Chinese Mystery Solved: Nitric Oxide, the Common Link between Viagra and Ginseng.
Ming Tao Jiang, MD, PhD, Marathon Ginseng International, Inc.
Viagra gained international fame for its ultimate male aphrodisiac effect throughout the world. In China, Viagra, the one made by Pfizer, the original maker, is rumored to be used as bribes to VIPs. Its main effect is to provide more blood flow to the male member by relaxing the blood vessels. This was done by increasing the production of one mighty but small molecule called “Nitric Oxide” (NO). Three American scientists were awarded Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1998 for identification of “Nitric Oxide” as the relaxing factor of blood vessels (see Discoverers of NO awarded Noble prize).
In the Chinese folklore, Emperor Qianlong died after taking large dose of Manchurian Ginseng with bleeding from “nose and mouth”. Many people noticed that they suffered from nose-bleeding after taking ginseng, for which Chinese termed “Shang Huo上火”, or “too much fire/energy in the body”. However, no scientific research has tried to connect the dots as to why it happens.
When I first moved to Wausau, Wisconsin, where most ginseng gardens are, my family started taking ginseng tea. As a cardiovascular scientist for 20 years, I assumed that taking ginseng will speed up my heart and increase my blood pressure, as ginseng is known to provide energy. Personally, I am very sensitive to ginseng. On my previous trip to cover the story of local ginseng farms for my newspaper “the Wisconsin Chinese Times”, my heart started pounding after 10 minutes of drinking ginseng tea and my face and ears were flushing. One day, I asked my wife to measure my blood pressure after taking ginseng tea. To my surprise, 15 minutes later, my blood pressure actually dropped from 128/90 to 122/85. This suggests that Wisconsin ginseng actually relaxes my blood vessels and reduces my blood pressure. It is apparent that the ingredients in ginseng tea are water soluble molecules.
Ginseng inhibits blood clotting:
After a couple of weeks of drinking tea, my wife, who is a practicing doctor, noticed that it took much longer time to stop the bleeding from a small cut on her finger. Similarly, some of our friends who took our ginseng gifts were complaining that they have bleeding from their gums or small bleeding spots under their skins. From these anecdotal evidence, I realized that they must have been caused by taking ginseng or too much ginseng. It dilates the vessels and prevents blood clotting at the same time. Indeed, local doctors in Marathon County, especially surgeons, always check with the patients before surgery if they are taking ginseng, for its apparent blood thinning effect (anti-blood clotting). Not surprisingly, Father Jartoux, in his letter to the Catholic Periodicals dated 1711, had this to say about the effect of the mysterious herb in the border area between China and Korea. “This is most certain, that it thins the blood; that it makes it circulate; that it warms it”.
Taking proper amount of Wisconsin ginseng therefore can serve as a powerful blood thinner, which especially benefits middle to old aged individuals. You should adjust the amount of ginseng intake based on individual sensitivity.
Ginseng as an aphrodisiac:
Ginseng is always regarded as an aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine. Today, the legend continues.
In October 2009, two months after we moved to Wausau, WI, we hosted 5 families from our old social club from Milwaukee. They were served Pheasant/Wisconsin Ginseng soup and 12-course dinner as well as vodka spiced with ginseng. The next morning, one gentleman in his early 40s, whispered to me at breakfast, “Ming Tao, ginseng really worked”. He wasn’t talking about its effect on blood pressure.
Ginseng Boosts Energy
One day, several friends at a local investment firm took some ginseng from me, a gift from Monk Ginseng Garden. The next day, all three complained that they had a hard time going to sleep at night. Similarly, Dr. Ann, an Oncologist and family friend, after trying ginseng, said she stopped taking coffee at night. It is obvious that ginseng is a strong stimulant of the brain, like coffee, it can cause insomnia if taken at night. Dr. Ann also mentioned that she was recommending ginseng to her cancer patients after chemotherapy or radiation therapy, to relieve their malaise and fatigue.
So what is the common link among between lowering blood pressure, slowing of blood clotting and enhancement of energy and male virility by ginseng and Viagra?
It is long recognized that the active ingredients of ginseng are ginsenosides (ginseng saponins), such as Rg1, Rg2 and Rg3. Rg2 can be extracted by boiling ginseng plants or ginseng berries in hot water and then extracted by alcohol (1), which happen to be two traditional ways of serving ginseng in Chinese cooking.
Medical scientists in Hong Kong and UK studied the effect of Rg1 (2), a major active ginsenoside, in human umbilical vein cells. As shown in Figure 1, Rg1 increased the active or energized form of the enzyme that produces the nitric oxide (phospho-eNOS) after 10 min of application. Similarly, scientist in Japan found that Ginsenoside Re, a main ingredient of Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) also stimulates the production of NO (3).
Three Nobel winners identified NO as the mysterious relaxing factor that dilates the blood vessels. NO relaxes blood vessels and increase blood flow to the corpus cavernosum in male organ, which enhances male erection. So does NO inhibit blood clotting? The answer is definitely yes!
One of the winners of Nobel Prize for discovery of NO is Dr. Louis Ignarro from UC San Francisco. Dr. Ignarro’s research actually found that NO inhibits the aggregation of platelets, the building blocks of blood clot. Ginseng increases the production of NO, which in turns inhibits platelet aggregation and therefore blood clotting. Mystery solved!
In summary, ginseng, especially Wisconsin ginseng, likely via ginsenosides, stimulates the production of the mysterious molecule NO. This powerful molecule boosts energy, reduces blood clotting such as what happens in stroke and heart attacks, relaxes blood vessels and increase male virility. An overdose of ginseng, as happened to the ancient Chinese emperor, however, can cause uncontrolled bleeding. The Chinese saying of “too much fire/energy” after ginseng intake is likely the results of too much NO generated from ginseng. The ancient Chinese mystery has finally found its modern scientific explanation.
Disclaimer: All statements contained in this article and other sections of marathonginseng.com have not been evaluated by FDA and should not be considered medical advice. Please consult your own physician before taking ginseng.
Copyright 2010. Marathon Ginseng International, all rights reserved. No reproduction without prior consent.
1. Patent Application: Method of Extracting Ginsengnoside Rg2m, Pharmaceutical Composition Including Ginsengnoside Rg2, and Uses Thereof. Click here for the Patent filing document
2．Signaling pathway of ginsenoside-Rg1 leading to nitric oxide production in endothelial cells. Click here for article
3．Dr. Jiang’s publications by Google scholar: Click here for his articles