Korean ginseng is one of the most widely used and acclaimed herbs in the world. Its scientific name is Panax ginseng, which is the species from which Chinese, Korean, red, and white ginseng are produced. Chinese and Korean ginseng are the same plant cultivated in different regions, and have slightly different properties according to Chinese medicine. White ginseng is simply the dried or powdered root of Korean ginseng, while red ginseng is the same root that is steamed and dried in heat or sunlight. Red ginseng is said to be slightly stronger and more stimulating in the body than white, according to Chinese herbalism.
Korean ginseng has had a long and illustrious history as an herb for health, and has been used for thousands of years throughout the Orient as a medicine and tonic. Early Chinese medicine texts written in the first century A.D. mention ginseng, and ginseng has long been classified by Chinese medicine as a "superior" herb. This means it is said to promote longevity and vitality. Legends around the world have touted ginseng as an aphrodisiac and sexual tonic. Researchers have found a slight connection between sex drive and consuming ginseng, although a direct link and the mechanism of action are still researched and disputed.
Korean ginseng grows on moist, shaded mountainsides in China, Korea, and Russia. It is a perennial herb that reaches heights of two or more feet, and is distinguished by its dark green leaves and red clusters of berries. The root of the plant is the part valued for its medicinal properties. The root is long and slender and sometimes resembles the shape of the human body. Asian legends claim that this "man-root" has magical powers for those lucky enough to afford or find it, and the roots bearing the closest resemblance to the human body are still the most valuable ones. The word ren shen in Chinese means roughly "the essence of the earth in the shape of a man."
Korean ginseng has historically been one of the most expensive of herbs, as it has been highly in demand in China and the Far East for centuries. Wars have been fought in Asia over lands where it grew wild. Wild Korean ginseng is now nearly extinct from many regions. Single roots of wild plants have recently been auctioned in China and New York City for sums approaching $50,000. Most of the world's supply of Korean ginseng is cultivated by farmers in Korea and China.
Because of the number of herbs sold under the name of ginseng, there can be some confusion for the consumer. Korean ginseng is a member of the Araliaceae family of plants, which also includes closely related American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Both American and Siberian ginseng are considered by Chinese herbalists to be different herbs than Korean ginseng, and are said to have different effects and healing properties in the body. To add more confusion, there are eight herbs in Chinese medicine which are sometimes called ginseng, including black ginseng, purple ginseng, and prince's ginseng, some of which are not at all botanically related to Panax ginseng, so consumers should choose ginseng products with awareness.
The word panax is formed from Greek roots meaning "cure-all," and Panax ginseng has long been considered to be one of the great healing and strengthening herbs in natural medicine. Ginseng is classified as an adaptogen, which is a substance that helps the body adapt to stress and balance itself without causing major side effects. Korean ginseng is used as a tonic for improving overall health and stamina, and Chinese herbalists particularly recommend it for the ill, weak, or elderly. Korean ginseng has long been asserted to have longevity, anti-senility, and memory improvement effects in the aged population. As it helps the body to adapt to stress, athletes may use ginseng as herbal support during rigorous training. Korean ginseng generally increases physical and mental energy. It is a good tonic for the adrenal glands, and is used by those suffering from exhaustion, burnout, or debilitation from chronic illness.
Traditional Chinese medicine also prescribes Korean ginseng to treat diabetes, and research has shown that it enhances the release of insulin from the pancreas and lowers blood sugar levels. Korean ginseng has been demonstrated to lower blood cholesterol levels. It has also been shown to have antioxidant effects and to increase immune system activity, which makes it a good herbal support for those suffering from cancer and AIDS and other chronic conditions that impair the immune system. Further uses of Korean ginseng in Chinese medicine include treatment of impotence, asthma, and digestive weakness.
Scientists have isolated what they believe are the primary active ingredients in ginseng, chemicals termed saponin triterpenoid glycosides, or commonly called ginsenocides. There are nearly 30 ginsenocides in Korean ginseng. Much research on Korean ginseng has been conducted in China, but controlled human experiments with it have not been easily accessible to the English-speaking world. Recent research in China was summarized by Dr. C. Lui in the February 1992 issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, where he wrote that Panax ginseng was found to contain 28 ginsenocides that "act on the central nervous system, cardiovascular system and endocrine secretion, promote immune function, and have effects on anti-aging and relieving stress."
To summarize other research, Korean ginseng has been shown in studies to have significant effects for the following.
- Physical improvement and performance enhancement for athletes: A study performed over three years in Germany showed athletes given ginseng had favorable improvement in several categories over a control group who took a placebo. Another 1982 study showed that athletes given ginseng had improved oxygen intake and faster recovery time than those given placebos.
- Mental performance improvement and mood enhancement: In general, studies show that ginseng enhances mental performance, learning time, and memory. One study of sixteen volunteers showed improvement on a wide variety of mental tests, including mathematics. Another study showed that those performing intricate and mentally demanding tasks improved performance when given Korean ginseng. Finally, a study has shown improvement of mood in depression sufferers with the use of ginseng.
- Antifatigue and antistress actions: Patients with chronic fatigue who were given ginseng showed a statistically significant improvement in physical tests and in mental attention and concentration, when compared with those given placebos.
- Lowering blood sugar: Animal studies have shown that ginseng can facilitate the release of insulin from the pancreas and increase the number of insulin receptors in the body.
- Antioxidant properties: Scientific analysis of ginseng has shown that it has antioxidant effects, similar to the effects of vitamins A, C, and E. Thus, ginseng could be beneficial in combating the negative effects of pollution, radiation, and aging.
- Cholesterol reduction: Some studies have shown that Korean ginseng reduces total cholesterol and increases levels of good cholesterol in the body.
- Anticancer effects and immune system stimulation: Several tests have shown that Korean ginseng increases immune cell activity in the body, including the activity of T-cells and lymphocytes, which are instrumental in fighting cancer and other immune system disorders like AIDS. A Korean study indicates that taking ginseng may reduce the chances of getting cancer, as a survey of more than 1,800 patients in a hospital in Seoul showed that those who did not have cancer were more likely to have taken ginseng regularly than those patients who had contracted cancer.
- Physical and mental improvement in the elderly: One study showed significant improvement in an elderly test group in visual and auditory reaction time and cardiopulmonary function when given controlled amounts of Korean ginseng. Korean ginseng has also been shown to alleviate symptoms of menopause.
- Impotence: Studies of human sexual function and Korean ginseng have been generally inconclusive, despite the wide acclaim of ginseng as a sexual tonic. Tests with lab animals and ginseng have shown some interesting results, indicating that Korean ginseng promotes the growth of male reproductive organs, increases sperm and testoterone levels, and increases sexual activity in laboratory animals. In general, scientists believe the link between ginseng and sex drive is due to ginseng's effect of strengthening overall health and balancing the hormonal system.
Korean ginseng can be purchased as whole roots, powder, liquid extracts, and tea. Roots should be sliced and boiled in water for up to 45 minutes to extract all the beneficial nutrients. One to five grams of dry root is the recommended amount for one serving of tea. Herbalists recommend that ginseng not be boiled in metal pots, to protect its antioxidant properties. Ginseng should be taken between meals for best assimilation.
Some high quality Korean ginseng extracts and products are standardized to contain a specified amount of ginsenosides. The recommended dosage for extracts containing four to eight percent of ginsenosides is 100 mg once or twice daily. The recommended dosage for non-standardized root powder or extracts is 1-2 g daily, taken in capsules or as a tea. It is recommended that ginseng be taken in cycles and not continuously; after each week of taking ginseng, a few days without ingesting the herb should be observed. Likewise, Korean ginseng should not be taken longer than two months at a time, after which one month's rest period should be allowed before resuming the cycle again. Chinese herbalists recommend that ginseng be taken primarily in the autumn and winter months.
Consumers should be aware of the different kinds of ginseng, and which type is best suited for them. Red Korean ginseng is considered stronger and more stimulating than white, wild ginseng is stronger than cultivated, and Korean ginseng is generally believed to be slightly stronger than Chinese. Furthermore, American and Siberian ginseng have slightly different properties than Korean ginseng, and consumers should make an informed choice as to which herb is best suited for them. Chinese herbalists do not recommend Korean ginseng for those people who have "heat" disorders in their bodies, such as ulcers, high blood pressure, tension headaches, and symptoms associated with high stress levels. Korean ginseng is generally not recommended for those with symptoms of nervousness, mental imbalance, inflammation, or fever. Korean ginseng is not recommended for pregnant or lactating women, and women of childbearing age should use ginseng sparingly, as some studies imply that it can influence estrogen levels. Also, Chinese herbalists typically only prescribe ginseng to older people or the weak, as they believe that younger and stronger people do not benefit as much from it and ginseng is "wasted on the young."
Because of the number of and demand for ginseng products on the market, consumers should search for a reputable brand, preferably with a standardized percentage of active ingredients. To illustrate the mislabeling found with some ginseng products, Consumer Reports magazine analyzed ten nationally-distributed ginseng products in 1995. They found that several of them lacked significant amounts of ginsenocides, despite claims on the packaging to the contrary. Ginseng fraud has led the American Botanical Council, publisher of HerbalGram magazine, to initiate the Ginseng Evaluation Program, a comprehensive study and standardization of ginseng products on the American market. This study and its labeling standards are still under development, and consumers should watch for it.
Korean ginseng acts as a slight stimulant in the body, and in some cases can cause overstimulation, irritability, nervousness and insomnia, although strong side effects are generally rare. Taking too high a dosage of ginseng, or taking ginseng for too long without a break, can cause ginseng intoxication, for which symptoms might include headaches, insomnia, seeing spots, dizziness, shortage of breath and gastrointestinal discomfort. Long term use may cause menstrual abnormalities and breast tenderness in some women.
Those taking hormonal drugs should use ginseng with care. Ginseng should not be taken with caffeine or other stimulants as these may increase its stimulatory effects and cause uncomfortable side effects.
Hobbs, Christopher. Ginseng: The Energy Herb. Loveland, CO: Botanica Press, 1996.
HerbalGram (a quarterly journal of the American Botanical Council and Herb Research Foundation). P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345. (800) 373-7105.
Adaptogen — Substance that improves the body's ability to adapt to stress.
Ginsenocide — Active substances found in ginseng.