There is considerable interest in compounds that may improve sperm characteristics and therefore fertility, and the recent rise in popularity of complementary and alternative medicine has led to a demand for ‘natural’ alternatives to synthetic drugs, despite little research into the safety and efficacy of these compounds. Panax ginseng is a herb that has been utilised in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its supposed aphrodisiacal qualities, and has shown efficacy in improving reproductive function in laboratory rats. The main saponins found in ginseng, ginsenosides, are reported to exert the pharmacological effects of this herb.
Standardised extract from Panax ginseng (3.19 g) was administered orally to four rams every day for a 90-day period. Blood was collected periodically throughout the experiment and screened for ginsenosides using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS). No ginsenosides were detected in blood from any treatment rams. After the completion of the 90-day trial, a second experiment was carried out, whereby two rams were given 5 times the original dose (15.94 g) of ginseng. LC-MS analysis determined that one ram had a serum concentration of 4.35 ng/mL Ginsenoside Rb1 at 30 minutes after treatment.
There was no significant difference in sperm motility between treatment and control groups, or over time. Treatment rams showed a significantly lower mean concentration, volume and total sperm count than controls. Both groups showed a significant improvement in semen volume and total sperm count over time.
This study highlighted the need for further study into the absorption and metabolism of ginseng in ruminants, and whether a higher dose will allow therapeutic levels to reach the circulation. External factors such as seasonal influence, as well as high individual variation, appear to have had more impact on sperm quality, and treatment with ginseng does not appear to have positively influenced sperm characteristics.