Ginseng

Ginseng has been a popular herb since ancient times, and its list of medical uses is constantly being extended due to new research. Discover its history and many benefits.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Panax, Chinese ginseng, Korean ginseng, Asian ginseng
  • Scientific namePanax ginseng
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionCentral Asia
  • Main producer(s)China
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Medicinal and Nutritional Information
  • Medicinal actionEstrogenic, Immune stimulant, Stimulant
  • Key constituentsGinsenosides
  • Ways to useCapsules, Decoctions, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Powder
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe
How to Consume [title]
  • Edible partsRoot
  • TasteEarthy
Buying
  • Where to buyFarmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores
Growing
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsPartial shade, Full shade
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates, Mountain regions
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification
Additional Information
  • Other usesCosmetics
Ginseng

Ginseng is one of the most revered herbs in the world of natural remedies. There are different species native to different areas of the globe - Siberian, Chinese, Japanese, and American. Siberian ginseng is derived from a different genus to the others, and is therefore not related to true ginseng. It is believed that the oldest of these is Chinese ginseng, botanical name: Panax ginseng. This species has an extensive history in traditional Chinese medicine which has provoked interest in scientists across the globe.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionEstrogenic, Immune stimulant, Stimulant
  • Key constituentsGinsenosides
  • Ways to useCapsules, Decoctions, Hot infusions/tisanes, Liquid extracts, Powder
  • Medicinal rating(4) Very useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Ginseng

It is thought that people in ancient China first used ginseng in cooking, but it did not take long for them to identify its medicinal promise. It is mentioned in many old Chinese texts, as an important ingredient for many remedies. Because of this, ever-increasing research is carried out to attempt to fully understand the health benefits ginseng can have. Perhaps the most well-known uses include:

  • Replenishing energy. Ginseng has long been prescribed as an energy provider. It is used as a revitalizer and has been favored by athletes looking to enhance their performance.
  • Anti-inflammatory. The plant contains properties which can inhibit internal and external inflammation.
  • Supporting the immune system. Antimicrobial compounds exist in ginseng which can help to fend off bacterial or viral infections.
  • Relieving stress and anxiety. Ginseng contains adaptogens, which have an effect on hormones that helps people to deal with stress.

There is a vast array of claims about other conditions that can be treated with ginseng. These include withdrawal from cocaine, protection against radiation, depression, erectile dysfunction and hangovers. People are finding new uses for ginseng all the time, which may or may not be legitimate. This necessitates further - reliable - scientific investigation.

How it Works

All types of ginseng contain adaptogens, which can support and enhance the hormonal response to stress. In Siberian, ginseng is called eleutherosides, and in the ginseng belonging to the panax genus they are known as saponin glycosides, or ginsenosides.

Researchers have identified further pharmacological components that can be found within ginseng. These include polyacetylenes, polyphenols,and acidic polysaccharides.

Polysaccharides are used by the body as a “back-up” energy source, which explains the use of ginseng as an energy provider.

Polyacetylenes are toxic to fungi and bacteria, and therefore are the reason why ginseng can support the immune system, and fend off infections. They also act as an anti-inflammatory.

Polyphenols contain antioxidants, which can help the body to protect against any pollutants it may encounter. This also helps the body to sustain an efficient immune system.

Ginseng Side Effects

Although ginseng is generally considered safe for consumption, it may have some undesired side effects in some people. Reported symptoms have been headaches, problems sleeping, and digestive complaints. It is recommended that women who are pregnant or breast feeding, and anyone who is on medication for a serious condition, obtain advice from a health professional before regular intake of any supplement.

Ginseng Cautions

Ginseng may cause an allergic reaction in some individuals.
If taken in high doses, ginseng may have an effect on blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Those who suffer from diabetes or high/low blood pressure should be wary of consuming ginseng, and seek advice from their physician before doing so.

How to Consume Ginseng

Quick Facts (How to Consume [title])
  • Edible partsRoot
  • TasteEarthy

The most popular method of consuming ginseng is probably in tea. There are many other forms to choose from, each recommended to users depending on their conditions, lifestyle, and preferred mode of intake. It is also possible to use ginseng in cooking, the ingredient is still popular in many Asian cuisines.

Remedies

Main preparations: Tea, tincture, capsules, essential oil, powder, lotion

  • Tea. It is very common to find ginseng in the form of tea. Many people enjoy the taste but honey and lemon can be added to the infusion if preferred.
  • Tincture. This is a popular option for those who wish to store an extract of ginseng in their medical supply. The alcohol content of the mixture prolongs its shelf life, and it can therefore be used as and when required.
  • Capsules. Usually made from the powdered root, capsules are ideal for ensuring a consistent concentration is consumed. They are a fast method of intake.
  • Essential oil. Generally designed for topical use, the oil can be effective in soothing inflammation on the skin. It can also relieve stress when vaporized in an oil burner.
  • Powder. This can be added to yoghurts, juice and smoothies. It is favored by gym-goers who wish to complement their exercise regime with an energy-boosting drink.
  • Lotion. This is designed to sooth inflammations and rejuvenate skin. It is specifically marketed towards mature men and women.

Food

Ginseng root can be diced or grated and cooked in different foods, or it can be dried and ground to form a powder before adding. The herb's natural taste is not pleasing to everyone, and it is often described as earthy in smell and texture. It is for this reason that the powdered version is generally more popular in Western cuisine. Ginseng is traditionally eaten raw in China, so many of their recipes call for the fresh rather than dried plant. It is mostly found in recipes for soup, casseroles, and sauce-based dishes.

A more recent trend sees ginseng used in coffee. This can be found in vogue bistros and coffee shops, particularly in Milan. Coffee beans are blended with ginseng extract before brewing to make a beverage favored by those seeking to re-energize. The consumption of caffeine from coffee in conjunction with ginseng is thought to increase energy levels and the ability to concentrate.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buyFarmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Fresh and Dried Ginseng

Commercially-grown ginseng can be found at many grocery stores and supermarkets, either as the full root or, more commonly, in powder form. Red and white versions are the most widely available around the world; wild and wood-grown varieties remain harder to find, especially in Western countries. Harvesting tends to take place in the autumn months, so seasonal farmers' markets are also a good resource, as are specialized health food stores.

Ginseng Supplements

Ginseng supplements are increasingly common, and they can be found in most locations that cater to herbal medicine, as well as some that are more general. Specialized health food stores and even wholesale retailers widely carry the product in a variety of different preparations. Online retailers also provide an easy way to compare prices and brands to fit personal needs.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsPartial shade, Full shade
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic)
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates, Mountain regions
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification

Growing ginseng requires skill, technique, and considerable patience. It is a slow growing perennial herb that takes approximately four years to mature. After planting, ginseng requires minimal attention other than checking for pests and diseases every so often. When harvesting, it is important to take care to keep all the forking branches intact. Awareness of the following advice is helpful when attempting to cultivate ginseng.

Growing Guidelines

  • Can be cultivated from seed or developed roots
  • Requires moist but well-drained soil, that is rich in organic matter
  • The ideal pH level is between 4.5 and 5.5
  • Plants should be positioned in an area of partial shade
  • An average temperature of 50°F (10°C) is preferred
  • Ginseng should be planted around 14 to 18 inches (35 – 45 cm) apart

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesCosmetics

Plant Biology

Ginseng is a slow-growing shrub, which rarely exceeds a height of 20 inches (50 cm). Its name is an English adaptation of the Chinese term rénshēn, which combines the characters for "man" and "plant root" to describe the shape of the root, which is the most valued portion of the plant. The stem separates into a number of thinner shoots, from which grow clusters of medium sized oval leaves. An additional thin shoot will develop flowers at the end, which are around 0.07 - 0.11 inches (2 - 3 mm) in diameter. These will also develop fruits which look similar to cranberries.

  • Classification

Perhaps unexpectedly, ginseng is a member of Araliaceae, or the ivy family. This group contains 18 accepted genera, and around 1400 different species altogether. The genus name for ginseng is Panax, which is Greek for "all-heal", referring to the multiple uses that many species of ginseng share. Siberian ginseng is not considered to be 'true' ginseng, as it is derived from a different genus; Eleutherococcus. Having said this, it does boast similar properties.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Ginseng

There are several different varieties of ginseng, cultivated and sold in categories based on their preparation. Red ginseng is most commonly used in herbal medicine and has been steamed and dried, unlike white ginseng - a version native to America that is only dried. Sun ginseng is subject to high-heat processing to obtain maximum biological activity, and wild ginseng is the least processed of all. Wild varieties are still quite difficult to find outside of specific growing areas.

Historical Information

Ginseng has an interesting, somewhat political, history. Despite the fact that the oldest known species of ginseng is native to China, the country was unable to cultivate enough of the plant to satisfy the needs of the consumers. For this reason, China imported ginseng from Korea since before the 18th century.

In 1709 a French Jesuit named Pierre Jartoux traveled to China, and there he encountered ginseng and its many uses. Believing that North America had a similar climate and terrain, he expected that it might be possible for the same species to exist there. He sent a letter to inform the Jesuit community in North America, and it was soon discovered that he was correct. A similar species of ginseng was identified, and found in abundance across the country. After this realization, Americans began exporting the plant across the world at a cheaper price than Korea. China therefore switched suppliers, thus damaging Korea-North American relations.

The inexperience of the Americans in growing ginseng led to their being unable to keep up with demand, and in the mid-19th century it was necessary to employ some Korean traders to come to North America and teach effective cultivation and production methods.

Economic Data

Worldwide cultivation of ginseng has proven so effective that the root's market price has dropped drastically in recent years - almost as low as the actual cost of production. Nevertheless, the industry continues to find ways to thrive, generating an estimated 354 million tons of ginseng in 2010, most notably from China, Canada, and the U.S. Woods-grown and wild-stimulated versions are surpassing classical agricultural methods in creating revenue as organic movements influence economic trends. Some people consider older roots advantageous and will pay exorbitant amounts: in 1976, a 400-year old root reportedly sold for $10,000 per ounce.

Popular Beliefs

Ginseng is often said to be able to enhance libido and treat sexual dysfunction in men. Despite the fact that many manufacturers market their ginseng supplements with these claims, there is no scientific evidence to support that the plant has any such abilities.

Other Uses

Ginseng is usually cultivated - on commercial and personal levels - for medicinal purposes. But it can also be found in various soaps and cosmetics.

Some people do grow ginseng as an ornamental plant as well, particularly because it is relatively low-maintenance and aesthetically pleasing.

To this day ginseng retains its stature as a powerful herbal remedy. Civilization has developed a wide range of ways for people to consume the plant, and use it to treat many different conditions. Continuing scientific studies are likely to reveal further uses for ginseng, and so it is likely to be cultivated and therefore available worldwide, for the foreseeable future.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
  • NCCAM Herbs at a Glance, Asian Ginseng
  • MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements, Ginseng, Panax
  • FAOSTAT, Discussion Paper on the Possible Extension of the Territorial Application of the Codex Regional Standard for Ginseng Products
  • Phytochemistry, Ginsenosides from American ginseng: Chemical and pharmacological diversity, 2011
  • Boston College, Ginseng
  • Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, American ginseng
  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Polyphenols: antioxidants and beyond
  • National Library of Medicine, Ginseng, the "Immunity Boost": The Effects of Panax ginseng on Immune System
  • University of Utah, Ginseng
  • Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Estrogen-like activity of ginsenoside Rg1 derived from Panax ginseng, 2002

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician. Information contained in HerbaZest.com is based on pharmacological records, scientific research, traditional knowledge and historical data, both old and modern. HerbaZest.com cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the information provided.