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.
Cognitive and athletic performance
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.
All around the world the actions of traditional medicines were understood by their immediate sensory impacts. Click on each of ginseng’s key qualities below to learn more:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Traditional Ayurvedic characteristics are
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