Ginseng is any of eleven different varieties of short, slow growing perennial plants with fleshy roots. Ginseng is believed to restore and enhance normal well-being and has become one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world today.
The herbs consist of a light-colored, forked-shaped root, a relatively long stalk and green leaves with an oval shape.
Ginseng has traditionally been taken to aid a number of medical conditions, which we discuss below. However, as a note of caution, there remains little scientific research to back up how effective ginseng actually is for these.
Both American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, L.) and Asian Ginseng (P. Ginseng) are believed to provide an energy boost, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and treat sexual dysfunction in men.
It should be noted that Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis) is not a true ginseng and doesn't belong to the genus "Panax". It does belong to the Araliaceae family of plants, but consumers should be aware that it is not the same as American or Asian ginseng.
Possible health benefits of ginseng
Ginseng is one of the most widely used herbal supplements.
Traditionally ginseng has been used to treat a number of different ailments.
However, it should be noted that ginseng's therapeutic properties are often questioned by Western scientists and health professionals because of little "high-quality" research determining its true effectiveness in medicine.
The following ginseng health benefit links have been suggested:
Ginseng may help with stimulating physical and mental activity among people who are weak and tired. A Mayo Clinic study revealed that ginseng showed good results in helping cancer patients with fatigue.
Ginseng may improve thinking ability and cognition. Research published in the The Cochrane Library, conducted at the Medical School of Nantong University in China, examined whether this claim holds any truth.
Lead author, JinSong Geng, M.D., said that given the results of the study "ginseng appears to have some beneficial effects on cognition, behavior and quality of life." However, the authors of the review cautioned that despite some positive findings, studies included in the systematic review did not add up to a "convincing" case for ginseng's effectiveness as a cognitive enhancer.
In commenting on the study, Richard Brown, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, said: "It was a very careful review. But as with many Chinese herbs and treatments, while ginseng has been used by millions of people, there aren't a lot of rigorous modern studies."
Another study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, explored whether it would be possible to incorporate American ginseng into foods. The researchers developed ginseng fortified milk with sufficient levels of ginseng to improve cognitive function.
Ginseng has seven constituents, ginsenosides, which may have immune-suppressive effects, according to results of experiments which were published in the Journal of Translational Medicine
Allan Lau, who led the study, said that "the anti-inflammatory role of ginseng may be due to the combined effects of these ginsenosides, targeting different levels of immunological activity, and so contributing to the diverse actions of ginseng in humans".
There may be substances in ginseng that have anticancer properties. A few population studies in Asia have linked the herb's consumption to a lower risk of cancer.1
Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers found that Ginseng improved survival and quality of life after a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The American Cancer Society said that "clinical trials are still needed to determine whether it is effective in people."
Men may take ginseng to treat erectile dysfunction. A 2002 Korean study revealed that 60 percent of men who took ginseng noticed an improvement in their symptoms. In addition, research published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology provided "evidence for the effectiveness of red ginseng in the treatment of erectile dysfunction."2
Flu and RSV
Research published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine has suggested a possible link between ginseng and the treatment and prevention of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). This study was conducted in mice and found that red ginseng extract improved the survival of human lung epithelial cells infected with influenza virus.
History of ginseng
The word ginseng comes from the chinese term "rénshen", which literally translates into "man root". It is thought to have been given this name because the root of the plant looks like the legs of a man.
Over five thousand years ago, in the mountains of Manchuria, China, Panax ginseng was commonly used for its rejuvenating powers.
The herb was considered to be a symbol of divine harmony and its human shape was highly desirable.
Panax Ginseng grew wildly in the mountains
The benefits of ginseng were first documented during China's Liang Dynasty (220 to 589 AD).
Chinese legend has it that early emperors used to use it as a remedy for all illnesses and not only consumed it, but also used it in soaps, lotions and creams.
In the third century A.C., China's demand for ginseng sparked huge international trade of the herb from other parts of the world - in exchange for silk etc.
In 1716, a Jesuit priest in Canada heard that ginseng was extremely sought-after in China, so he searched for the herb in areas of French Canada - environmentally similar to Manchuria.
After three months of searching he finally found a herb nearly identical to Asian ginseng near the city of Montreal - the herb he found became known as American ginseng.
Soon after the discovery of American ginseng, botanists and herbalists found that it was common all over the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. The export of ginseng from North America to China began to explode.
However, the herb was over-harvested in the mid-1970s and soon became considered an endangered species.
Since farmers began cultivating the sensitive herb in the 1970s, American ginseng trade has been growing steadily.
Currently, the state of Wisconsin, in particular Marathon County, produces nearly 95% of American ginseng. The herb is also widely grown in the province of Ontario, Canada.
Possible side effects of taking ginseng
Although ginseng is generally considered to be safe to consume, the following side effects have been reported:
- Elevated heart rate
- Difficulty sleeping.
Women may also experience swollen breasts and vaginal bleeding.
Ginseng's associated complications
Doctors do not recommend taking ginseng along with a class of antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), because it can cause manic episodes and tremors.
Ginseng can alter the effects of blood pressure and heart medications, including calcium channel blockers such as nifedipine (Procardia®). Never mix ginseng with heart medications without consulting your doctor first.
Symptoms of mild ginseng overdose include:
Symptoms of severe ginseng overdose include:
- Decreased heart rate
People who experience any of the symptoms listed above should stop taking ginseng and immediately seek medical attention.
If you've enjoyed reading about the potential health benefits associated with taking ginseng, why not take a look at our collection of articles about healthy foods.