A staple of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Panax ginseng has been used for centuries to address various aspects of well-being. However, with several species to consider, as well as a broad impact on the mind and body, there’s plenty to learn about P. ginseng, so keep reading to find out everything you need to know.
Ginseng is a sophisticated plant species, with several varieties grown worldwide. However, the most well-known is Panax ginseng (also called Asian ginseng). Grown in parts of Korea, China, and Siberia, the root of Panax ginseng is a staple of Chinese medicine, owing to its proposed influence on the immune response, oxidative stress, cognition, and more.
However, as we’ll soon find out, much of Panax ginseng's influence stems from its adaptogenic nature. It’s believed that the compounds inside ginseng work to modulate existing systems, helping the body maintain balance while supporting general vitality. But what is it about ginseng that allows it to affect the body in such a varied manner?
To answer that question, we first need to introduce you to a particular group of active compounds—ginsenosides.
Ginsenosides are the primary active components in ginseng, and encompass dozens of different metabolites, each exerting a slightly different influence on the mind and body. Interestingly, the exact quality and composition of said ginsenosides vary according to species, age, the part of the plant from which they are derived, and even how the plant is harvested.
However, one attribute all ginsenosides share is their proposed influence over our immune system—namely the suppression of cytokines. Moreover, if you dive a little deeper into the different subsets of ginsenosides, it’s not just the immune system they could influence, but also the cognitive and central nervous systems.
Before we jump into the proposed benefits of ginseng, it helps to clarify another common misunderstanding about the plant—the difference between Asian and American ginseng. This distinction is important because, based on the complexity of ginsenosides, different ginseng varieties have distinct chemical structures and effects.
Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng) is a species of ginseng native to North America. Much like its Asian counterpart, it’s the plant's root that contains an abundance of ginsenosides, although the composition of these elements is what sets it apart from Asian ginseng.
Due to the difference in chemical structure, American ginseng is believed to represent the plant’s yin-like qualities, possibly soothing the body.
Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng) is the traditional variety of ginseng, predominately used across China and other parts of Asia. To make matters even more confusing, there's also a niche variety native to Russia (Eleutherococcus senticosus).
Panax ginseng is believed to be more uplifting (something we’ll take a look at shortly), and therefore represents the plant’s yang-like qualities.
With the basics of ginseng covered, it’s time to take a look at the plant’s yin and yang-like qualities. Key areas of influence may include the following.
While human trials into Panax ginseng are limited, we do have several animal and test-tube studies to refer to. These include a 2006 examination of Panax ginseng’s effect on cognitive function, and a 2016 study focusing specifically on compound K (a specific metabolite of ginsenosides Rb1, Rb2, and Rbc).,
The first study, from the Veterinary Medical University, shows P. ginseng’s potential influence on neuroprotective activities, including neuronal death, free radicals, and apoptotic events. The latter study takes findings one step further by trying to isolate the compounds responsible.
In a study from the Kangwon National University, Korea, researchers examined how preparation techniques altered the influence of wild ginseng root. Interestingly, they found that fermented wild ginseng root extract showed a greater influence on inflammation and oxidative stress than its unfermented counterpart.
To highlight ginseng’s yang-like qualities, we have a 2013 randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to consider. In it, researchers used a “bespoke 20% ethanol extract of P. ginseng” in 90 subjects with idiopathic chronic fatigue (ICF), a relatively unknown condition that causes unexplained fatigue for at least six consecutive months.
After four weeks of regular consumption, results showed “significantly improved” scores versus the placebo, proposing that the plant’s “antioxidant properties contribute in part to its mechanism of action”.
Given the lack of conclusive research, it will come as no surprise that there isn’t much information available regarding the ideal dose of Panax ginseng. Even in the handful of studies outlined above, the dosage of P. ginseng extract varies significantly. Then, there is the specific variety of ginseng and the concentration of ginsenosides to consider.
To help you make the most of Panax ginseng and find a dose to suit your wellness needs, we recommend trying the following:
• Stick to products from a reputable manufacturer—preferably one that publishes the exact concentration of their ginseng products (usually 2–3% total ginsenosides).
• Follow the same dosing routine for at least two weeks. This gives your body a chance to get accustomed to the plant’s influence.
• If you have any concerns about Panax ginseng, consult your doctor or physician first. They will be able to offer case-specific advice.
Although we’ve talked extensively about ginseng’s potentially beneficial properties, there are several side effects to be aware of. These include:
• Upset stomach
You’ll also want to avoid ginseng if you’re currently taking, or planning to take, any blood-thinning medication, as the plant may reduce its effectiveness. In fact, ginseng appears to disrupt many types of medication, so it's best to speak to your doctor to see how you might be affected. Finally, some animal studies suggest issues with taking ginseng during pregnancy, so it’s best to abstain from taking ginseng in any form if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
One of ginseng’s strongest traits is its versatility, as the plant’s extract comes in powder, capsule, and tablet form. You can even consider buying the root and preparing it yourself, either by eating it raw or stewing it in water to make ginseng tea.
For many people, the most convenient approach is taking ginseng root capsules with a glass of water. However, if you find the capsules upset your stomach, consider taking them with food to reduce nausea and discomfort.
Ginseng has been around for thousands of years, both as a holistic herb and an attractive garnish for food. However, many of the clinical studies on ginseng are still lacking conclusive results, so it’s hard to say just how much of the anecdotal evidence rings true.
That said, ginseng appears well-tolerated, and provided you’re not affected by the extract's impact on certain medications, there’s little reason not to try it for yourself. Finally, don’t forget to experiment with both American and Asian ginseng to determine which one suits you best.
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