SIBERIAN GINSENG: Eleutherococcus senticosus

Russian research conducted over the past 30 years and its long history of use in China have catapulted a shrubby member of the ginseng family (Araliaceae), Siberian ginseng or eleuthero, into international prominence as an adaptogen as well as a non-specific immunostimulant.


Botanists know the plant as Eleutherococcus senticosus (Rupr. and Maxim.) Maxim. The plant was formerly known as Acanthopanax senticosus, a name still widely used by Chinese scientists. Soejarto and Farnsworth (1978) and Shiu Ying Hu (1980) both published on the taxonomic position and scientific name of this plant, concluding that Eleutherococcus senticosus is the earliest validly published name, and therefore the name that should be used.


Eleuthero is a spiny-stemmed shrub with numerous stalks arising from the root, growing to a height of 9 feet in 7-10 years. It is found in northeast Asia, including much of the far southeastern Russia, northeast China, adjacent Korea, and Japan. In China it is indigenous to Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Nei Mongol, south to Hebei and Shanxi (the six most northeasterly provinces of China). The major production region is in what was formerly known as Manchuria, now composed of the Chinese provinces Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. According to Halstead and Hood (1984) it is most abundant in China in the Xiaoxinganling Mountains of Heilongjiang, the most northeastern province. In Japan the shrub occurs spontaneously on the northern island of Hokkaido (Ohwi, 1965).

In Russia, the plant's distribution includes most of the eastern maritime regions, extending to the Middle Amur region in the north to Sakhalin, and is most abundant in the Khabrarosvk and Primorsk districts, covering some 10 million hectares (Farnsworth et al., 1985). A. I. Poyarkova (1973) reports it occurs in mixed and coniferous mountain forests, at forest edges, and produces groups in thickets or small undergrowths. It is a common plant of undergrowths, and is rarely found in oak groves at the foot of cliffs find ravines. It is more rare in high riparian woodland. Halstead and Hood (1984) state that botanist O.D. Forsh found as many as 10,000 sprouts per hectare (2 1/2 acres), and that the plant grows so thickly in some areas that it forms almost impenetrable thickets.

In the United States it has historically been grown as a specimen plant at botanical gardens and arboreta, including Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum (introduced from Leningrad in 1892) and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. In recent years seeds have become available in North America, and experimental plots have reportedly been established in Montana, Oregon, and other states.


According to N.R. Farnsworth et al. (1985), common names for the plant include "Siberian ginseng," "touch-me-not," "devil's shrub," "eleutherococc," "spiny eleutherococc," "wild pepper," "eleuthero," "eleuthero ginseng," and "devil's bush." A.I. Baranov (1979) proposed the common name, "Ussurian thorny pepperbush," and further argued that "Siberian Ginseng" was a misnomer because it did not comply with either phytotaxonomical or phytogeographical characteristics of the plant. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was considerable debate in the herb industry as to the name under which the plant should be traded in the U.S. All arguments aside, the names "Siberian ginseng," "eleuthero-ginseng," and "eleuthero" have become well established in both the herb trade: as well as the scientific and popular literature. Furthermore, Eleutherococcus senticosus is clearly established as the correct botanical name of the plant. We will refer to the plant as eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), the name adopted in the American Herb Products Association's Herbs of Commerce publication (Foster, 1992).

In Chinese tradition, the whole root and rhizome is known as "Ci-wu-jia." Jia-pi, the bark of E. gracilistylus (Acanthopanax gracilistylus) is the official source of Wu-jia-pi in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. The bark of E. senticosus (Jia-Pi or Ci-Wu-Jia-Pi) is sometimes used as a substitute. Ci-wu-jia, the root of E. senticosus, is a separate article of materia medica in Chinese tradition. An unrelated plant, Periploca sepium, a viney member of the milkweed family (Asclepidaceae), is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as "Wu-jia" (Foster and Yue, 1992) or "Xiang-jia-pi" (bark); "Gang-liu-pi" (bark), and "Bei-wu-jia-pi" (bark) (S.Y. Hu 1980b). Similarities of the Traditional Chinese names for Eleutherococcus senticosus and Periploca sepium have prompted confusion and the latter has entered the American herb trade and been sold as E. senticosus.

A letter to the editor in the 12 December 1990 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Koren, et al., 1990) reported on a purported case of neonatal androgenization associated with maternal "ginseng" use in Canada -- the so-called "hairy baby" case. The isolated case was attributed to the mother's use of "pure Siberian ginseng." The authors erroneously confused eleuthero with Panax ginseng in their discussion. Further follow-up research by D. V. C. Awang (Natural Products Section, Bureau of Drug Research, Health and Welfare Canada), pointed out the egregious errors in the report by Koren and coworkers and revealed that the product in question in fact did not contain eleuthero, but instead contained Periploca sepium (Awang, 1991a, 1991b). Waller et al. (1992) performed pharmacological tests on rats with the implicated plant material, and observed no androgenicity, and concluded, "the effects observed were specific to humans and, possibly related to an undetermined peculiarity of the subject patient." This case highlights the need for proper botanical identification of herbal products and further alerted the herb industry to this potential adulteration problem, prompting new testing procedures.

Chinese products of E. senticosus entered the American herb market in the late 1970s as "Wuchaseng" and "Wujiaseng." There appears to be no historical precedent in Chinese traditions to applying the qualifier "seng" to E. senticosus (S.Y. Hu, 1979). "Seng" refers to fleshy rootstocks used in Chinese medicine as tonics. "Gin-seng," for example is one "seng"-producing plant. As E. senticosus has a woody root, it is not a "seng" by traditional Chinese definitions.

"Radix Acanthopanacis senticosi," Ci-wu-jia (as Acanthopanax senticosus (Rupr. et Maxim.) Harms), is listed as an official article of materia medica in the 1985 edition of the Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China. It is first mentioned in the Chinese literature in the 2,000-year-old classic Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (the Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica). In this work, Shen Nong lists 365 herbs in three classes (based on importance of use). E. senticosus is placed in the first class (Foster and Yue, 1992).

Traditional & Modern Uses

The Chinese herbal medicine "Ci-wu-jia" was, as previously stated, first mentioned in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. However, because of word-origin problems in relation to the exact source plant referred to in ancient texts, there is considerable confusion over the exact historical beginnings of the use of E. senticosus in China. These problems are reviewed by Halstead and Hood (1984). It is only in the last 25 years that Chinese researchers have taken an active interest in the plant because of the similarity of its properties to those of ginseng. Indications in Traditional Chinese Medicine for use of E. senticosus include benefiting "qi" (vital energy), treating deficiency of "yang" in the spleen and kidney, and normalizing body functions (Foster and Yue, 1992).

Duke and Ayensu (1985) report that the plant is used in the northeastern city of Harbin, China as a folk remedy for bronchitis, heart ailments, and rheumatism. Citing representatives from the China National Native Produce Corporation, Duke and Ayensu also report that the Chinese believe regular use of the plant helps to restore vigor, improve general health, restore memory, promote good appetite and increase longevity, basically serving as a preventative medicine and general tonic.

Russian Research

Research on E. senticosus in the Soviet Union began as the result of a screening program of far eastern members of the ginseng family (Araliaceae) after Soviet researchers had become convinced of the potential value of Panax ginseng as an adaptogen (S. Fulder, 1980). Early pharmacological results, published in 1958, prompted the Pharmacological Committee of the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Health to authorize preliminary clinical tests on E. senticosus in 1959. An article by I. I. Brekhman, widely regarded as the leading researcher on E. senticosus, was published in 1960. A symposium on plants of the ginseng family was held in Leningrad in June of 1961, resulting in the publication of an 86-page collection of proceedings. The following year, Eleutherococcus was approved for human use by the Soviet government's Ministry of Health (Halstead and Hood, 1984).

At first described as a "stimulant" and "tonic," by 1958 the term "adaptogen" was applied by Soviet researchers to describe the action of Eleutherococcus. The term "adaptogen" was coined in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev to refer to a sub. stance which was claimed to increase "non-specific" resistance of adverse influences to an organism (Farnsworth et al., 1985). Farnsworth et al. (1985) described Brekhman's definition of an adaptogen as:

- 1. A substance which "must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism."

- 2. A substance which "must have a nonspecific action," such as the ability of E. senticosus extracts to modulate stress and improve performance under a wide variety of stressful conditions.

- 3. A substance which "usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathologic state."

Since the early 1960s clinical studies involving more than 2,100 normal and stressed human subjects have been conducted in Russia using an orally administered 33% ethanol root extract of E. senticosus. Doses ranging from 2 to 16 ml are taken one to three times a day for up to 60 consecutive days (with a two-to-three-week resting interval between courses of administration). Up to five courses of administration have been given to male and female subjects, ranging from 19 to 72 years of age (Farnsworth et al., 1985). These Soviet studies are summarized in English in the 1985 review article by Farnsworth et al. The studies were performed to measure the adaptogenic response of humans to adverse conditions such as heat, noise, motion, work load increase, exercise, as well as to measure improvements in auditory disturbances, increased mental alertness, work output and the quality of work both under stress-inducing conditions and in athletic performance (Farnsworth et al., 1985).

Following successful conclusion of these studies, which showed positive results and virtually no adverse side effects, the extract of E. senticosus is widely used by the Soviet public, taken by deep sea divers, mine and mountain rescue workers, explorers, soldiers, factory workers, cosmonauts and athletes in Russia (Fulder, 1980).

Additional studies on its clinical effectiveness and side effects have been conducted involving over 2,200 human subjects suffering from a wide variety of ailments including neuroses, atherosclerosis, several forms of diabetes, hypertension, hypotension, chronic bronchitis, cancers, acute head trauma, rheumatic heart disease and other ailments. Dosage reported in these studies was less than for healthy subjects, ranging from 0.5 ml to 6.0 ml one to three times per day, with courses of administration lasting for a shorter overall duration of 35 days. Again, administration was interrupted for two to three weeks between treatments. These studies showed measurable improvements or, in some cases, normalization with few side effects, though in no way can the results be interpreted as "cures" for the ailments under investigation. These studies are summarized by Farnsworth et al., 1985.

Extensively researched over the last 30 years, and with a 2,000-year-old history of use in China, eleuthero is emerging as one of the best documented "new" medicinal plants of the late twentieth century. Over 35 compounds have been identified from the roots of E. senticosus (Farnsworth et al., 1985). One group of compounds, the eleutherosides, has been shown to be primarily responsible for the plant's adaptogenic activity. In addition, according to Wagner and Proksch (1985), two polysaccharides in the root have been shown to display immunopotentiating activity (in phagocytosis), and immunoadjuvant activity (in B lymphocytes). However, the polysaccharides may precipitate out of alcohol extracts of the root.

Preparations of the root have been shown to be non-toxic when administered over a long period of time. Siberian ginseng products are used by millions of Soviet citizens both to improve and increase the quality and quantity of physical and mental work, while helping the body "adapt" to stressful conditions. Plant preparations are also known to help increase non-specific resistance against a number of pathogens, as well as certain physical and chemical factors (Lucas, 1973). Currently, the German government allows eleuthero to be used similarly to Panax ginseng as a tonic for invigoration and fortification during times of fatigue and debility; for declining work capacity and concentration, as well as during convalescence. (Blumenthal et al., 1996).

The Future

In an interview with the eminent Soviet physician I. I. Brekhman, McCaleb (1988) reviewed problems with modern pharmacological research which attempts to evaluate a "magic bullet" treatment for a specific disease or disease organism, and the drawbacks of such an approach when attempting to evaluate medicines with a positive influence on the estimated 60-80 percent of people who find themselves in a state between optimum health and diagnosed illness. Scientific models for determining efficacy of "prophylaxis" or "staying near to health" are not well established.

Farnsworth et al. (1985) state that there is extensive evidence to support the adaptogenic nature of E. senticosus extract in both animal and human models, but that pharmacological explanations of the mechanism of action are poorly understood. They suggest that future models focusing on the biochemical effects of autacoids (such as prostaglandins) may reveal an as yet unknown mechanism that may be responsible for "adaptogenic" effects.

The study of "adaptogens" is in its infancy. Past and future work on E. senticosus could result in new ways of thinking about medicinal plants as well as new directions in research.


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By Steven Foster

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