Ginseng is the dried root of one of several species of the Araliaceae family of herbs. The most commonly used type is Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A., Meyer), often sold as Panax, Chinese, or Korean ginseng. Closely related to Asian ginseng is American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.), which is sometimes preferred for its milder effects.
Siberian ginseng, also called eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus Rupr ex Maxim), isn’t as closely related to the other two and contains a series of unrelated compounds. Eleuthero is also considered weaker in action and is a less expensive ingredient. Ginseng-containing foods and dietary supplements are typically made from a powder or extract of ginseng root.
Ginseng is widely used in the United States to improve overall energy and vitality, particularly during times of fatigue or stress. While there is not much clinical evidence to support an energy boosting effect, there are studies showing its potential value in normalizing glucose levels after meals in diabetics, stimulating immune function, treating male impotence and, when used with Ginkgo biloba, improving memory and symptoms of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Plant chemicals called ginsenosides are believed to play a role in ginseng’s activity. They are considered “marker” compounds for ginseng
Ginseng is a plant with a very important role in traditional Chinese medicine. They believe that it relieves stress, improves circulation, increases quality of life, cures flu, cures impotence, and even that it can stop cancer. In fact, like many traditional remedies, it has been claimed to be a cure for almost everything.
Obviously, scientists are quick to point out that it is difficult to test whether ginseng actually has any effects at all in a scientific sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being wildly popular. It is one of the biggest-selling items at Chinese-run shops, sold both to Chinese people and believers in traditional medicine.
This huge demand has led to problems with the supply of the more potent wild ginseng, as it is being harvested faster than it can grow back, meaning that ginseng users have recently had to rely more on farmed ginseng. Today, ginseng is grown not only in China, but also in many East Asian countries such as Korea and Vietnam, and in the United States and Canada.
Although ginseng is usually thought of as a Chinese remedy, the ginseng that grows in America was independently discovered by Native Americans, who also used it for its medicinal properties. The fact that two cultures discovered it separately without influencing each other makes it seem more likely that there could be some truth in the traditional claims about ginseng. Areas where scientific tests seem to indicate that it might make some difference include impotence and cancer, but nothing has been proven conclusively.
There are many ways to eat and drink ginseng: the most popular is tea, but it is also possible to make soups, put it in food, or even just eat the plant’s leaves as it is. Ginseng isn’t that expensive in small quantities, so if reading this has made you curious, why not give it a try?