Origins of the plant
Ginseng was originally found in east Asian countries, specifically mainland China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. There is a variety of ginseng known as Siberian ginseng which is not really the same plant at all, but a similar herb known as Eleuthero. Traditional ginseng also grows in North America, but specifically is native to the northeastern region of the United States from the Atlantic ocean across to Iowa and some parts of southern Canada. It is a shade-loving plant, so typically grows in forested regions and cool climates. Ginseng does not do well in southern regions where heat, bright sun, or dry weather will prevent its growth.
The slow-growing nature of ginseng calls for at least three years of life before harvesting a plant. The plant will flower in the early summer and then turn to berries. Once these have fallen, then the plant is generally harvested in the early fall months. The entire plant can be used, but typically the root has the most medicinal properties. The root of the ginseng plant is large, and grows into several branches that are said to look like a human in shape.
Variations of Ginseng
There are a number of variations of ginseng. Most relate to where the ginseng was grown or cultivated, but each area produces a different level of quality in their ginseng.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the most common form of ginseng and is considered the original form of the herb. It is still grown in China, Japan, and other countries, but is most prevalent in Korea. Korean ginseng is one of the most popular varieties of Ginseng seen in products today. It is important to note that this species is also one of the most superior in quality of the variations available. This is due to the conditions in which it is grown and the longer span of the growing period that is available. The longer the plant is able to stay in the soil the stronger it becomes and therefore is more effective overall.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is quite accessible today in many products. It is still considered a high quality form of ginseng, but it has been found that the roots contain different proportions of the key components. The claim is that the properties are different in American ginseng because of the conditions under which it is grown.
Japanese ginseng (Panax japonicus) is often used as a substitute to the higher grade Asian ginseng and does not have the same strength nor the quality of Asian ginseng.
Sanchi ginseng (Panax notoginseng) is native to China and is another of the often used substitutes to Asian ginseng. It is very different in its properties from traditional Panax ginseng and is commonly used for entirely different purposes.
Himalayan ginseng (Panax pseudoginseng) is a low strength form of ginseng that is most often used to treat digestive issues.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is similar in form to ginseng, but is a different plant entirely. It has a lower level of potency in treatment, and is also cheaper to buy so is often used as an alternative to ginseng. Siberian ginseng has been shown to have its own tonifying effects, however, and can be used with success in treating immune function problems and as an anti-inflammatory.
Red ginseng is a form of Panax ginseng that has been put through a heat treatment and then brewed to turn a reddish color. It is most commonly known for its uses in treating sexual dysfunction, but also has been effective in reducing various types of cancer.
Benefits of Ginseng
The key components in ginseng are the ginsenosides which produce effects in the body similar to the stress hormones released naturally. Depending on the level of potency of the ginseng, these effects can improve a person’s well-being in a number of ways.
Ginseng is most often thought of for its stimulating effects and indeed many of its benefits are due to its effect on the body’s secretion of hormones. Ginseng is known to improve mental and physical performance over time as well as stimulating metabolism, improving stamina, and alleviating fatigue. It has also been used to relax the nervous system and lower blood sugar and also improves immune system response and encourages resistance to disease.
Ginseng has been used to treat a variety of health problems, such as:
- Reducing mental stress and anxiety
- Increasing mental clarity and alertness
- Stimulating the immune and nervous system
- Treating diabetes
- Preventing the growth of certain types of cancer cells
- Lowering cholesterol levels
- Improving digestion
- Reducing fatigue
- Improving athletic endurance
Studies on Ginseng
There are a number of studies that have been done on ginseng and its properties to determine if the health claims are true. Many of these studies have shown some strong data in favor of the claims made about ginseng, yet others have proved inconclusive and further studies need to be completed before any results can be shown.
The strongest results from studies on ginseng have been in relation to improving blood sugar, aiding in immune system function, and providing benefits for those with heart conditions. Most studies in these areas have already shown positive results, and further studies are underway to provide more conclusive evidence.
Other conditions that have been tested for treatment with ginseng include anemia, ADHD, cancer, dementia, erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, improving mental performance, supporting liver function, and a number of other illnesses. Most of the results on these studies have been positive in nature, but the data is not yet conclusive enough to be shown as proven. More studies are underway all the time, so results are likely to change over time.
For more information on ginseng studies visit MEDLINE at:
Usage & Dosages of Ginseng
Ginseng is available in a number of forms for use. Fresh ginseng can be sliced and brewed into a tea for consumption or added into soups. It can even be chewed or eaten fresh. The most common form of ginseng found is the dried root or some variation of that.
The dried root can also be sliced and brewed into tea, or it can be ground and placed under the tongue for quick absorption. Most ground ginger root is actually put into a pill format for consuming daily. The benefit of buying the actual dried root is that one can ensure that they are receiving a high quality product. It is common that pill formats of ginseng will not have a high potency of the herb.
The typical dosage in capsule format is 100 to 200 milligrams taken once or twice per day. If using a liquid form of ginseng, it is best to take 1 to 2 grams and mix it with water and then drink the mixture. Again, this can be taken once or twice per day.
A good standard is to start with a lower dose and then work up to a maximum of 200 milligrams twice per day after determining physical response and potential side effects from taking ginseng. After a three month period of taking ginseng on a daily basis, one should stop using the herb for a period of two weeks to one month before resuming use. Prolonged use without taking a break can cause nervousness and fluid retention.
Ginseng is a viable option for supplementing one’s diet to aid in mental focus, lowering blood sugar, and providing an energy boost. It is not without its concerns, however, and it will be some time before enough studies are completed to show the benefits or disprove the claims related to ginseng. Anyone deciding to use it should take it slowly and check with a sales clerk at their local health food store to find a quality brand. As always, remember to check with a physician before starting any new herbal supplement to ensure that it will not conflict with any other health issues or medications.
Caution - Those on blood thinning medications or with blood clotting issues should speak with a doctor before taking ginseng because it can reduce the effectiveness of medications.