Eleutherococcus senticosus is only distantly related to the true ginseng species ( Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolius) and possesses entirely different, unrelated chemical constituents. However, it is popularly called Russian or Siberian ginseng. The origin of this misnomer lies in the work of a Soviet scientist, I.I. Brekhman, who believed that eleutherococcus has the same properties as ginseng, and popularized it as a less-expensive alternative herb.

According to Brekhman, eleutherococcus and ginseng are both adaptogens. This term refers to a hypothetical treatment defined as follows: An adaptogen should help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.

Perhaps the only indisputable example of an adaptogen is a healthful lifestyle. By eating right, exercising regularly, and generally living a life of balance and moderation, you will increase your physical fitness and ability to resist illnesses of all types. Brekhman felt certain that both eleutherococcus and ginseng produced similarly universal benefits. However, there is little to no meaningful evidence supporting this theory.

Herbs sold under the name ciwuja are most likely Eleutherococcus, as well.

If Brekhman is right, ginseng (whether Eleutherococcus or Panax) should be the right treatment for most of us. Modern life is tremendously stressful, and if an herb could help us withstand stress, it would be a useful herb indeed.Eleutherococcusis widely used for this purpose in Russia and Eastern Europe, and it is popular elsewhere as well. However, there is little meaningful evidence to support this theory. Existing evidence on the supposed adaptogenic properties falls far beneath current scientific standards.1

Better quality studies have evaluated the potential usefulness of Eleutherococcus for specific conditions. Most, however, have failed to find benefit.

In the one unquestionably positive study, a 6-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 93 men and women with recurrent herpes infections, treatment with eleutherococcus (2 g daily) reduced the frequency of outbreaks by approximately 50%.2

Although Eleutherococcus is widely used as a sports supplement, evidence from studies is largely negative. For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 20 athletes over an 8-week period found no improvement in physical performance.3 In addition, a small double-blind, crossover trial found Eleutherococcusineffective for improving performance in endurance exercise (ie, prolonged cycling).4 Finally, in a small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of endurance athletes, use of Eleutherococcus actually increasedphysiological signs of stress during intensive training.5

One study failed to find Eleutherococcus helpful for chronic fatigue syndrome.6

Several double-blind studies enrolling a total of about 500 people have evaluated a proprietary combination therapy containing extracts of Eleutherococcus and the herb andrographis for the treatment of upper respiratory infections, and found benefit.7-9 In general, these studies reported that use of the combination therapy may decrease both severity and duration of upper respiratory infections. However, it is not clear whether the presence of the Eleutherococcus adds any benefit beyond that of the andrographis constituent, which taken alone has shown efficacy in clinical trials. For more information, see the Andrographis article.