Ginseng is a medicinal herb that has been used for centuries by traditional Chinese healers, for its various brain-boosting benefits such as improving thinking speed, memory retention, and concentration.
Native Americans have been using ginseng for treating depression and anxiety. Other medicinal uses of ginseng include boosting the immune system, fighting infections, as a headache remedy and for treating erectile dysfunction.
The demand for this nootropic herb is at an all-time high now, as more and more of its amazing benefits are being scientifically proven. Though more evidence is needed to confirm some of its medical capabilities, for centuries many cultures around the world have believed in the beneficial effects of this wondrous plant. The roots are the most commonly used part of the plant.
What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is a short plant with fleshy roots. It’s a slow-growing plant that is classified into fresh, white or red, based on how long it is grown. While fresh ginseng is harvested by four years, white ginseng requires four to six years for harvesting. Red ginseng takes the longest as it can be harvested only after six years.
The older the plant is at the time of harvesting, the more valued it is. There are records from 1976, of 400-year-old Manchurian ginseng roots, from a mountain area in China, that was sold for $10,000 per ounce.
There are written records that date back to 100 A.D about the properties of ginseng. As early as the 16th century, ginseng had become so sought after that control over ginseng fields was a vital issue. South Korea, China, Canada and the United States together produce over 80,000 tons of ginseng for international trade, though Korea is the largest ginseng provider and China, the biggest ginseng consumer. Ginseng is currently being sold in more than 35 countries and their sales exceed $2 billion.
When Panax ginseng is mentioned, it usually refers to the Asian ginseng, which is also known by the names, Korean ginseng or Red ginseng. This is the original ginseng plant variety that was revered for thousands of years by the Asians, especially the Chinese and the Koreans.
In traditional Chinese medicine, red ginseng was used for helping deal with low Qi (chi or vital energy) and yang deficiency. Their healers used it for treating memory issues, fatigue, diabetes, erectile dysfunctions and so on. Instead of yang deficiency, American ginseng is used to treating yin deficiency. American ginseng helps improve focus, boost the immune system, treat depression, and relieves digestive distress caused by anxiety.
Indian ginseng refers to the renowned ayurvedic herb, Ashwagandha, which offer many benefits similar to that of the classic Panax ginseng, but it also exhibits many other properties as well. Brazilian ginseng, called Suma root, contains active compounds called ecdysterone which reduces inflammation, supports muscular health, boosts endurance and even helps fight cancer.
Ginseng: The Mechanism of Action
The two main active compounds in ginseng are the ginsenosides and gintonin. The complementary action of these two compounds is believed to be responsible for the health benefits offered by ginseng supplements. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) have different concentrations of active compounds and hence their effects also vary. Asian ginseng seems to have a more invigorating effect while American ginseng works better as a relaxing agent.
There are actually 11 species of ginseng and they all belong to the ‘Panax’ genus from the ‘Araliaceae’ family. In the Greek language, the word ‘panax’ means “all heal”, making it evident that these herbs were valued for their healing powers. Only those belonging to the genus Panax are considered to be true ginseng plants. American ginseng and Asian ginseng are the most popular types of this herb.
Other adaptogenic plants called ginseng, but not a member of the Panax genus, like the Crown Prince ginseng and the Siberian ginseng, have different compositions and functions. Siberian ginseng has high levels of active compounds called eleutherosides, instead of the ginsenosides in Panax.
Nine Proven Benefits of Ginseng
1. Improves Brain Functions
Ginseng can improve concentration and cognitive abilities by stimulating brain cells. Panax ginseng improves mental performance in people suffering from cognitive problems.
A 2008 study from the Department of Neurology, Clinical Research Institute, Seoul National University Hospital, Seoul, South Korea, evaluated the clinical efficacy of Panax ginseng in the cognitive performance of a select group of patients. After being administered ginseng for 12 weeks, the patients showed significant improvement in their cognitive abilities.
Even after stopping the ginseng treatment, the cognitive improvements continued up to 12 weeks. A decline was noted after this period. The study concluded that Panax ginseng is clinically effective in improving cognitive performance.
2. Improves Mood
Many studies have been conducted to evaluate ginseng’s ability to improve mood and mental functions. A 2010 study from the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, Northumbria University, UK, investigated “the effects of Panax ginseng (G115) on subjective mood and aspects of ‘working’ memory processes.”
In the placebo-controlled, double-blind study, 30 volunteers (mean age 22 years) were administered doses of 200 mg or 400 mg of ginseng or a placebo for 8 days. A slowed the fall in mood was noted by the researchers at the dose of 200 mg of ginseng, but this also slowed their response to mental arithmetic. On the other hand, the 400 mg ginseng dosage not only improved their calmness, it also enhanced their mental arithmetic during the treatment period.
3. Helps Reduce Stress
Ginseng is known for its adaptogenic properties and can help reduce or even prevent physical and mental stress. A 2003 study from the Division of Pharmacology, Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, India, compared the anti-stress potential of Panax ginseng with that of Ginkgo biloba against acute stress and chronic stress in rat models.
The rats were fed 100mg of ginseng or 30mg of Ginkgo biloba per kg of body weight. Panax ginseng was found to be a better option for treating chronic stress while Ginkgo was more effective for acute stress. The researchers concluded that both Panax ginseng and Ginkgo biloba have significant anti-stress properties and are effective in helping treat stress-induced disorders.
4. Has Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Inflammation is the root of many diseases and treatments aimed at reducing inflammation often help relieve many of the disease symptoms.
A 2011 study from the Department of Emergency Medicine, School of Medicine, Kyung Hee University, Korea investigated “the therapeutic effect of Korean red ginseng on the expression of inflammatory cytokines in rats with focal cerebral reperfusion injury.” The rats were given 100mg ginseng extract for a week and the researchers observed that ginseng was able to reduce the inflammation significantly and provide neuroprotection.
Allergic rhinitis is an upper airway inflammatory disease commonly seen in both children and adults. Congestion, nasal itching and sneezing are the most frequent symptoms of allergic rhinitis. A 2013 study from the Department of Life Science, College of BioNano, Gachon University, Korea, investigated “how Panax ginseng affected allergic inflammation of the nasal cavity in an allergic mouse model.” The test results using 40 female mice indicated that “KRG reduces the nasal allergic inflammatory reaction in an allergic murine model by reducing Th2 cytokines.”
5. Helps with Weight Loss
Weight loss is ultimately the result of burning more calories than you consume. Ginseng is a great weight loss aid as it not only boosts your metabolism, helping you burn more calories, it also works as a natural appetite suppressant, thus helping reduce your overall calorie intake.
A 2002 study from the Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research, Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, USA, investigated the anti-diabetic and anti-obesity effects of Panax ginseng. The researchers injected Panax ginseng berry extract at 150 mg/kg body wt. for 12 consecutive days in mice used for the study.
They observed that glucose tolerance increased significantly in their study subjects and furthermore, these mice showed notable weight loss. They concluded that “ Panax ginseng berry extract may have therapeutic value in treating diabetic and obese patients.”
6. Boosts the Immune System
Ginseng can help strengthen your immune system and thus help fight infections and increase your resistance to diseases. A 2012 study from the College of Pharmacy, Chung-Ang University, Seoul, Korea, reviewed various studies that investigated the effects of ginseng on the immune system. The researchers acknowledged that “ginseng exhibits beneficial effects on controlling inflammatory diseases and microbial infections.”
Our immune systems are composed of diverse types of cells which have their own specialized function. Ginseng can influence the performance of various cells that have a role in our immunity, such as macrophages, dendritic cells, T cells and B cells.
A 2002 study from the Division of Immunopharmacology, College of Pharmacy, Sungkyunkwan University, Korea, evaluated the immunostimulating effects of Panax ginseng on macrophage function. They were able to confirm that “ginseng extract enhanced the phagocytic activity of macrophages.”
7. Helps Prevent Cancer
Ginseng is used in the treatment of various cancers due to its ability to inhibit tumor growth. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herbs have been found to help treat cancer and since ginseng has both these properties, it is evidently helpful. But ginseng also works in other ways to mitigate cancer.
A 2004 study from Thorne Research, Dover, USA, noted that
“P. ginseng apparently mitigates cancer through anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and apoptotic mechanisms to influence gene expression. Additional mechanisms of investigation include influence on neurotransmission and immunosurveillance.”
American and Asian ginseng have both been found to help treat colorectal cancer. A 2009 study from the University of Chicago, USA, noted that:
“various steaming temperature and time treatment of the ginseng herbs can change ginsenoside profiles, and enhance their anti-cancer activities. This heat treatment process may increase the role of ginseng in treating colorectal cancer.”
8. Treats Sexual Dysfunction
Korean red ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been used by traditional healers for treating erectile dysfunction in men. Plenty of clinical studies have been conducted to evaluate this popular claim of ginseng.
A 2008 study by a team of Korean and British researchers systematically reviewed 28 such clinical studies that investigated the therapeutic efficacy of Panax ginseng in erectile dysfunction treatments. The researchers concluded that these randomized clinical studies did provide suggestive evidence for the effectiveness of Panax ginseng in the treatment of erectile dysfunction.
The researchers concluded that the ginsenosides in ginseng are beneficial for diabetes therapy. They also noted that “Ginseng root is able to increase insulin production and decrease cell apoptosis in pancreatic β-cells, which signifies that ginseng affects the pancreas directly.”
9. Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
Ginseng, especially American ginseng, is often used as a natural diabetes remedy for people with type 2 diabetes.
A 2016 study from the Department of Geriatrics, School of Medicine, Zhejiang University, China, investigated the efficacy of ginseng in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. They observed that Korean red ginseng improved insulin sensitivity in diabetes patients.
A 2008 study from the Center for Stem Cell Biology, Roger Williams Hospital, Providence, USA, reviewed various clinical studies that investigated the effects of ginseng as a supplement to diabetes therapy.
Ginseng Recommended Doses
According to various studies, and user reports, 250 mg of ginseng, twice daily is the recommended dose, for stress, tension or fatigue. You can also take a single dose of 500 mg of ginseng, if desired. A 2012 Korean study tested the safety and tolerability of high doses of ginseng by administering 1000mg and 2000mg of Panax ginseng extract per day to human test participants. No serious adverse effects were noted at even the highest dose of 2000mg per day, administered as 2 doses of 1000mg each. Mild side effects such as hot flashes, insomnia, and constipation were reported by few of the test participants.
Just 200mg daily seems adequate for treating type 2 diabetes. For erectile dysfunction, creams containing Panax ginseng can be applied before intercourse and washed off afterwards. For boosting mental functions in healthy individuals, 200 to 400 mg of Panax ginseng can be taken once daily or in two doses for a period of 8 to 12 weeks.
To reap the various health benefits of ginseng, including its brain boosting effects, increased energy and endurance levels and a stronger immune system, add ginseng to your daily diet. You can have a daily cup or two of ginseng tea.
Tips to Make Ginseng Tea
The Chinese, who are renowned for their long life spans, youthful looks and good health, have been drinking ginseng tea for generations. Their elaborate tea ceremonies are a very important tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years.
Traditional Chinese healers recommend drinking a cup of ginseng tea every day, for adults over the age of 40, to maintain and improve their health, energy, mental power and memory.
To make ginseng tea, you can use ginseng roots (fresh, dried or powdered) or ginseng tea bags. American ginseng is more suited for use in hotter months while Asian ginseng is recommended for the colder months.
To make ginseng tea, put the ginseng root shavings or powder in a metal tea ball/filter (or use a ginseng tea bag). Put this in a teacup filled with hot water and let it steep for at least 5 minutes. Remove it and enjoy your ginseng tea while it is still warm. You can also eat the ginseng root shavings to optimize these health benefits.
Ginseng: Risks and Side Effects
Ginseng does not have any serious side effects and it is considered safe for consumption in the vast majority of people. Practice general precautions, such as, starting at a low dose and building up gradually and taking breaks to avoid getting dependant on it. Ginseng may not be suited for pregnant women and children.
There have been a few reports of allergic reactions to ginseng, so test using a small sample to ensure you are not allergic to it. Don’t worry, most people are not. Women using ginseng may notice some menstrual changes, but do keep in mind that ginseng has been noted for improving sexual function in premenopausal women.
Ginseng is a stimulant and it increases your energy levels, but taking large doses can cause nervousness and insomnia. Go easy on your coffee intake if you take ginseng as the caffeine content can amplify ginseng’s stimulant effects.
High doses or long term use of ginseng for more than 3 to 6 months, may cause some side effects such as stomach aches, headaches and dizziness. Ginseng abuse and misuse can lead to many serious health issues such as hypertension, cardiovascular and renal toxicity, genital organ bleeding, reproductive toxicity, and so on.
Ginseng may interact with certain medications, especially blood-thinning medications, antidepressants, anti-psychotic medications and medications for diabetes. People using drugs for diabetes should consult their physicians first as ginseng can affect blood sugar levels.
The Final Note on Ginseng
Ginseng is an herbal supplement with nootropic capabilities and has been used for centuries by traditional Chinese healers and Native Americans for its various health benefits.
Ginseng enhances brain functions, strengthens the immune system, and increases energy levels. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Ginseng may help regulate blood sugar levels and fight fatigue. It improves symptoms of erectile dysfunction and is beneficial in certain cancer treatments.
Ginseng is easily available in health shops and online, in the form of dried roots, extracts, powder and capsules. Whether you want to treat a specific health condition or simply give your health a boost, ginseng is a great option. It works as a general tonic for improving your well-being as it positively affects many different systems in your body.
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist who writes health and wellness articles online. The holder of two graduate degrees, she combines her passion for advertising with her knowledge of the health industry to create custom content for healthcare products. She is the founder and editor of the health website fitnesshacks.org. Find out more about her from her LinkedIn profile or contact her at email@example.com.