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Korean Red Ginseng Provides Immune Support to Patients with HIV-1


Reviewed: Cho Y-K, Kim J-E. Effect of Korean red ginseng intake on the survival duration of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 patients. J Ginseng Res. April 2017;41(2):222-226.

Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is characterized by chronic inflammation and a progressive loss of T-cells (a type of white blood cell involved in immune response). Individuals with untreated HIV-1 have an estimated life expectancy of 11 years or less after diagnosis. HIV-1 is often treated with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), but HAART may have adverse side effects. HIV-1 may develop resistance to HAART treatments over time, as well.

The authors of this study hypothesized that an alternative approach using Korean red ginseng (KRG; Panax ginseng, Araliaceae) root may provide protection for T-cells. Red ginseng is prepared by steaming freshly harvested, cultivated, naturally white- or cream-colored ginseng roots, which are usually four to six years old. This steaming process produces changes in the chemistry of the ginseng roots.

Since 1991, the authors have been conducting a longterm study on the effects of KRG in patients with HIV-1. (Patients began taking KRG after their first post-diagnosis measurement of CD4+ T-cells, a subtype of T-cells also known as T-helper cells.) This retrospective analysis sought to determine if the use of KRG could support and improve immune function in patients with HIV-1 prior to treatment with HAART drugs. The authors found that daily intake of KRG (Korea Ginseng Corporation; Seoul, South Korea) was associated with a slower decrease in CD4+ T-cells and increased overall longevity in patients with HIV-1.

Of the 252 patients included in the analysis, 162 received KRG and 90 patients did not (the control group). Patients were categorized by their total monthly intake of KRG (0 g, 30 g or less, or more than 30 g) and by the amount of time between their diagnosis and the last CD4+ T-cell measurement taken before starting HAART (more or less than 10 years), which the authors referred to as the “survival duration.” According to the authors, the “introduction of HAART is recommended when the CD4+ T-cell count falls to 200-350/ µL.” (However, according to current guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services, HAART is recommended for all individuals with HIV, regardless of CD4+ count.1)

While initial T-cell baseline counts were not significantly different among all patients, those receiving any dose of KRG had a significantly slower average annual decrease in CD4+ T-cell counts compared to the control group (P < .001).  In addition, the time between HIV-1 diagnosis and the beginning of HAART was significantly longer in patients taking any dose of KRG compared to the control group (P < .001). Neither the rate of decrease in CD4+ T-cells nor the survival rate differed significantly between the high-KRG (more than 30 g per month) and low-KRG (30 g or less per month) dosages.

This results of this study corroborate the use of KRG for immune support for patients with HIV-1. However, specific details about the KRG root used in this study were not included, which is a significant shortcoming. Also, other studies have found that, compared to KRG, Chinese red ginseng possesses comparable percentages of ginsenosides but generally has a greater percentage of polysaccharides, which may be worth exploring further. The authors also note that demographic and lifestyle factors were not taken into account in this study, which should be controlled for in future studies.

—Kathleen Bennett


  1. Guidelines for the use of antiretroviral agents in adults and adolescents living with HIV. National Institutes of Health website. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2018.