Ginseng is perhaps the most widely recognized plant used in traditional medicine and now plays a major role in the herbal health care market. For more than 2000 years, various forms have been used in medicine. The name Panax derives from the Greek word for “all healing” and its properties have been no less touted. Ginseng root's man shaped figure led proponents of the “Doctorine of Signatures” to believe that the root could strengthen any part of the body. Through the ages, the root has been used in the treatment of asthenia, atherosclerosis, blood and bleeding disorders, colitis and to relieve the symptoms of ageing, cancer and senility. Evidence that the root possesses a general strengthening effect, raises mental and physical capacity and exerts a protectant effect against diabetes, neurosis, and some cancers has been reported. Today, its popularity is because of the proposed “Adaptogenic Effect” (stress-protective).
Ginseng commonly refers to Panax ginseng belonging to Araliaceae family. Panax ginseng has a very heavy root stalk, producing upright stems with the whorls of palmate leaves made up of 3-7 leaflets. The small white flowers borne in clusters at the stem tips and are followed by yellow, red or nearly black drupes from June to July. The shape of the root can vary between species and has been used to distinguish types of ginseng. Medicinally, it is the root that is considered most valuable in providing the pharmacologically active ginsenosides. Ginsenoside content varies with the age of the root, season of harvest and preservation method. High quality ginseng is generally collected in the fall after 5 to 6 years of growth.
The first study of the plant was reported in 1854 when a Saponin called panaquilon was isolated from P. quinquefolium. About 12 major Ginsenosides have been isolated. Saponins are difficult to purify on the large scale. Therefore, the whole root is used in herbal preparations.
Many other minor components have been isolated and may contribute to the pharmacologic effects. These include Volatile oils, Betaelemine, Sterols, Acetylenes, Polysaccharides, Starch, Flavonoids, Peptides, and Vitamins (eg. B1, B2, B12, Pantothenic acid, Biotin), Minerals, Enzymes and Choline.
A wide range of ginseng products are available over the counter as food flavorings and as herbal medicines. These range from fresh and dried roots to extracts, solutions, capsules, tablets, sodas and teas. However, the taste of ginseng is disagreeable to many.
Adaptogenic (Stress protective) effect: From the earliest times, it has been claimed that ginseng exerts a strengthening effect while also raising physical and mental capacity for work. These properties have been defined as an “adaptogenic effect” or a nonspecific increase in resistance to the noxious effects of physical, chemical or biological stress. Animal studies have shown that ginseng extracts can prolong swimming time, prevent stress-induced ulcers described anti-stress effects in ginseng.
Effect on Immune System: Ginsenosides have been shown to exert anti-cancerous effects, including direct cytotoxic and growth inhibitory effects as well as including differentiation and inhibiting metastasis.
Effect on Heart: Ginseng saponins have been reported to act as selective calcium antagonists as well as enhance the release of nitric oxide from endothelial and neuronal cells.
Intellect promoting effect: Results from a study suggest that daily oral administration of P. ginseng extract at 8g/kg/24hr for 12 days improved learning performance.
Effect on Hormones: Randomized human trials have confirmed the hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effects of ginseng. Studies have shown that 3 g ground root of P. quinquefolius exerts a glucose-lowering effect when stimulated by glucose ingestion.
Effect on Physical Performance: Properly controlled studies using higher doses standardized to 2 gm/24hr of dried root, administered for at least 8 weeks, exhibited statistically significant improvement in physical performance. Benefit was most likely to be seen in those over 40 years of age.
Adverse Effects: Several reports have implicated ginseng as having an esterogen-like effect in women. Diffuse breast nodules as well as vaginal bleeding in a 72-year old woman has been reported. The most common side effects of ginseng are nervousness and excitation, which usually diminish after the first few days of use or with dosage reduction. The hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effect of the whole root, although no cases of serious reactions in diabetic patients have been reported, people who must control their blood glucose levels should take ginseng with caution. Ginseng also should not be used by those with high blood pressure.
Ginseng is one of the oldest and most widely recognized herbal products. At least six species and varieties of Panax have been used in traditional medicine. Today, ginseng is one of the most popular herbal supplements sold over-the-counter. It is available in a variety of dosage forms and is promoted for it's 'anti stress' effects. Numerous studies have confirmed this 'adaptogenic effect' (stress-protective). As a result of controlled studies, the German Commission E recommends 1-2 g daily dose of root or equivalent preparations (20 to 30 mg ginsenosides). Ginseng is not usually associated with serious adverse reactions, although a potential 'ginseng abuse syndrome' has been reported.