Ginseng may be the world’s oldest tonic for wellness. For about 2,000 years, ginseng has been a go-to for herbalists and practitioners of Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM).
A rigorously studied herbal supplement with a large body of research to support its use, ginseng is an oft-cited example of an adaptogen, a type of herbal that normalizes your body’s response to stress. Here is Lexico.com’s definition of an adaptogen, “(in herbal medicine) a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress.”
Although ginsengs are found in many cultures under various names, true ginsengs are thought to belong to the Panax genus. (Genus is a taxonomic term that falls between the family name and above the species name.) The species are usually Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer, used in Asia, and Panax quinquefolius, also known as American ginseng.
They are members of the Araliaceae plant family.
Siberian or Russian ginseng, also known as Eleutheroccoccus senticosus, is not part of the Panax genus. It is often sold with the “true” Panax ginseng.
Panax shares its origins with the word “panacea” and ginsengs are often regarded as cure-alls – the definition of a panacea. In fact, applying the term ginseng to an herbal is the same as referring to a tissue as a Kleenex or to a soda as Coke (even though it might be a Pepsi or a Mountain Dew).
In other words, ginseng is the prototype of an adaptogen.
Here is a list of several of the most common health benefits attributed to ginseng:
- Anti-cancer (chemotherapeutic) agent
- Blood sugar control
- Fatigue fighting
- Immunity enhancing
- Mental sharpness (often, with gingko biloba)
- Sexual performance aid
ANTI-CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS AND FATIGUE
Those who practice TCM have long believed that ginseng helps with fatigue, but research indicates this is the case only in chronic illness. Research reviews from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  and The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine on fatigue associated with cancer found ginseng proved helpful, but it doesn’t alleviate generalized fatigue.
(Caffeine may be a short-term answer for general fatigue, depending on the situation. Caffeine and ginseng together are a bad combo and a recipe for raising blood pressure.)
Exercise performance studies have also failed to find an ergogenic effect for Panax ginsengs. They do not improve exercise performance. Some research , however, has found that Siberian ginseng can delay the onset of fatigue and increase oxygen uptake in exercise.
The fact that studies support its use for increasing energy in cancer and other illnesses but not in exercise is an example of ginseng’s contradictory nature. In TCM, it has a reputation for exerting opposing effects. In other words, it fixes health problems and does not trouble systems that are functioning well.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY GINSENG FOR THE HPA AXIS
TCM practitioners use ginseng for vitality and to strengthen the blood and normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which becomes unbalanced when you’re stressed. High stress has been demonstrated to increase circulating cortisol, a hormone pumped out by the adrenal glands. Ginseng lowers adrenal output.
Here’s a video with a brief explanation of the HPA axis.
The active components of ginseng are ginsenosides, which are part of the phytochemicals (chemicals found in plants) known as saponins. The “phyto” or the plant-based healing power of saponins is wide-ranging.
Saponins are antioxidants; thus, they fight the aging and carcinogenic effects of free radicals. They combat tumors and mutagens , fight inflammation, and they may be beneficial against heart disease because they increase nitric oxide.
BLOOD SUGAR, COGNITION, AND SEX
Ginseng has demonstrated some ability to lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, but it does not appear to bolster mental sharpness or cognition, even when paired with gingko biloba .
There is decent evidence that ginseng can assist in sexual performance. TCM practitioners have long touted ginseng as an aphrodisiac, noting that it boosts nitric oxide production. Higher nitric oxide increases blood flow to the penis and boosts erections (in addition to fighting heart disease).
Korean red ginseng is the ginseng of choice for erectile dysfunction, used in studies from 1995, 2002, 2008 . In the 2002 study, a 900 mg dose  of red ginseng was taken three times a day (a high dose – See DOSAGE information below).
IMMUNITY Ginseng may enhance the body’s defenses against viruses, toxins, parasites, and bacteria, according to a 2012 summary in the Journal of Ginseng Research . It increased the power of the flu vaccine  in a study with mice. Research conducted in a long-term care setting showed that American ginseng improved resistance to respiratory illness in elderly patients  who had received the flu vaccine.
DOSAGE AND TYPES OF GINSENG
♦ Korean red ginseng is Panax ginseng root that has been steamed and dried.
♦ White ginseng is Panax ginseng root that has been peeled and air-dried. Both dried roots are powdered, made into teas, tablets, capsules, or tinctures.
Crude, unprepared ginseng root can also be used.
Dosage is generally 100 to 400 mg of extract, 1 to 2 g of dried root, and 0.5 to 2 g of the crude root, but this is highly variable.
Many preparations are standardized to contain from 2% to 7% ginsenosides, the pharmacologically active ingredients in ginseng. Standardization should guarantee that a certain amount of the most essential part of the herb is present. However, it can also alter the natural balance of the whole plant, bypassing other components that may contribute to the herb’s activity in your body.
The quality of ginseng is affected by the time and method of harvest, soil conditions, weather, age of the plant. These usual agricultural factors need to be considered in addition to how the root is prepared.
IS GINSENG SAFE?
Ginseng has a good track record. No serious safety issues have been seen with short-term use of up to 3 months. People taking large doses of more than 3 g of the root (600 mg of extract) have complained of diarrhea, insomnia, nausea, headache, and high blood pressure. There have also been a few reports of an allergic response and troubling cardiovascular effects.
Although ginsengs are anti-carcinogens, they should not be taken by anyone treated for or at-risk for estrogen-related cancers, such as breast, colorectal, endometrial, or ovarian. Ginseng has caused estrogenic effects, such as loss of menses for pre-menopausal women and post-menopausal bleeding.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should shun the supplement since it has caused birth defects in animals.
Ginseng is sometimes considered a blood thinner, especially when taken with other anti-coagulant supplements and medications, including:
- Fish oil
- Dong quai
Ginseng can have opposing effects when it comes to blood clotting. In one case, it hindered the blood-thinning effect of the anticoagulant medication warfarin, and in another small study, it did not slow clotting time or inhibit the effectiveness of warfarin.
Other medications that may be affected by ginseng include:
- Blood pressure medicines – diuretics may not work as well.
- Diabetes medicines – blood sugar may drop more than expected, so keep tabs on your numbers to avoid hypoglycemia.
- Imatinib – ginseng may increase the potency of this leukemia drug.
SUMMARY FOR GINSENG USAGE
True ginsengs are the Panax varieties, especially Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer, called Asian ginseng, and Panax quinquefolius, known as American ginseng.
Ginseng has a good safety record with few harmful events attributed to its use. Common side effects can include diarrhea, headache, insomnia, high blood pressure (especially with caffeine), and prolonged bleeding when it is taken in high doses or if you are sensitive to the herb.
A large body of research has demonstrated positive effects on cancer, inflammation, heart disease, blood sugar, immunity, and sexual performance. Because it has been a medicinal tool for centuries, it deserves its status as the prototypical adaptogen.
Ginseng acts on the body in a multitude of pathways, most of which improve well-being and vitality.
Copyright © 2020 Jani Hall Leuschel
Is there a dosage that is too high for a person to safely consume?
The recommended dosage is 100 to 400 mg of extract, 1 to 2 g of dried root, and 0.5 to 2 g of the crude root. However, in some of the studies I read, the researchers used much higher doses. Everyone is different, and ginsengs are notoriously variable. Side effects to watch for are headache, diarrhea, and insomnia — ginseng can act as a stimulant!
Please let me know what you think and how much you are taking if you try this herb. 😊🌱
Thanks for such a thorough run-down on ginsing! Probably most people who have used herbs in their lives have come across ginsing and have wondered about some of the beneficial claims attributed to it. I also appreciated your definitions!
You are right in thinking that ginseng is one of the foremost herbal medicines. Many people take it as a strengthening tonic, and it does help with overall well-being through varied actions including quelling free radicals, protecting against environmental toxins, increasing nitric oxide, etc.
I have read different reports showing that many ginseng supplements do not actually contain much ginseng, especially those sold at large national retailers like Walmart and Walgreens. Buyer beware! The supplement is not going to have an effect if it does not contain the active ingredient(s)! 😆
Helpful stuff to those of us working to improve our health and slow the indigities inflicted by the Aging Process. Ginseng is now on my radar as a potentially valuable dietary addition, worth the experimental time and $$. Thanks, Jani!
Thanks for your comment! Aging is not for the faint of heart and ginseng may help our hearts, so depending on your health and medical picture, it could be a worthwhile experiment. If you do decide to invest, be cautious in your choice of ginseng. (SEE ABOVE COMMENT ON LARGE RETAILERS.)
Look for a bottle that shows good manufacturing practices (GMPs). These supplements may also show that they are National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF) certified. Another mark to search for is USP verified. I do know that NOW ginseng capsules have the GMP mark. I am sure there are many other brands as well.
If you try it, let me know what you think. For most people, the herb takes time to work. Just for a frame of reference, some of the shorter studies were conducted over 4 weeks.