Ginseng, in its many types and forms, has been used as a nutritive and medicinal supplement for millennia. True ginseng is derived from the root of the plant genus Panax. These plants mature slowly, and they are typically ready for harvesting only after several years of growth. Ginseng root, in whichever form it is prepared, continues in popularity to this day.
Types of Ginseng
The most widely available species within the Panax genus are Panax ginseng, which grows in Korea, northeastern China and eastern Russia; Panax notoginseng, grown in southwestern China and Vietnam; and Panax quinquefolius, which grows in Canada and the United States.
To confuse matters a bit, Panax ginseng is sometimes referred to as "Korean," "Asian" or "Chinese ginseng," while Panax notoginseng is sometimes called "Chinese" or "South China ginseng." Other plants are commonly referred to as "ginseng" (Siberian ginseng in particular) that are not in the same genus — hence, not the real stuff.
Panax Ginseng: The Most Widely Used Form of Ginseng
Of the varieties of ginseng, Panax ginseng is perhaps the best-known and most widely available. It has been the subject of most scientific studies of ginseng. Panax Notoginseng is closely related to Panax ginseng and shares many of its characteristics.
Research indicates that Panax ginseng may aid in the prevention of cancerous tumors in mice, including ovarian, lung, liver and skin cancers, and that it may have a similar effect when used by human beings. At least one study indicated the possibility of a decreased risk in human subjects of all types of cancers; however, more evidence is needed to support this theory. In fact, Panax ginseng may interact with some forms of cancer that, when the cancer is already present, would interfere with the patient's treatment.
Other animal studies have shown that Panax ginseng may lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as reduce muscle inflammation.
Something else to consider is the anecdotal evidence of ginseng benefits that may be — at least in part — the result of the generally more healthy lifestyle pursued by the people who are most likely to consume ginseng.
Red, White and Raw Ginseng: Panax ginseng is marketed in fresh, red and white varieties. The fresh type is, just as it sounds, raw and uncultivated. White ginseng retains its naturally light hue after it has been dried and its water content greatly reduced, while red ginseng is steam-heated and changes color before it is dried.
Panax quinquefolius: The American Ginseng
American ginseng was first used for its medicinal qualities by the indigenous peoples of ancient America. These days, Panax quinquefolius is even more popular in Asia than it is in the United States.
According to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, American ginseng has been shown in human studies to reduce blood sugar, improve memory and decrease the harshness of cold symptoms. It may also offer relief for cancer-related fatigue. However, it apparently doesn't have the ability to forestall the growth of tumors or to benefit cancer patients. It can, however, even act as a stimulant to breast cancer cells.
What Is Siberian Ginseng?
Eleutherococcus senticosus, commonly known as "Siberian ginseng," is not a true ginseng. It is, however, a rather distant relative of the Panax genus and does appear to have similar effects. Siberian ginseng has been used for hundreds of years in the Far East.
Much of the research conducted on Siberian ginseng was performed in the U.S.S.R. decades ago to test for its possible effects on athletic performance. One study has indicated that Siberian ginseng may reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis. And although it also appears to stimulate the immune system and act as a protector of the nervous system, more studies are needed to determine just how and why Siberian ginseng works.
Ginseng Tea and Other Edibles
If you want to incorporate ginseng into a healthy diet plan, it's easy to do. Because of its popularity, there are quite a few products available that advertise ginseng content. This type of marketing is typically used for beverages, especially energy drinks. Be sure to read the labels first to judge for yourself whether the actual content of the product justifies its claims.
Ginseng by itself has a mildly spicy, earthy flavor with a trace of bitterness. You can simply take some fresh ginseng shavings, raw or stewed, and chew them if you like, although you might appreciate them more as a subtle addition to a stew or stir-fry.
You also can try making ginseng tea at home. Commercially produced loose tea and tea bags are available at many markets, but you can also use fresh root, powdered or dried ginseng. If you're using the fresh root, just peel it, slice it, add very hot water, and then let it steep for several minutes before drinking. Powdered or dried ginseng can be used in a tea-ball infuser or strainer the same as regular tea. About 1 tablespoon per cup should do the trick.
The easiest and most commonly used form of ginseng is a supplement in the form of tablets, capsules, powder or oil extract. Makers of herbal supplements are required to follow good manufacturing practices, but they do not have to get approval from the Federal Drug Administration before marketing their products. In general, herbal supplements are simply not subject to the same kinds of inspection — or regulation — as medicines.
When you're shopping around for such a supplement, be a smart customer. Look for standardized amounts of active ingredients in any product you consider. Panax ginseng extract in the amount of 200 mg per day has been the standard in the research so far conducted. Most supplement providers recommend taking between 100 and 600 mg per day. Some ginseng products are standardized for ginsenosides (the active components of the Panax genus) at a recommended level of 1.5 to 7 percent.
Side Effects of Ginseng
As is always the case with herbal aids, consult your physician if you're considering making ginseng a part of your regular routine. Though it's generally regarded as safe, ginseng can have a few mild side effects, such as headaches, trouble sleeping, occasional lightheadedness and queasiness.
Certain conditions warrant more caution. Breast cancer patients and others with hormone-sensitive cancers might suffer from adverse reactions. Ginseng can also interfere with the efficacy of blood thinners. Patients taking digoxin should note that Siberian ginseng raises the levels of the medicine and therefore increases its side effects.
Even with these caveats, ginseng has lot of satisfied customers who report improved health and well-being with its use. If your doctor gives his OK for your choice of ginseng, it's worth a try!
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Ginseng (Asian)
- HealthLine: 8 Proven Health Benefits of Ginseng
- Medical News Today: What are the health benefits of ginseng?
- We Know Ginseng: All the Different Types of Ginseng and their Uses
- Health Trends: Ginseng
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Ginseng (American)
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Siberian Ginseng