Next time you've got the sniffles, swap your over-the-counter cold remedy for a dose of ginseng. The herb may reduce the risk of catching a common cold and shorten its duration, according to a 2005 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
University of Alberta researchers gave 323 healthy adults either two daily doses of 200 milligrams of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) or a placebo from November to February, the height of cold season. About 10 percent of those taking ginseng had two or more colds during the four months compared with 23 percent of those using placebos. The ginseng group also reported 31 percent fewer overall cold symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion, and headache. What's more, those who caught colds endured them for almost four days less than the non-ginseng group.
Although experts cite the need for more studies, they speculate that the healing properties of ginseng may be related to the herb's high levels of polysaccharides, a complex carbohydrate shown to boost immune response.
The findings are not surprising to many herbalists: Ayurvedic practitioners often use ginseng to treat conditions related to colds, like exhaustion, sweating, and stress, says Laurel Redmon, L.Ac., Chinese herbalist and owner of Red Sage Health in Madison, Wisc. "Ginseng can strengthen your system when you're weak and offer support if your colds are from feeling run-down, highly stressed, or overworked," she adds. What to look for
Organic cultivated ginseng root (available at many health food stores) is the most potent form and hasn't been tainted by pesticides or processing. Avoid the majority of commercial ginseng products like supplements, extracts, and powders, says Redmon. "Standardized extracts focus only on specific compounds and act more like a drug than a balanced herbal medicine. And powders lose much of their effectiveness when processed," she explains. In fact, a 2006 report from consumerlab.com found that six of 20 ginseng supplements tested either lacked sufficient ginseng or were contaminated with lead. Previous reports also showed some ginseng products contained high amounts of pesticides.
Make your own
Here's how to make your own decoction of ginseng root:
Place a medium-size root in a full pot of water and bring to a boil. (Avoid aluminum or Teflon as this can contaminate the tea.)
Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 to 45 minutes.
Pour the tea into a separate container and set aside.
Fill the pot again with water and repeat steps 1 through 3 (using the same ginseng root). Then combine the first and second batches to make your decoction.
Sweeten to your taste (a higher concentration often has a somewhat bitter flavor). You can store the ginseng decoction in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Drink a cup or two daily during cold season to keep coughs and sneezes at bay, says Redmon. "Gauge how you react, and drink more or less as needed-or make teas that are more or less concentrated," she advises. If you feel any side effects, discontinue your use as some people react poorly to this medicine and should not take it.