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Ginseng is one of the most exalted remedies in Asian tradition

Ginseng

Panax ginseng Araliaceae

In Asian tradition Ginseng was especially valued to maintain mental and physical health into old age and was also used in higher doses to help deal with short term challenges, to recover from illness and fatigue.

Sustainability status

At risk from overharvesting and habitat loss. Commonly sourced from the wild though may also be in cultivation. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Sustainability Status
Key benefits
  • Fatigue
  • Stress management
  • Cognitive and athletic performance
  • Men’s health
  • How does it feel?

    Probably the simplest way to sample ginseng is to obtain a good quality tablet of the dried root powder, This can easily and safely be chewed. There is a faint fragrant aroma and then the main impression is of gentle sweetness, for most a quite pleasant taste. There is a definite mucilaginous quality as the powder is moistened in the mouth (this is due to the soapy properties of the saponins that are the main actives in ginseng) and finally a mild bitter aftertaste.

    The consistent reputation of ginseng is as a tonic and as is seen here this is linked to both the traditional medicinal qualities of (subtle) sweetness and to the properties of saponins, that are so often linked to benefits on the body’s steroid metabolism.

  • What can I use it for?

    The traditional use of ginseng, partially supported by clinical trial evidence, is to improve mental performance and well-being, and particularly to improve stress responses.

    It has long been used as a tonic when rundown and exhausted, and for the elderly and infirm.

    It has a particular tradition in helping men with prostatic problems and also those with poor sexual performance.

    There is clinical evidence that it can be helpful in low-grade circulatory problems and non-insulin dependent Type 2 diabetes.

  • Into the heart of Ginseng

    Panax or red ginseng was in the 1950’s the first defined ‘adaptogen’, described as a remedy that could improve the body’s capacity to cope with (‘adapt to’) stressful circumstances. It has been widely used to increase strength and endurance during periods of short-term and long-term stress.

    In The Root of Being: the Pharmacology of Harmony, an influential book published in 1980, Stephen Fulder argued that ginseng’s benefits could be due to its ability to modulate the responses of the adrenal cortex to stress. This gland produces steroid hormones and Fulder made the case that as ginseng contains steroidal-like substances (ginsenosides) it could interact with the body’s switching mechanisms, particularly in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortex axis. This could explain the use of ginseng both to switch on protective responses at the onset of stress, and to avoid adrenal exhaustion by switching them off more effectively when they had done their job. It has been used for this benefit by soldiers, cosmonauts and students studying for exams.

    This short term effect is one of two quite separate traditional uses for ginseng. The second was as a long-term remedy for people who are rundown, tired, recovering from illness or injury, or more generally infirm.

  • Traditional uses

    Ginseng is classified in traditional Chinese medicine as a qi tonic. Such tonics are used to support active (yang) energies and are used for depletion of qi, particularly in the Chinese Spleen and Lungs.

    In the case of deficient Spleen qi, possibly as a result of prolonged illness or constitutional weakness, disturbance is likely to affect the functions of assimilation and distribution, to be associated with such symptoms as fatigue and depression with depressed digestion, diarrhoea, abdominal pain or tension, visceral prolapse, pale yellow complexion with a tinge of red or purple, pale tongue with white coating, and/or languid, frail or indistinct pulses. This may lead in turn to a “damp” condition developing.

    In the case of deficient Lung qi, extreme or prolonged stress or disease, or chronic pulmonary disease, leads to depletion or cold in the Lungs, with easy fatigue and prostration associated with disturbances of regulation, shortness of breath or shallow breathing, rapid, slow or little speech, spontaneous perspiration, pallid complexion, dry skin, pale tongue with thin white coating, weak and depleted pulses. Its primary use here in acute medicine was for conditions marked by shallow respiration and shortness of breath.

    Ginseng also benefits and calms the Spirit (a manifestation of Heart qi – hence is used for palpitations with anxiety, insomnia and restlessness). In the west ginseng had a range of uses. In 20th century British herbalism is was applied to the treatment of neurasthenia (exhausted nervous conditions), neuralgia and for depressive states, particularly associated with depleted libido. In 19th century North America the Eclectic physicians used it in addition for asthma and convulsions.

  • Traditional actions

  • What practitioners say

    Adrenals: As an adaptogen ginseng can support prompt stress management while also protecting against exhaustion. Adaptogens improve overall wellbeing, increase energy, increase inner strength, improve libido, balance the stress response, improve blood sugar levels, optimise protein synthesis, reduce inflammatory cortisol levels and optimise the function of all of your organs.

    Musculoskeletal: Ginseng is indicated for the very active as well as the elderly. It has been used to improve muscle regeneration and repair after exertion.

    Nervous: Ginseng supports a nervous system that has become weakened by stress. It is indicated in states of nervous insomnia, prolonged anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is not a stimulant as such although in some cases has been used with, and then exacerbated other stimulants.

    Cardiovascular: Ginseng tonifies the heart and improves cardiac performance. There is evidence that it reduces various inflammatory markers and benefits several conditions linked by endothelial dysfunction: hypertension, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and can reduce blood cholesterol and lipid levels.

  • Research

    In a systematic review of the clinical evidence ginseng was shown to be a promising treatment for fatigue, especially in people with chronic illness. However this review confirmed the widespread observation that the evidence base for ginseng is notably mixed and called for more robust studies (1).

    There is encouraging evidence that ginseng can benefit men with erectile dysfunction, although the meta-analysis concluded that more robust studies are required (2). Ginseng has sometimes been regarded as a male remedy in Asian cultures and the evidence so far does not support its benefits in symptoms of the female menopause (3).

    There are a number of studies that point to the benefits of ginseng on markers of inflammation, circulatory disease and metabolic problems (all tentatively linked by endothelial dysfunction). One meta-analysis and systematic review concluded that ginseng improved glucose control and insulin sensitivity in patients with Type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose intolerance (4). A similar tentative conclusion had earlier been reached (5). In a meta-analysis of clinical trials a significant effect was demonstrated for the effect of ginseng on blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a standard marker of inflammatory activity in the body (6). Another review has shown collected benefits on cholesterol and blood lipid levels (7), and similar guarded benefits have been shown in the reduction of high blood pressure (8,9).

  • Did you know?

    In former imperial China the social ranking of court officials would be marked by the splendour of the ginseng root that they could afford for their retirement. The most valuable were not only the largest but those most man-shaped. Each root would be displayed in a glass jar and steeped in wine. A daily sip would be taken and the wine replenished. This way the root could provide tonic strength long into a healthy old age.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Panax ginseng is a perennial slow-growing herb native to the mountainous regions of China, Japan, Korea and Russia, though now extremely rare in the wild. The stem is erect, simple not branching, the leaves are verticillate and compound with five leaflets; the three terminal leaflets are larger than the lateral ones. The flowerhead is a small umbel consisting of pink flowers with five petals. The fruit is a small berry which is red when ripe. The pale yellow/brown roots grow up to 10cm and characteristically represent the shape of the human form (‘man root’). The material used commercially is entirely from cultivated plants as Panax ginseng is a grade-II listed species on China’s Protected species list, requiring harvesting and trade to take place only with a permit from provincial authorities and under their oversight.

    The root is sometimes cured soon after harvesting, a process involving steaming, sun-drying and smoking, this producing so-called “red ginseng”, a deep-red root with a glassy fracture.

    Alternate botanical names:

    There are many species of ginseng recorded, notably the American ginseng P. quinquefolium L, P. pseudo-ginseng var. notoginseng Burk., found wild in the Yunnan and Kwangsi provinces of China, and P. pseudo-ginseng var. japonicus  C.A. Meyer., or Japanese ginseng. There is also a distantly related “Siberian ginseng”, Eleutherococcus senticosus. All these plants have different constituents and activities and only P. ginseng is discussed here.

  • Common names

    • Asiatic ginseng
    • Red ginseng
    • Man root (Eng)
    • Ginsengwurzel (Ger)
    • Kraftwurzel (Ger)
    • Racine de ginseng (Fr)
    • Ren shen (Chin)
    • Ninjin (Jap)
    • Insam (Kor)
  • Safety

    Ginseng is safe to take. ‘Ginseng abuse syndrome’ was reported in the USA during the 1980’s. The notion that ginseng could induce irritability, anxiety and restlessness did not survive an era when overdosing was common, and particularly mixing with high levels of caffeine and other stimulants.

  • Dosage

    Practical use in the west suggests a daily dose of 1-3 grams for short term use (for up to 14 days), with a longer term regime of 0.5-0.8 grams daily

  • Constituents

    • triterpenoid saponins ginsenosides Rb, Rg and Rc
    • panax acid, glycosides (panaxin, panaquilin, ginsenin)
    • beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol, campesterol
    • a sesquiterpene (pancene)
    • polyacetylenes (alpha-elemene, panaxynol), kaempferol, choline, essential oil.

    There are many ginsenosides so far described, generally divided into groups based on two dammarine-type core triterpenes called protopanaxadiol and protopanaxatriol, called for this reason “diols” and “triols” (ginsenosides Rb and Rc are diols, ginsenoside Rg is a triol). Most research interest has focused on the “triol” group  which have been found to be the most stimulating, the “diols” being more sedative. (diols predominate in the American ginseng, Panax quinquefolium).

  • Recipe

    Winter Tonic Elixir

    This is a fun and easy-to-make ‘winter tonic elixir’ with a mix of herbs that raise your energy and warm you to the core.

    Ingredients

    • Brandy 700ml/25fl oz
    • Amaretto 300ml/10fl oz
    • Ginseng root 20g/3/4oz
    • Astragalus 10g/1/3oz
    • Cinnamon bark 10g (about 2 quills)
    • Ashwagandha 5g
    • Ginger root powder 5g
    • Rosemary 2 sprigs
    • Orange peel 5g

    This makes 1 litre/35fl oz of tasty tincture.

    Method

    • Blend the liquids and soak the herbs in it for 1 month and then strain. Bottle half for you and half for a friend.
    • Sip on cold winter nights to raise your spirits and keep you strong.

    Recipe from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole

  • References

    1. Arring NM, Millstine D, Marks LA, Nail LM. (2018)  Ginseng as a Treatment for Fatigue: A Systematic Review. J Altern Complement Med. 24(7): 624–633
    2. Borrelli F, Colalto C, Delfino DV, et al. (2018) Herbal Dietary Supplements for Erectile Dysfunction: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Drugs. 78(6): 643–673
    3. Lee HW, Choi J, Lee Y, et al. (2016) Ginseng for managing menopausal woman’s health: A systematic review of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials. Medicine (Baltimore). 95(38): e4914
    4. Gui QF, Xu ZR, Xu KY, Yang YM. (2016) The Efficacy of Ginseng-Related Therapies in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 95(6): e2584
    5. Shishtar E, Sievenpiper JL, Djedovic V, et al. (2014) The effect of ginseng (the genus panax) on glycemic control: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. PLoS One. 9(9): e107391
    6. Saboori S, Falahi E, Yousefi Rad E, et al. (2019) Effects of ginseng on C-reactive protein level: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 45: 98–103
    7. Hernández-García D, Granado-Serrano AB, Martín-Gari M, et al. (2019) Efficacy of Panax ginseng supplementation on blood lipid profile. A meta-analysis and systematic review of clinical randomized trials. J Ethnopharmacol. 243: 112090
    8. Lee HW, Lim HJ, Jun JH, Choi J, Lee MS. (2017) Ginseng for Treating Hypertension: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Double Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trials. Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 15(6): 549–556
    9. Komishon AM, Shishtar E, Ha V, et al. (2016) The effect of ginseng (genus Panax) on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. J Hum Hypertens. 30(10): 619–626
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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