Panax Ginseng: Traditional and Conventional Uses

Panax ginseng roots used in traditional medicine placed over a bamboo bowl covered with a white cloth.

Panax Ginseng C. A Meyer is a medicinal root of Asian origin that has become famous in the West for its tonic properties. Like many exotic herbal medicines, the original purpose of ginseng is often misunderstood.

In the past decade or so, many different products containing ginseng suddenly appeared in the market, taking advantage of the big marketing weight of this plant. Products like coffee, shampoos, skincare items, beverages, and a variety of commodities can be found claiming to contain ginseng.

In China, ginseng root has been used for about 5,000 years as a medicine. It appears that ginseng was brought to Europe in the 9th Century by some Arab merchants becoming incorporated into both Arabian and European pharmacopeia.

Table of Contents

The Origins of Ginseng

Ginseng belongs to the Panax family, which has a total of eleven species. From those, the most widely known are Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer), and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium).

The name ginseng comes from the Chinese rén shēn, which is said to have come from the term rén gēn, literally “human root”, due to the similitude of the ginseng root with the human body.

Ginseng is a perennial plant of the Far East northern temperate zone and America. Wild ginseng used to be commonly found in the forestlands in the high mountains of Korea, China, and the Russian Primorsky Krai.

Nowadays, wild-growing ginseng plants are extremely rare. Their original habitat has shrunk to reduced areas in Russia and China. Cultivated ginseng, on the other hand, has had a huge production increase in the last decades, with the biggest producer being the Chinese.

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    • Ginseng belongs to the Panax family and the most well-known species are Asian ginseng and American ginseng.
    • The name ginseng comes from the Chinese term rén shēn, meaning “human root”, due to the resemblance of the ginseng root to the human body.
    • Wild ginseng used to be common in the high mountains of Korea, China, and the Russian Primorsky Krai, but now it is extremely rare and cultivated ginseng has become more prevalent, with China being the largest producer.

Red and White Ginseng

A variety of different qualities of Panax ginseng can be found in the market worldwide. In places like South Korea, ginseng is sold in special shops where different qualities are found. What differentiates one root from another is mainly the age of the plant and the manner of processing.

Ginseng plants of about 16 years old contain the highest concentration of saponins called ginsenosides, which are the main therapeutic compounds of this plant. Before the expansion of ginseng commercialization into the massive enterprise it is nowadays, there used to be two main qualities in the market, the 12-year-old plant, and the 6-year-old plant.

12-year-old ginseng roots used to be known as “red ginseng” in China, and the 6-year-old roots were known as “white ginseng”. With the advent of massification, red ginseng is now how the 6-year-old plant is labeled, and white ginseng is how plants as young as 3 years old are labeled.

To confuse further the classification of the different qualities of ginseng, Korean ginseng is also called red ginseng because of its processing. Traditionally, Korean ginseng is steamed with its peel and then dried, which gives it a reddish color, besides changing both the quantity and quality of ginsenosides in the final product. According to traditional Chinese medicine, Korean ginseng is Hotter and more efficient in toning yang and qi.

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    • The age of the ginseng plant and the processing method determine the quality and therapeutic compounds of ginseng.
    • Traditionally, 12-year-old ginseng roots were known as red ginseng and 6-year-old roots were known as white ginseng.
    • With the commercialization of ginseng, the labeling of red and white ginseng has changed, with younger plants being labeled as red ginseng. Korean ginseng is also referred to as red ginseng due to its steaming and drying process.

Uses of Ginseng in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In the Chinese traditional medicine system, ginseng is found in the group of herbal medicines that tonify qi, more specifically the yuan qi. It is the primary herbal supplement recommended in the treatment of the gastrointestinal system in cases of weakness.

There is one zang that is attributed functions of different organs of the gastrointestinal system, it’s called Spleen. The function of the Spleen in TCM is to absorb the flavors of the foods from the Stomach, which are the pure essences containing the nutrients.

The symptoms associated with Spleen Qi Deficiency for which ginseng is prescribed (5-9g in decoction or 1-2g of powder daily), are lassitude, loss of appetite, epigastric distension, chronic diarrhea, and, in severe cases, prolapses (stomach, uterus, or rectum). Besides Spleen Qi Deficiency, in combination with other tonic herbs ginseng is used in the treatment of Xiao Ke syndromes, which corresponds with Western diabetes mellitus.

Other conditions in which ginseng is prescribed in higher doses (15-30g in decoction daily) are illnesses with fever and profuse sweating where a lot of liquids have been lost; shen disorders with palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, agitation, and memory loss; and severe conditions that cause bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea, cold and profuse sweating, cold extremities, loss of consciousness with flaccidity of extremities, urinary incontinence, and generalized debility.

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    • Ginseng is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat gastrointestinal weakness and Spleen Qi Deficiency.
    • It is also used in the treatment of diabetes mellitus and conditions with fever, profuse sweating, and fluid loss.
    • Higher doses of ginseng may be prescribed for shen disorders, severe bleeding, and debility.

Contraindications of Ginseng in Chinese Medicine

In Chinese medicine, ginseng is recommended for the treatment of deficiency conditions. In the classic texts of Chinese materia medica, ginseng is described as a superior tonic for chronic and convalescing patients, this is, in cases of functional decline.

In Korea, ginseng is popular among executive and white-collar workers who will often consume it before lunchtime to keep physical stamina through their long work shifts. In the West, ginseng is often advertised as an energy booster and sexual performance enhancer.

In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng is counter-indicated in Excess syndromes, and Heat syndromes. These can be difficult to indentify for a layperson who doesn’t have a TCM background.

The excessive intake of ginseng can cause hypertension, pharyngeal irritation, agitation, insomnia, irritability, hyperthermia, skin rashes, morning diarrhea, edema, decreased sexual function, and weight loss.

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    • Ginseng is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic for chronic and convalescing patients.
    •  In Korea, ginseng is popular among workers to maintain physical stamina during long work shifts.
    •  Excessive intake of ginseng can lead to various health issues such as hypertension, insomnia, and decreased sexual function.

Conventional Uses of Ginseng

Among the reported possible actions of ginseng are:

  • Cognitive function. Ginseng intake might improve mental performance such as focus, concentration, and reaction times in middle-aged adults.
  • Sexual arousal. Ginseng might improve sexual function in adults with erectile dysfunction and promote sexual satisfaction in females post-menopause.
  • Immune activity. Ginseng boosts immunity in general, and in some cases, it can restore immunity in patients with chronic immune diseases.
  • Blood sugar. Ginseng might lower the levels of blood sugar.
  • Stress. Ginseng stimulates the central nervous system and helps the organism metabolize harmful substances released in stressful situations. It also increases physical resistance to stress by maintaining homeostasis in the organism.
  • Fatigue. Ginseng has been reported to reduce tiredness in females with multiple sclerosis.
  • Blood pressure. Ginseng might normalize blood pressure and reduce blood viscosity and clot formation.

The regular consumption of ginseng for periods longer than 6 months is likely unsafe.

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  • Ginseng has various reported benefits, including improving cognitive function, sexual arousal, immune activity, blood sugar levels, stress response, fatigue reduction, and blood pressure regulation.

  • Long-term consumption of ginseng for more than 6 months is considered unsafe.

  • Ginseng has potential as a natural remedy for various health conditions, but it is important to use it responsibly and consult with a healthcare professional.

Interactions Between Ginseng and Other Herbal Medicines

Chinese phytotherapy is based on formulations that consist of a combination of different medicinal substances for an enhanced therapeutic effect. The herbal, mineral, and animal components present in Chinese formulations are termed materia medica.

Some of the traditional simple combinations containing ginseng are:

  • Ginseng + radix astragali (huang qi): These two roots combined are used in traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for Lung Qi Deficiency with symptoms of anorexia, spontaneous sweating, and generalized debility.
  • Ginseng + rhizoma Atractylodis macrocephalae (bai zhu): This combination is prescribed as a potent tonic for the functions of the Spleen.
  • Ginseng + radix rehmanniae preparata (shu di huang): Shu di huang is in the group of Chinese materia medica that tone Blood. Its effects are potent enough to require a prescription from a qualified TCM practitioner.
  • Ginseng + Radix Aconiti Lateralis Preparata (zhi fu zi): The combination of ginseng and aconite is found mainly in China, and is used in the treatment of severe Qi Collapse and Devastated Yang conditions. Aconite must go through a specific processing to be used as a medicine due to its high toxicity.
  • Ginseng + Folium Perillae (zi su ye): This combination treats syndromes of Yin and Qi Deficiency with the combined symptoms of shortness of breath, fever, irritability, thirst, and a red and dry tongue.
  • Ginseng + Gingko Leaf Extract: Some scientific studies suggest that ginkgo Biloba leaf extract, when combined with ginseng, might improve memory and thinking skills (see external links).

These are some of the simple combinations containing ginseng that are commonly found in traditional Chinese medicine formulations. Although ginseng can be found in almost any pharmacy or herbal shop, most Chinese Materia Medica is commercially available exclusively for TCM practitioners due to their dug content which can be harmful to health.

Interaction With Other Drugs

Due to the effects of Panax ginseng in regulating blood sugar, interfering with blood pressure and clotting, and other important effects in the organism it can interfere with the effects of other medications. Anyone who is under controlled medication should check with a qualified health professional whether taking a herbal supplement might or might not interfere with their treatment.

Ginseng can lower blood sugar. People who take insulin might need to lower the doses if opting to take ginseng as well. Due to its stimulant effect, it’s not recommended to take ginseng with caffeine and the like. Other medication reactions should be consulted with an adequate health professional.

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  • Panax ginseng can interfere with the effects of other medications.

  • Ginseng can lower blood sugar.

  • It is not recommended to take ginseng with caffeine or other stimulants.

External Links

https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-ginseng

https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1000/panax-ginseng

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