Ginseng: A Mystical Herb


Ginseng is any one of 11 species of slow-growing perennial plants with fleshy roots, belonging to the genus Panax of the family Araliaceae.

Ginseng is found only in the Northern Hemisphere, in North America and in eastern Asia (mostly Korea, northeastern China (Manchuria), Bhutan, and eastern Siberia), typically in cooler climates. Panax vietnamensis, discovered in Vietnam, is the southernmost ginseng known. This article focuses on the series Panax ginsengs, which are the adaptogenic herbs, principally Panax ginseng and P. quinquefolius. Ginseng is characterized by the presence of ginsenosides. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is in the same family, but not genus, as true ginseng. Like ginseng, it is considered to be an adaptogenic herb. The active compounds in Siberian ginseng are eleutherosides, not ginsenosides. Instead of a fleshy root, Siberian ginseng has a woody root.

The English word ginseng derives from the Chinese term rénshen. Rén means “man” and shen means “plant root”; this refers to the root’s characteristic forked shape, which resembles the legs of a man. The English pronunciation derives from a southern Chinese reading, similar to Cantonese yun sum (Jyutping: jan4sam1) and the Hokkien pronunciation “jîn-sim”.

The botanical/genus name Panax means “all-heal” in Greek, sharing the same origin as “panacea”, and was applied to this genus because Linnaeus was aware of its wide use in Chinese medicine as a muscle relaxant.

Besides P. ginseng, many other plants are also known as or mistaken for the ginseng root. The most commonly known examples are xiyangshen, also known as American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), Japanese ginseng (P. japonicus), crown prince ginseng (Pseudostellaria heterophylla), and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Although all have the name ginseng, each plant has distinctively different functions. However, true ginseng plants belong only to the Panax genus.

The root is most often available in dried form, either whole or sliced. Ginseng leaf, although not as highly prized, is sometimes also used; as with the root, it is most often available in dried form. Folk medicine attributes various benefits to oral use of American ginseng and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) roots, including roles as an aphrodisiac, stimulant, type II diabetes treatment, or cure for sexual dysfunction in men. Is in top of the top then popular natural products.

Ginseng may be included in small doses in energy drinks or tisanes, such as ginseng coffee. It may be found in hair tonics and cosmetic preparations, as well, but those uses have not been shown to be clinically effective.


Ginsenosides, unique compounds of the Panax species, are under basic and clinical research to investigate their potential for use in medicine. According to the American Cancer Society, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that ginseng is effective in preventing or treating cancer in humans”. Research into the potential uses of ginseng continues, although so far it has not established its benefits for treating other medical conditions either. Ginseng is known to contain phytoestrogens

A common side effect of P. ginseng may be insomnia, but this effect is disputed. Other side effects can include nausea, diarrhea, headaches, nose bleeds, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, and breast pain. Ginseng may also lead to induction of mania in depressed patients who mix it with antidepressants. Ginseng has been shown to have adverse drug reactions with phenelzine and warfarin, but has been shown to decrease blood alcohol level.

The common adaptogen ginsengs (P. ginseng and P. quinquefolia) are generally considered to be relatively safe even in large amounts. One of the most common and characteristic symptoms of acute overdose of Panax ginseng is bleeding. Symptoms of mild overdose may include dry mouth and lips, excitation, fidgeting, irritability, tremor, palpitations, blurred vision, headache, insomnia, increased body temperature, increased blood pressure, edema, decreased appetite, dizziness, itching, eczema, early morning diarrhea, bleeding, and fatigue.

Symptoms of gross overdose with Panax ginseng may include nausea, vomiting, irritability, restlessness, urinary and bowel incontinence, fever, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity and reaction to light, decreased heart rate, cyanotic (blue) facial complexion, red facial complexion, seizures, convulsions, and delirium.

Patients experiencing any of the above symptoms are advised to discontinue the herbs and seek any necessary symptomatic treatment.

Common classification

Asian ginseng (root)

Ginseng and reishi mushrooms in bottles being sold in Seoul, Korea. Panax ginseng is available commercially in four forms: fresh, red, white and sun ginsengs. Wild ginseng is used where available.

Red ginseng

Red ginseng, P. ginseng, has been peeled, heated either through steaming at standard boiling temperatures of 100 °C (212 °F), and then dried or sun-dried. It is frequently marinated in an herbal brew which results in the root becoming extremely brittle. It is more common as herbal medicine than white ginseng. This version of ginseng is traditionally associated with stimulating sexual function and increasing energy. Red ginseng is always produced from cultivated roots, generally from Korea.

A study of ginseng’s effects on rats found, while both white ginseng and red ginseng appear to reduce the incidence of cancer, the effects appear to be greater with red ginseng. Another study showed potentially beneficial effects of a combination of Korean red ginseng and highly active antiretroviral therapy in HIV-1-infected patients. Falcarinol, a 17-carbon diyne fatty alcohol isolated from carrot and red ginseng, was thought to have potent anticancer properties on primary mammary epithelial (breast cancer) cells. Other acetylenic fatty alcohols in ginseng (panaxacol, panaxydol and panaxytriol) have antibiotic properties.

Fresh ginseng.

Fresh ginseng is the raw product. Its use is limited by availability.

White ginseng

White ginseng, native to America, is fresh ginseng which has been dried without being heated. It is peeled and dried to reduce the water content to 12% or less. White ginseng air-dried in the sun may contain less of the therapeutic constituents. It is thought by some that enzymes contained in the root break down these constituents in the process of drying. Drying in the sun bleaches the root to a yellowish-white color.

Sun ginseng

Sun ginseng is created from a heat processing method which increases ginsenoside components such as ginsenoside by steaming white ginseng at a higher temperature than red ginseng. The herb is steamed for three hours at 120 °C (248 °F). Sun ginseng has increased nitric oxide, superoxide, hydroxyl radical and peroxynitrite scavenging activities compared with conventionally processed red or white versions. The increased steaming temperature produces an optimal amount of biological activity due to its ability to amplify specific ginsenosides.

Wild ginseng

Wild ginseng grows naturally and is harvested from wherever it is found. It is relatively rare, and even increasingly endangered, due in large part to high demand for the product in recent years, which has led to the wild plants being sought out and harvested faster than new ones can grow (it requires years for a root to reach maturity). Wild ginseng can be either Asian or American, and can be processed to be red ginseng.

Woods-grown American ginseng programs in Vermont, Maine, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky, and United Plant Savers have been encouraging the planting of ginseng both to restore natural habitats and to remove pressure from any remaining wild ginseng, and they offer both advice and sources of rootlets. Woods-grown plants have a value comparable to wild-grown ginseng of similar age.

Partially germinated ginseng seeds harvested the previous Fall can be planted from early Spring until late Fall, and will sprout the following Spring. If planted in a wild setting and left to their own devices, they will develop into mature plants which cannot be distinguished from native wild plants. Both Asian and American partially germinated ginseng seeds can be bought from May through December on various eBay sales. Some seed sales come with planting and growing instructions.

P. quinquefolius American ginseng

According to traditional Chinese medicine, American ginseng promotes yin energy, cleans excess yang and calms the body. The reason it has been claimed that American ginseng promotes yin (shadow, cold, negative, female) while Asian ginseng promotes yang (sunshine, hot, positive, male) is that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, things living in cold places or northern side of mountains or southern side of rivers are strong in yang and vice versa, so the two are balanced. Chinese/Korean ginseng grows in Manchuria and Korea, the coldest area known to many Koreans in ancient times. Thus, ginseng from there is supposed to be very yin.

Originally, American ginseng was imported into China via subtropical Guangzhou, the seaport next to Hong Kong, so Chinese doctors believed American ginseng must be good for yang, because it came from a hot area. They did not know, however, that American ginseng can only grow in temperate regions. Nonetheless, the root is legitimately classified as more yin because it generates fluids.

Most North American ginseng is produced in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia and the American state of Wisconsin, according to Agri-food Canada. P. quinquefolius is now also grown in northern China. The aromatic root resembles a small parsnip that forks as it matures. The plant grows 6 to 18 in tall, usually bearing three leaves, each with three to five leaflets two to five inches long.

Ginseng has been known for three thousand years, but despite a good deal of research, scientists still are not certain whether the herb can help prevent or treat cancer. Most studies of ginseng have been done in China and Korea, and only recently has it received more research attention in Western countries.

The medicinal effects of ginseng are thought to be due to a group of about two dozen substances in the root called ginsenosides, which resemble steroid hormones. In laboratory research using cell cultures and animals, some ginsenosides have been shown to boost the immune system or slow the growth of cancer cells. Some may also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Whether these properties will translate into anticancer activity in humans is still not clear, as few human studies have been done.

Several case-control studies done in Korea have found that people who took ginseng extract seemed to have a lower risk of cancer overall. One recent Chinese study suggested that women with breast cancer who used ginseng before their diagnosis survived longer than those who did not. The same study found that the women who used ginseng during treatment reported better quality of life than those who did not. These studies were not are not the most scientifically convincing, however, and the authors point out that further research is needed to determine the true benefit of ginseng both in cancer prevention and for people who have cancer. Researchers are looking at ginseng’s potential to improve the effectiveness of other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, and are studying its effects on cancer-related fatigue.

The benefits of ginseng for other medical conditions have not been shown conclusively, although research is ongoing. Many studies of this herb have suffered from design problems, and results have been contradictory. Some scientists have found that it raises blood pressure while others have reported that it lowers blood pressure. In some studies, ginsenosides seem to act as stimulants, but in others they seem to work as sedatives. The only conclusions that can be reached with any certainty at this time are that ginseng is a complex herb and that its medicinal effects are not clearly defined.

A systematic review of randomized clinical trials evaluated the evidence of ginseng root extract’s effectiveness. Based on data from sixteen studies, the researchers concluded that ginseng root extract had not been shown to have a significant effect on physical performance, diabetes, herpes infections, psychomotor performance, cognitive function, or the immune system. More research into its medicinal properties is needed.

Possible problems or complications.

This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must provide the FDA with results of detailed testing showing their product is safe and effective before the drug is approved for sale), the companies that make supplements do not have to show evidence of safety or health benefits to the FDA before selling their products. Supplement products without any reliable scientific evidence of health benefits may still be sold as long as the companies selling them do not claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease. Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Though the FDA has written new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing processes for dietary supplements and the accurate listing of supplement ingredients, these rules do not take full effect until 2010. And, the new rules do not address the safety of supplement ingredients or their effects on health when proper manufacturing techniques are used.

Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Ginseng is generally considered safe, although there are some possible side effects, especially at higher doses. Side effects may include increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, trouble sleeping, and restlessness. Possible effects in women may include swollen breasts and vaginal bleeding. Ginseng may lower blood sugar levels, a side effect that could be of particular importance to people taking medicine for diabetes.

Because ginseng may have steroid hormone–like effects, some doctors caution against its use in women who have had breast or endometrial cancer. Not enough study has been done to show whether ginseng is safe for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Women who fall into these groups should speak with their doctors before taking ginseng.

Ginseng can have an effect on how long it takes for bleeding to stop. This could be an issue if ginseng is taken before surgery or if the patient is taking drugs that affect blood clotting, such as aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin).

Ginseng may cause headaches, tremors, and can cause manic episodes if used with antidepressants known as MAOIs, such as phenelzine (Nardil). Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Ginseng can be used to improve the health of people recovering from illness. It increases a sense of wellbeing and stamina, and improves both mental and physical performance. Ginseng can be used to help with erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C, and symptoms relating to menopause, and can also be used for lowering blood glucose levels and controlling blood pressure.

Ginseng has been shown to reduce the levels of stress in both men and women. Those that take ginseng regularly are able to withstand higher amounts of physical and emotional stress.

The root of Asian ginseng contains several active substances called ginsenosides or panaxosides that are thought to be responsible for the medicinal effects of the herb. Asian ginseng is “warming†while American ginseng is “cooling†.

Because of its adaptogenic effects, it is widely used to lower cholesterol, increase energy and endurance, reduce fatigue and the effects of stress, and prevent infections. Ginseng is one of the most effective anti-aging supplements, with the capability of alleviating some major effects of aging such as degeneration of the blood system, and increasing mental and physical capacity.

Siberian ginseng is well known for its ability to fight fatigue and ward off colds and flu.

Recommended Dosage for Ginseng

Ginseng comes in a range of forms including tablets, capsules, softgel, powder, extracts, teas, and creams.
When choosing a ginseng supplement, look for one that is made with high quality ingredients, and that has been processed as little as possible. Ensure that the supplement has at least 7 percent ginsenosides. Start at the lower end of the dosage range and slowly increase your intake.

Potential Side Effects of Ginseng

Ginseng is usually a very well-tolerated herb when it is taken by mouth. The most common side effects are headaches and sleep and gastrointestinal problems. Be aware that ginseng can cause allergic reactions. With ginseng, the ability to concentrate may be decreased and blood sugar may decrease to abnormally low levels. Because ginseng has an estrogen-like effect, pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take it.

American and Asian ginsengs are stimulants and can cause nervousness or sleeplessness. Other reported side effects include high blood pressure, insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, euphoria, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, nosebleed, breast pain, and vaginal bleeding. Siberian ginseng can cause nervousness or restlessness in some people and, in rare cases, may cause diarrhea. This form of ginseng is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. If taken too close to bedtime, Siberian ginseng may cause insomnia.


The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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