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Ginseng's New Powers

Berry extract now shows promise in treatment of diabetes and obesity

FRIDAY, May 24 (HealthScoutNews) -- Ginseng root is a popular herbal supplement used to strengthen the immune system and boost mental capacity, but a new study suggests the plant's real medicinal properties may lie in its berries.
When given to obese, diabetic mice, an extract made from ginseng berries lowered the animals' blood sugar and cholesterol, and helped them lose weight, report researchers from the University of Chicago Medical School in the June issue of Diabetes.

"We observed that ginseng berry extract has very significant anti-obesity and anti-diabetic effects," says lead author Dr. Chun-Su Yuan, an assistant professor of anesthesia and critical care at the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research at the University of Chicago. "We were very surprised by the strength of the results we observed."

Yuan and his team injected the extract made from the pulp of the berry into mice with a gene defect that causes Type II diabetes and obesity, as well as into control mice that were not overweight or diabetic.

After 12 days, the obese mice had lost between 10 percent and 15 percent of their body weight, and their blood sugar levels -- which had been very high -- had dropped into the normal range. Obese mice that received the extract ate 15 percent less food, and increased their activity levels by 35 percent. When the researchers stopped the injections, the mice slowly gained back the weight they had lost.

Mice treated with the extract also did better on glucose tolerance tests, which suggests their bodies were processing insulin more efficiently, Yuan says. Treated, diabetic mice had cholesterol levels 30 percent below those of untreated diabetic mice.

The normal control mice showed no effects from the treatment, and there were no noticeable side effects in any of the mice, Yuan says.

The substances in the berries that the researchers believed produced at least some of these effects are known as ginsenosides, and they focused in on one known as ginsenoside Re in another set of experiments on the mice. They found this substance had no effect on obesity, but did lower blood sugar levels. Yuan says future work will focus on identifying what each substance does and how it works.

After that, he says, the extract may be tested in humans to see if the results can be duplicated. Ginseng berry extract is not currently commercially available.

Effective treatments for diabetes and obesity are sorely needed. Fully 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seventeen million people in the United States are diabetic, and 200,000 die every year from complications of the disease, reports the CDC.

Dr. Ray Sahelian, an herbal supplement expert, says he wasn't surprised by the study's results because ginseng root has some anti-diabetic properties as well, but he thought the findings were promising.

One concern, however, is whether researchers would be able to safely give humans a high enough dose to get the same results, Sahelian says.

"It's difficult to extrapolate dosages used in mice to humans," he says. "Sometimes rodents need significantly higher doses to elicit a response."


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