[Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice. Be sure to consult with a physician before incorporating any new treatment – herbal or otherwise.]
Perhaps you love its aromatic, earthy flavor in meals or tea or you’ve seen it filling a section of the supplement aisle. Either way, ginseng is likely on your radar. But what’s the big deal? Here, we’ll explore the different types of ginseng along with its uses and the science behind the presumed health benefits.
Encompassing several species of plants in the genus Panax, ginseng has long been both a favorite flavor and herbal medicine. While there are about ten species in the genus, only two species have taken off in wide-spread popularity. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Chinese Ginseng (Panax ginseng) are both renowned for their medicinal uses and health benefits.
In general, these plants have two active compounds behind their medicinal properties: ginsenosides and gintonin. However, the American and Chinese varieties differ in the concentrations and ratios of the two compounds. As a result, American Ginseng has more relaxing effects while Chinese Ginseng is more of an energizer.
With such a lyrical name, we had to look into its etymology. Interestingly, the term ginseng comes from the similarity of the appearance of the root to a person’s legs. With tapering roots often branching into two or more sections, the Chinese called the root rénshēn. The prefix rén translates to “person” while shēn means “plant root.” The English word was influenced by the Cantonese pronunciation jén shên. It’s a perfect fit for such a whimsical root! Additionally, the Latin name for the genus Panax translates to “all healing,” as if we doubted its medicinal properties.
Discovered first as a food source over 5,000 years ago during Emperor Shen-Nung’s reign in China and the beginnings of herbalism practices, ginseng rapidly gained popularity. Somewhat of a botanist and herbalist himself, Shen-Nung described over 365 different herb species. Known initially for its properties as an aphrodisiac and treatment for erectile dysfunction, the root became immensely popular in China, and quickly became a sign of wealth and status.
In his famous travels of the Silk Road, Marco Polo introduced ginseng to European culture. News and discovery of its medicinal value spread and the root gained popularity worldwide.
Similar to Chinese Ginseng, the North American variety has also been an important part of the indigenous culture for centuries. Native Americans, including the Ojibwe, the Muscogee, the Meskwaki, and the Iroquois used the root to treat a whole gamut of health issues including pain relief, respiratory conditions, and digestive issues along with use as an aphrodisiac.
With such a strong history as an herbal remedy across cultures, the volume of peer-reviewed research on the benefits of ginseng comes as no surprise. Its uses span much further than what this article can cover, so we’ve focused in on four uses: as an anti-inflammatory, a treatment for erectile dysfunction, to increase energy levels, and to lower blood sugar.
Our body’s natural reaction to anything harmful is inflammation. As we learned in its history, the root has long been used to combat inflammation. Additionally, ginseng has been found to have powerful antioxidant properties that improve cell health. These benefits seem to stem from the presence of ginsenoside (one of the active compounds in the root). According to research, the compound targets pathways in the immune system resulting in reduced inflammation. If you need to treat inflammation, you could try this natural remedy that packs a punch!
Perhaps the reason ginseng gained so much popularity in herbalism is its value in treating erectile dysfunction. The compounds work symbiotically to restore normal function to the penis by reducing stress in the blood vessels and surrounding tissue. As a bonus, ginseng also increases muscle relaxation and circulation, due to increased levels of nitric oxide. With a plethora of studies on the subject, ginseng seems to be a great alternative choice for treating erectile dysfunction.
For those of you constantly looking for an alternative to coffee, ginseng could be the winner! Studies show that the root has been shown to increase energy levels while combating sleepiness. For example, some of the compounds both decrease stress while increasing energy production in cells, resulting in reduced mental and physical fatigue. Additionally, ginseng goes a step beyond fighting fatigue. It’s been shown to actually enhance physical activity! Next time you’re trying to get rid of the morning grogginess, you could give this herb a try.
Perhaps the most exciting studies are ones covering the use of ginseng to decrease blood sugar levels. For people both with and without diabetes, ginseng has been shown to improve blood sugar levels. Interestingly, both American and Chinese ginseng have the properties that improve the body’s uptake of sugar, so either variety of the plant could work!
If you want to take an additional step to squeeze all the juice out of ginseng’s benefits, try fermented ginseng. It is even more effective at reducing blood sugar levels due to the addition of helpful bacteria. Whichever product or type you choose, the health benefits can be astounding.
If you’re ready to start incorporating ginseng into your diet or maybe you just want to sample a supplement, try some of these different ways to use it – after consulting your doctor, of course.
The recommended dose is between 1-2 grams of raw ginseng and 200-400 mg of extract. Most health professionals advise starting with a lower dose and increasing it slowly whenever adding a new supplement to your routine. Whether you’re looking for the health benefits, or maybe just a fun new flavor, ginseng can be a great root to add to your routine.