A hugely popular herb all around the world, ginseng is added to everything from fruit juices to vitamin supplements. Even though most of these in fact contain little ginseng, quality ginseng does have a variety of protective effect on the body.
What it is?
Panax ginseng (also called Asian, Chinese and Korean ginseng) has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to enhance both longevity and the quality of life. Panax ginseng is the most widely available and extensively studied form of this herb. Another species, P. quinquefolius, or American ginseng, is grown mainly in the American Midwest and exported to china.
The medicinal part of the plant is its slow-growing root, which is harvested after four to six years when its overall ginsenoside content – the main ingredient in ginseng – is at its peak. There are 13 different ginsenosides in all. Panax ginseng also contains panaxans (-substances that can lower blood sugar) and polusaccharides (complex sugar molecules that boost the immune system). 'White' ginseng is simply the dried root; 'red' ginseng has been steamed and dried.
What it does?
The primary health benefits of ginseng derive from its immune-stimulating and antioxidant properties, as well as from its ability to protect the body against the adverse effects of stress.
Ginseng may help the body to combat a variety of illnesses. It stimulates the production of specialized immune cells called 'killer T cells', which destroy harmful viruses and bacteria.
Studies have also indicated that the herb may inhibit the growth of certain cancer cells. A large Korean study found that the subjects who took ginseng had half the risk of developing cancer of those who did not take it. Although ginseng powders and tinctures were shown to help protect against cancer, eating fresh ginseng root or drinking ginseng juice or tea did not lower cancer risk.
Ginseng may benefit people who are feeling fatigued and overstressed, and those recovering from a long illness. The herb has been shown to balance the release of stress hormones in the body and support the organs that produce these hormones, namely the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in the brain and the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. Ginseng may also enhance the production of endorphins, 'feel-good' chemicals produced by the brain.
Many long-distance runners and body-builders take ginseng to heighten physical endurance. Herbalists believe that ginseng can delay fatigue by enabling the exercising muscles to use energy more efficiently. Some research, however, contradicts this hypothesis.
While the way it works is not clear, ginseng may be helpful in treating impotence. Some of its active ingredients appear to affect smooth muscle tissue and improve erectile function. Men with fertility problems may benefit from ginseng as well: animal studies indicate that it increases testosterone levels and sperm production.
- Combats the physical effects of stress.
- May treat impotence and infertility in men.
- Boosts energy.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Don't take ginseng if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or a heart rhythm irregularity.
- Don't use ginseng if you're pregnant.
- Don't use ginseng if you take MAO inhibitor drugs.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
Select a product that is standardized to contain at least 75 ginsenosides.
For general health and to combat fatigue: Take 100-250 mg once or twice a day.
To support the body in times of stress or during recovery from an illness: Take 100-250 mg twice a day.
For impotence and male infertility: Take 100-250 mg twice a day.
Guidelines for use:
Start at the lower end of the dosage range and increase your intake gradually. Some experts recommend that you stop taking ginseng for a week every two to three weeks and then resume your regular dose. In some cases, ginseng may be rotated with other immune-stimulating herbs, such as astragalus or echinacea.
Possible side effects
At the doses recommended here, ginseng is unlikely to cause any side effects. There have been reports that higher doses cause nervousness, insomnia, headache and stomach upset. If you have any of these problems, reduce your dose. The combination of ginseng and caffeine may intensify these reactions, so cut back on caffeine or avoid it altogether. Some women report increased menstrual bleeding or breast tenderness with high doses of ginseng. If this occurs, reduce your dose or stop using it.
- Read labels carefully to be sure you're getting Panax ginseng. Other kinds, such as American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), produce different effects.
- Vials of ginseng elixir sold at some health-food shops have become popular energy tonics, especially among teenagers. They often contain little (if any) ginseng, however, and may have a high alcohol or sugar content.
- People with type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes may benefit from ginseng. In one study, people with diabetes who took 100 or 200 mg of ginseng a day had lower blood sugar levels than those given a placebo.
Did you know?
The name 'ginseng' is derived from the ancient Chinese word jen shen, meaning 'man root'. The ginseng root often resembles the shape of the human body.