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Think twice before you take red ginseng

Consumers should be cautious of side effects and see doctor beforehand

Red ginseng is a favorite dietary supplement for many Koreans.

It is thought to be risk-free and effective in strengthening stamina with no serious side effects. Many believe that it is good for all people with any physical characteristics.

Some of the beliefs are true: many people praise it for its “rejuvenation” or “energizing” effect that helps them build self-esteem and lead a healthy life. Around the world, especially in China, Japan and Korea, red ginseng is consumed to enhance physical exercise performance, immune functions and conditions associated with diabetes.

However, health experts say red ginseng is not a cure-all supplement. They say it should be taken with great care and caution just as any other food.

Made by repeatedly steaming and drying ginseng, red ginseng could have side effects as could ordinary ginsengs, a group of young Oriental medical doctors said Wednesday.

They claim red ginsengs are associated with some symptoms that are suspected side effects: nausea, stomachache, diarrhea, slight chest pain and indigestion. Light levels of insomnia, itchiness, constipation and high blood pressure have also been reported.

The group says many of those who visit Oriental doctors have experienced improvement in easing symptoms after they stopped taking red ginseng.

“Some red ginseng makers have misled the public by claiming that foreigners may experience some side effects but that Koreans are immune to bad factors. But actually, the outcome of the intake of red ginseng differs according to individuals, not race or sex,” Kim Ji-ho, spokesman of the group, told The Korea Herald.

He noted that in the U.S. and some European countries, the intake of red ginseng is restricted to less than two grams a day.

Yoo Kyung-hwan, associate professor at Kyung Hee University, said even those who have experienced stamina enhancement could suffer side effects if they take red ginseng for too long.

“People need to control the period of time they take it. It should be considered in a medical sense rather than as just another health food,” he said.

The Oriental medical doctors advised people to see doctors before taking red ginseng. Especially those who experience insomnia, digestion disorders and excessive palpitations should take extra caution. Infants, elderly people, pregnant or breastfeeding women should also be careful because from time to time, the food could be more harmful than beneficial, they said.

“Surely we will need further discussion and research in the area. But until we come up with a guideline, people must consult with their Oriental medical doctors before taking it,” Kim said.

Should one experience what seems like an adverse effect from the use of ginseng products available on the market, one should report to the Consumers Union at the doctors advised.

By Bae Ji-sook (