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Although current treatments for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra have been effective for many individuals, the quest for alternative treatments continues in the research community. Most recently, a study from South Korea suggesting that ginseng may be useful for treating erectile dysfunction has been making headlines.

The study, which was a multi-centre randomised double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, was published in International Journal of Impotence Research. In total 119 men between the ages of 20 and 70 took part. In order to be included in the study the participants were required to be married, exhibit mild to moderate erectile dysfunction and agree to attempt sexual intercourse at least four times a month during the course of the study. The men were then divided into two groups, with one group receiving four tablets containing ginseng extract on a daily basis for eight weeks and another group receiving four placebo tables on a daily basis for eight weeks. To measure any improvements in sexual satisfaction, the results from two identical questionnaires for sexual satisfaction (called IIEF-15) and premature ejaculation (called PEDT) completed after four and eight weeks of treatment were compared. The questionnaires measured several aspects of sexual satisfaction, where erectile dysfunction was a part of the questions included. In addition to that, the researchers conducted interviews with participants to gather clinical information before the trial started and after it ended. During these sessions, the participants’ cholesterol levels and hormonal status (with regards to testosterone and prolactin levels) were also measured and later included in the interpretation of the results. The key results indicated that both groups had a slight improvement in sexual satisfaction and erectile functioning during the course of the study, but that those who had been taking ginseng indicated a slightly larger improvement (regarding erectile functioning) that was statistically significant. This led the researchers to conclude that ginseng has the potential to improve all domains of sexual functioning for men.

It is worth commending the design of the study and how it was executed. In medicinal research randomised controlled trials are considered gold standard and blinding both participants and researchers to the treatment eliminates common problems less systematic studies may have had. The researchers also specified the type and amount of ginseng extract that individuals had received, which is important in order to distinguish different ginseng tablets currently out on the market. Moreover, the IIEF-15 is commonly used in research regarding sexual function and has been demonstrated to have good reliability and is useful for the statistical analysis the researchers conducted. This of course makes it easier to compare the findings with other studies of interest.

However, several aspects of this study warrant scrutiny, particularly with regards to the conclusion of the findings. The results were modestly significant at best, which suggests that the study would have to be replicated in a larger sample where age, ethnicity, marital status and medical conditions were given more weight. Perhaps most importantly, it appears that both groups showed improvement during the course of the study, which indicates that other factors may have played a role and that the difference between using ginseng and placebo was insufficient to cause a radical shift in marketing it for erectile dysfunction. It could be argued that this reflects how the various types of measurement did not adequately capture the social and physical components that are likely to play a role in such a complex concept as sexual satisfaction. Despite this, the researchers appeared to ignore the placebo groups’ improvement, and concluded that improvement in one area (erectile dysfunction) could translate to ginseng being useful for all problems regarding sexual dissatisfaction. An unexpected area of concern comes from the funding this study received from Korean Ministry for Health and Amorepacific, as the latter produces health and beauty products that contain ginseng. Although no conflict of interest was reported in the publication, we are somewhat frustrated to find that the article did not mention the degree of Amoreapacific’s involvement in the study. This makes it impossible to establish whether there was a possibility for the research to be biased due to commercial interests.

Having read the study thoroughly, we feel like its findings ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Too few studies corroborate the findings, how ginseng would work is not specified and despite robust methodology the findings are marginal. The possibility remains that future studies, include larger samples and various dosages of ginseng, could find something in this field. However, until such studies have been published and subjected to extensive peer review, we maintain that ginseng is not effective as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

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