Bottom Line/HEALTH: If you’re thinking about kicking your immune system up a notch, you might want to think about ginseng.

I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversation With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. Andrew Rubman, a leading naturopathic physician and the medical director of the Southbury Clinic in Southbury, Connecticut. Dr. Rubman is also a contributing medical editor to Bottom Line. So welcome, Andy. It’s always great to see you.

Dr. Andrew Rubman: Hey, Sarah.

Bottom Line: All right, so there are 1,001 immune boosters. What is it about ginseng that makes it so special?

Dr. Rubman: People have been using ginseng literally for thousands of years. It’s one of those things we call an adaptogen. It allows the tissue to better adapt to its challenges and defeat them. We’re beginning to understand the mechanism, but we don’t really understand it entirely.

Someone said to me, “If we don’t have formal studies, why would we have confidence in it?” and I said “Millions of Chinese over thousands of years can’t be wrong.”

Bottom Line: So ginseng has these unique abilities as an immune booster. When would you use ginseng versus vitamin C or any other immune boosters?

Dr. Rubman: Ginseng is used because it helps the community of cells in a tissue line better communicate and establish a common defense against what the threat is. It works as an overlay to vitamin C. It works in a different way. It works almost like a community organizer to rally people collectively, to respond.

Bottom Line: People will easily take vitamin C on a regular basis.

Dr. Rubman: Right.

Bottom Line: Are you suggesting that people also take ginseng on a regular basis, just prophylactic immune boosting? Because I always think of ginseng as targeting for a specific use or a specific challenge.

Dr. Rubman: Right, it’s mostly used that way. There are some people who like to take a small amount of it on a daily basis. I agree with you that it probably should be used on an as-needed basis.

Bottom Line: And are there specific challenges that it works best against?

Dr. Rubman: It works best against viruses. It works best against yeast, mold and fungi. It works also fairly well against bacteria. But it really shines against viruses.

Bottom Line: Again, there’s a lot of chat in the air about the fears of ebola…the fears of this enterovirus. Is this something, if somebody first starts getting any symptoms of scratchy throat or headaches or anything that are the symptoms of these viruses or even the flu virus, should they consider taking ginseng?

Dr. Rubman: I think so. There doesn’t seem to be any contraindication to it.

Bottom Line: There are two different types—there’s Siberian and there’s American ginseng. Can they take either kind, or is one better suited than another?

Dr. Rubman: Siberian ginseng is not a true ginseng. The Oriental or Korean ginseng, panax ginseng, is the same genus and species as the American. The difference between those two would be the source.

And in anticipation of your question, the environment, the age of the root determines its potency. This has been noted by the Chinese over the centuries. So common ginseng is very inexpensive—some unusual ginseng can go for thousands of dollars an ounce.

Bottom Line: So it’s really the panax or the American ginseng that people want to take.

Dr. Rubman: You could call it Oriental/Korean and American are both panax. Siberian is eleutherococcus. Different genus. It’s not really ginseng.

Bottom Line: That’s not the ginseng that we really want to be using.

Dr. Rubman: No.

Bottom Line: Is it safe for everybody to take?

Dr. Rubman: Yeah, I’ve never seen any contraindications to ginseng.

Bottom Line: And what kind of dosing? How do you use ginseng? Acknowledging that you always need to check with your medical provider before you take anything.

Dr. Rubman: Yeah. And that also assumes that they are going to be able to field your question, which is somewhat presumptive.

My advice would be to get a good standard, inexpensive, commercial ginseng. South Korea has very large fields where they grow commercial ginseng. That’s going to be fine for most folks. You can get the root…you can take powdered root in a capsule form. I think it’s most efficacious being brewed into a tea—infused and not decocted. Meaning soak it in hot water, don’t boil it.

Bottom Line: Thank you very much, Dr. Andy. The bottom line on ginseng? It’s a great immune booster, in particular for viruses, but also for bacteria, yeast and fungi. If you want to take ginseng, you want to take the panax version, and best to take it in water as a tea. Don’t boil it… soak it in hot water. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line.