped back as tea, pills and other products.
Since the 18th century, North American Ginseng has been primarily exported to Asia where it is highly valued for its perceived superior quality and sweeter taste. North American and Asian ginseng differ in their chemical composition and each appears to have distinct biological effects.
While other researchers may be focusing on the soil solution, Lui is concentrating on how to develop hardier genetic lines.
“We’ll examine 100,000 seeds and analyze them for all their characteristics, so we are able to select out the best,” he said. “What we want to know is when you compare the genetic analysis of the wild ones and the cultivated ones, what genes are we losing during that process and how do we restore this?”
Lui added the interaction and acceptance between medical sciences and traditional medicine has become more integrated. He feels this wider acceptance can only lead to further beneficial findings.
“Once we know what it is able to do, and the mechanism behind that, we can look at new diseases. That is the excitement,” said Lui, adding there needs to be acceptance before you can integrate. “One of the criteria for integrated medicine is you’re implementing a complimentary medicine that has good evidence before it can be integrated, otherwise you’re just another snake oil salesmen.”
Similar to more commonly used prescribed drugs, Lui said there might soon be specific lines of ginseng with an individualized focus.
“We’re looking at creating better medicinal properties. You may have one being for cardiovascular, one good for specifically cancer, one for the elderly; we can propagate lines for a specific purposes,” he said. “My ultimate goal would be that ginseng is known to be an herb that is a cure all. The confidence has to be there. You need to maintain the research, stand your ground, and even reach beyond it.”