Dr John Briffa: Ginseng and tonic

My first flirtation with natural medicine came just a few short weeks before my final medical examinations. Not the most diligent student, I was doing some serious burning of the midnight oil in an attempt to fill the gaping holes in my knowledge. Energy reserves were running low and my 10-mug-a-day Nescafé habit was not providing adequate relief. Out of desperation I entered the then alien world of the health food store and explained my predicament to a homely assistant. She dispensed Siberian ginseng, a remedy fabled for its abilities to combat stress and fatigue. I remember quite quickly sensing a lift in my energy levels and mental faculties. I passed my finals and scooped a few prizes to boot. My herb-induced transformation from dunce student to apparent academic did make me think that there might be more to this natural-medicine lark than met the eye.

I am open to the idea that the subjective benefits that Siberian ginseng offered me all those years ago were little more than a souped-up placebo response. So recently I resolved to discover whether the supposed tonic effects of this herb are the stuff of folklore or fact. It turns out that Siberian ginseng has been the subject of several scientific studies, and the evidence suggests it has the capacity to protect us from stress and illness, and increase our productivity, too.

Experiments have shown that Siberian ginseng ( Eleutherococcus senticosus ) has the capacity to have very real effects on the physiology of animals and humans. One internal action it has is to enhance the health of the adrenal glands, the chief organs in the body responsible for dealing with stress. In animals, it has been shown to help protect against a diverse array of potential stressors including heat, cold, surgery, blood loss and infection. Studies in humans show benefits for such individuals as sailors, deep-sea divers, rescue workers, truck drivers, pilots and factory workers. My experience with the herb more than a decade ago made me especially interested in a study which found that proofreaders worked more quickly and make fewer mistakes when taking Siberian ginseng.

In addition to its general tonic properties in the body, Siberian ginseng is also known to enhance the action of the immune system. These two combined effects may help to explain why long-term use of this herb has been shown to reduce the rate of infection and absenteeism in workers. A study of 1,000 factory workers found that taking Siberian ginseng for just 30 days reduced days lost due to absenteeism by 40 per cent over the next year. General illness rates for the same period were cut by half.

The normal dose of Siberian ginseng is widely available in health food stores: 300-400mg of concentrated extract should be taken each day. While Siberian ginseng is known to be generally safe, it is not suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or for those suffering from high blood pressure. However, for many people finding themselves floored by life's challenges, Siberian ginseng can often provide the lift they need to rise to the occasion.

Dear John

I have been suffering from a condition known as restless legs. My doctor claims that the only treatment is sleeping tablets. Could you please suggest any alternatives?
Joy Kelly, Plymouth

Restless legs is a syndrome characterised by uncomfortable tickling, burning, prickling or aching sensations in the muscles of the legs. Sufferers usually find that symptoms develop at night while they are in bed. The condition is quite common, and is thought to affect as many as 15 per cent of the population.

My experience is that while conventional-treatment options for restless legs are limited, natural approaches usually work very well to control and eliminate symptoms.

Because caffeine seems to worsen or trigger the symptoms of restless legs, I would strongly advise you to avoid coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate. Restless legs are also associated with smoking, so if you smoke you would do well to stop or at least cut down.

In practice, certain nutrients can be very effective in controlling restless legs. Magnesium can often be useful, and this may be related to the fact that it has a relaxant effect on muscle tissues. I suggest you take 500mg of magnesium each day. Magnesium supplementation seems to work particularly well in combination with vitamin E, which can help increase blood flow to the muscles in the legs. Take 400-800iu of vitamin E each day.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.