Ginseng refers to a group of plants in the ivy family and the Panax genus, the latter of which gets its name from the Greek word for “all-heal” that also forms the root of the word panacea. The herb is aptly named since it has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions, from fatigue and insulin resistance to neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. More recently, scientists have found that Asian species, such as Korean Red (P. ginseng), may improve symptoms experienced with inflammatory lung conditions.
Panax ginseng is one of the most popular non-pharmaceutical therapies for lung diseases, particularly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is characterized by shortness of breath, chest heaviness and cough due to chronic bronchitis. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is said to restore insufficient Qi and lung function. Of particular interest is a group of 11 steroid saponins called ginsenosides, agents that are nearly exclusive to plants in the Panax genus.
The therapeutic effect of ginsenosides is due to the regulation of cytokines, cyclooxygenase-2 and other pro-inflammatory enzymes and proteins. These compounds also appear to inhibit the activity of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), specialized proteins involved in regulating cellular response to stress and pro-inflammatory cytokines. Researchers at report that of the 11 ginsenosides tested, four showed efficacy comparable to the steroid medication dexamethasone. Of these, the agent that showed the most significant anti-inflammatory effect on the lungs was ginsenoside Re.
Ju HeeLee, Dong SukMin, Chan WooLee, et al. "Ginsenosides from Korean Red Ginseng ameliorate lung inflammatory responses: inhibition of the MAPKs/NF-κB/c-Fos pathways." Journal of Ginseng Research, June 2017