With a battery of bioactive compounds, this eastern adaptogen has shown potential in fighting the common cold, improving bipolar disorder, and reducing the markers of diabetes. How strong is the evidence? Read on to find out.
What is Eleuthero?
Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is an herb with the scientific names Eleutherococcus senticosus or Acanthopanax senticosus. It is a staple of traditional medicine in the Far East, especially in China, Korea, and eastern Russia [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].
According to these traditions, eleuthero is an adaptogen: a substance that keeps the body functioning normally under stress .
Eleuthero shouldn’t be confused with Asian and American ginseng (Araliaceae). Being a distant cousin of these other ginsengs, eleuthero contains a different set of bioactive compounds .
Eleuthero is a flowering shrub. Its root, bark, leaves, and berries all contain bioactive compounds that may have positive health effects [9, 10].
- May ease the symptoms of bipolar disorder
- May improve memory
- May prevent insulin resistance
- May help the immune system fight the common cold
- Considered very safe to use in healthy adults
- Possible drug interactions
- Long-term safety profile unknown
- Limited clinical research for many purported benefits
Eleuthero Benefits (Possibly Effective)
Siberian ginseng has produced promising clinical results for each of the potential benefits in this section, but the FDA has not approved eleuthero supplements for any medical purpose or health claim, and there is no guarantee of the quality of any given supplement. Talk to your doctor before supplementing with Siberian ginseng.
1) Bipolar Disorder
In a promising clinical trial of 76 teenagers with bipolar disorder, 1.5 g Siberian ginseng and lithium produced improvements comparable to 20 mg fluoxetine and lithium, a standard treatment .
Both the response rates and remission rates were statistically equivalent between treatment groups, while the Siberian ginseng group reported fewer side effects .
2) Immune System & Infection
Eleuthero may improve the function of the immune system and help the body fight off infection.
In animal studies, supplementation with eleuthero root extract increased the production of molecules called immunoglobulins G and M (IgG and IgM). IgG and IgM bind to pathogens like viruses and bacteria, flagging them for destruction. This process protects the body from infection and disease .
Eleuthero may also increase levels of some types of white blood cells, including T cells and natural killer cells [13, 14].
Traditional practitioners use eleuthero extract for viral infections, including the common cold and flu. In limited clinical trials, an extract of Siberian ginseng appeared to reduce the symptoms of the common cold if it was taken within 72 hours of symptoms appearing [15, 16, 17].
Researchers infected human lung cells with influenza virus, which causes the flu, and treated half with eleutheroside B1; these cells produced far less of the virus [18, 19].
One study suggests that eleuthero may kill RNA viruses like those that cause the cold and flu, but not DNA viruses like herpes. In combination, eleuthero’s antiviral and immune-boosting effects could make it a good option for some infections .
In one study, 400 mg of Siberian ginseng extract per day for six months appeared to decrease the rate of infection with herpes simplex virus type 2. People who took the extract also experienced reduced frequency and severity of symptoms .
Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that suppresses the immune system.
During exposure, cadmium builds up in the spleen and decreases the number of white blood cells in this organ. The more cadmium is built up, the fewer white blood cells are found in the spleen, and the weaker the immune system becomes.
In mice, eleuthero extract reversed the effects of cadmium poisoning and cleared cadmium from the spleen .
Eleuthero extract may improve blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and fatty acid levels – all of which help prevent diabetes.
In one clinical study, people taking 480 mg/day of Siberian ginseng extract had decreased blood sugar both fasting and after meals. They also had lower HbA1c, triglycerides, and total cholesterol .
In diabetic mice, eleutheroside E promoted the function of the pancreatic cells that make insulin, reduced blood glucose levels, and reduced insulin resistance. Eleutheroside B also normalized blood sugar, insulin, and other disease markers in diabetic rats [24, 25, 26].
In combination with carnitine, Siberian ginseng prevented weight gain and cholesterol rise in rats fed a high-cholesterol diet .
Potential Eleuthero Benefits with Insufficient Evidence
Eleuthero has produced positive results for the benefits in this section only in limited, low-quality clinical studies.
There is insufficient evidence to support the use of eleuthero for any of the below-listed uses.
Furthermore, the FDA has not approved eleuthero for any medical purpose or health claim, and there is no guarantee of the quality of any given supplement.
Remember to speak with a doctor before taking eleuthero supplements. Eleuthero should never be used as a replacement for approved medical therapies.
Many people who supplement with eleuthero do so for its energy-boosting effects. Eleutherosides activate AMPK, which speeds up the metabolism and breaks down fats to produce energy. Eleuthero may also activate BDNF, which increases the brain’s ability to grow and adapt to change [6, 28, 29].
In human and animal studies, eleuthero supplements increased endurance and mental focus and decreased fatigue [30, 31, 32, 33, 34].
5) Athletic Performance
In the short term, exercise suppresses the immune system and increases serotonin production in the midbrain. Increased serotonin in the midbrain decreases how often dopamine neurons fire, which makes exercise more taxing and can increase the required recovery time [35, 36, 37].
Eleuthero boosted the immune system and decreased serotonin production in the midbrain during exercise; it may thereby improve and speed up the body’s ability to recover from exercise [35, 36, 37].
In human athletes, eleuthero improved several markers of performance. It increased the amount of time each athlete can maintain an effort; it increased maximum heart rate, a measure of exercise intensity; it decreased glucose and increases free fatty acids in the blood during exercise. As a result, eleuthero may improve a process called glycogen sparing: shifting your fuel from carbs to fats [30, 38].
Eleuthero supplementation also improved blood flow, which could contribute to faster recovery times. Finally, it protected muscles from damage during extended exercise [39, 34].
However, these potential benefits are controversial. Some researchers insist that the studies on eleuthero’s effects on athletic performance suffer from design flaws .
In a study of 30 elderly people being treated for high blood pressure, eleuthero supplements modestly improved brain function .
In animals with Alzheimer’s disease, high doses of eleuthero improved memory and learning. Eleutherosides B and E increased acetylcholine in the hippocampus region of rat brains, thereby improving communication between neurons [42, 43].
High levels of stress damage the brain’s ability to learn, form new memories, and retrieve existing memories. The stress-reducing effects of eleuthero may help restore memory deficits when these deficits are caused by stress [44, 45].
Finally, oxidative stress decreases both short- and long-term memory. Eleuthero’s antioxidant actions might help improve memory in this way, as well [46, 47].
Within four hours of taking eleuthero, healthy women had reduced swelling in their lower legs. Eleutheroside E appears to activate a receptor called Tie2, which stabilizes lymph vessels and improves the function of the lymphatic system .
Cyclooxygenase 2, or COX-2, is an enzyme that increases inflammation and pain. Commonly used NSAIDs mainly work by blocking it. The extract of eleuthero fruit activates an enzyme called heme oxygenase 1 (HO-1), which blocks COX-2 and thereby reduces inflammation [49, 50, 51].
Eleuthero may also reduce allergy symptoms. Mast cells, a type of white blood cell, are responsible for most allergic reactions; eleuthero reduces the activity of mast cells in rats [52, 53].
Familial Mediterranean Fever
Familial Mediterranean Fever, or FMF, is a genetic condition that causes episodes of inflammation marked by fever, pain, and redness of the skin. In combination with other herbs, eleuthero may reduce the symptoms of FMF in children .
Alcohol hangover puts a lot of stress on the body and causes symptoms like exhaustion, dizziness, and nausea. Eleuthero extract may help the body return to normal function and reduce symptoms during a hangover, based on data from one human study .
In a study of Korean women, eleuthero supplements increased osteocalcin, a hormone that increases bone-building activity. However, this study did not find direct, significant increases in bone mineral density .
In a rat study of osteoporosis, eleuthero bark extract prevented losses in bone mineral density. More research is required to determine whether eleuthero effectively maintains bone mineral density in humans .
Eleuthero Uses Lacking Evidence
No clinical evidence supports the use of Siberian ginseng for any of the conditions listed in this section.
Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
10) Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease causes damage and degeneration in the basal ganglia region of the brain. This degeneration leads to the movement problems typical of people with Parkinson’s disease.
Eleuthero may help prevent these symptoms: in animal studies, whole extract and isolated compounds like sesamin protected nerve and brain cells from damage and death. This protective effect is likely caused by eleuthero’s ability to increase dopamine levels in the brain [57, 58, 59, 60].
More research is required; this health benefit has not yet been studied in humans
In animal studies, eleuthero increased mental function and decreased the time needed to recover from stressful events such as forced swimming, sleep deprivation, or moving to a new environment [61, 62, 29].
Eleuthero may activate BDNF, which helps the brain adapt to change. Eleutherosides increase AMPK, which boosts energy and helps us keep going when we’re stressed and tired [29, 6, 63, 33].
Sesamin, a less abundant compound, also protects the body against inflammation and tissue damage. Finally, eleuthero activates HSP70 and increases the body’s resistance to tissue damage. Added together, these effects likely explain eleuthero’s anti-stress effects [29, 6, 63, 33].
This health benefit is somewhat controversial. Some studies suggest that eleuthero sometimes increases and sometimes decreases the stress response. Others suggest that no anti-stress benefit exists at all [64, 65].
This controversy may be explained by its hormetic effects. Hormesis is an innate enhancement mechanism our bodies carry – it’s when a mild temporary stressor triggers a shift to higher performance. Adaptogens like eleuthero may be mild hormetic stressors .
Still, further research will be required to shine a light on whether and to what extent eleuthero supplements are effective at fighting stress.
Eleuthero extract is an antioxidant: it reduces free radicals and supports cellular health. Several compounds in eleuthero extract bind to and neutralize free radicals, preventing oxidative stress and cellular damage .
12) Mosquito Bites
Essential oil from eleuthero leaves stops mosquitoes from biting. The complete oil is about three-quarters as effective as DEET at preventing mosquito bites; an isolated compound called α-bisabolol is as effective as DEET. Only one study has ever been performed on the potential insect repellent property of eleuthero; further research is required .
Eleuthero has not been shown to treat or prevent cancer.
Eleuthero extract seems to increase immune function in healthy people and in people with cancer; some researchers believe that it may reduce long-term infection risks and help the body fight off a malignant tumor, but this hasn’t been proven in clinical trials [68, 69].
When researchers exposed healthy bacteria to cancer-causing poisons, eleuthero extract dropped their mutation rate by more than half. Eleuthero extract may also protect cells from mutations due to radiation exposure, but this effect is small [70, 71].
More directly, eleuthero has been studied for potential against human stomach, lung, and throat cancer cells in a lab setting. Furthermore, eleuthero blocks estrogen receptors in cell studies; future research will investigate whether it could be useful in estrogenic cancer types [5, 72, 73].
Researchers have also recently used eleuthero to synthesize a silver nanoparticle that increases oxidative stress and selectively kills cancer cells. This natural-source nanoparticle was more effective in a lab setting than either a commercial silver nanoparticle or Cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug .
None of this research should be taken as grounds to use eleuthero in an attempt to fight cancer. If you believe that Siberian ginseng could be part of a complementary health strategy, talk to your doctor.
Estrogens in Cancer Cells
Eleutheroside E appears to act against the effects of estrogens in cancer cells. In a study using human cancer cells, eleuthero extract and eleutheroside E significantly decreased estrogen receptors [75, 73, 76].
Although this herb is also suggested as an option to reduce “estrogen dominance,” there’s no solid research to back up its anti-estrogen effects in women, nor are there enough data to support the vastly over-hyped theory of estrogen dominance [77, 78].
Limitations and Caveats
Eleuthero is an ancient part of traditional medicine in eastern Asia, but its involvement in modern science is fairly new; Soviet scientists conducted some promising studies before 1990, but many of these have yet to be repeated.
Of the existing research pool, many studies focus on single isolated compounds or on herbal combinations like Kan Jang. Eleuthero extracts can also be produced from bark, root, leaves, or berries, and the differences between these extracts have yet to be fully explored.
Some of the studies mentioned above suffer from design flaws or small sample sizes. Much of the available research comes from cell studies (especially cancer cell studies), with fewer live animal studies and even fewer human trials.
Finally, even the human studies may be flawed: the dosage of Siberian ginseng varied wildly, and in some “no effect” studies, participants took tiny doses of eleuthero.
Eleuthero, also called Siberian ginseng, is an East Asian adaptogen. Although all parts of the plant can be used medicinally, most studies tested eleuthero root extract for its potential health benefits.
Siberian ginseng has produced the most promising results for people with bipolar disorder, the common cold, and diabetes. There is not enough evidence to support any other purported benefits of eleuthero at this point.