Panax ginseng (sometimes called Ginnsuu in China) is one of eleven species of slow-growing perennial herbs in the genus Panax, and is native to North Eastern mainland Asia, growing in the cool climates of northern China and eastern Siberia. Its English name ginseng comes from the simplified Chinese name for the plant, which referred to the thick, fleshy, forked roots that are characteristic of members of this genus. Interestingly, the genus name Panax is derived from the same Greek root as the word panacea, meaning cure-all, as it was already well known for its uses in Chinese medicine when the plant was first classified by the botanist (and father of the modern classification system) Carolus Linnaeus.
In traditional Chinese medicine Panax ginseng was used as a revitalising tonic, and was thought to help the body recover after an illness and improve circulation. It was also used as an aphrodisiac, as was its close relative Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng) in traditional Native-American medicine.
More recent studies have isolated the active phytochemicals of ginseng and other members of the Panax genus, and these chemicals are now referred to as ginsenosides. These ginsenosides are what herbalists call ‘adaptogens’. Adaptogens are defined as natural herbal products that are purported to increase the body’s resistance to stress, trauma, anxiety and fatigue. In classical and traditional herbal medicine, these ‘adaptogens’ were known as tonics, restoratives, rasayanas (in Ayurvedic practice) and qi (in traditional Chinese practice).
Ginseng is today widely used for a variety of medicinal purposes, and several studies involving animal subjects (and fewer studies involving human subjects) have provided compelling evidence for its efficacy. Aside from its use as an adaptogen, it is also used to enhance libido in both men and women, forms part of many herbal formulations to promote normal erectile function in men, and is often found in natural fertility products too. It appears that the ginsenoside chemicals have a direct action upon the gonad tissue of both men and women, stimulating blood flow to these organs, which results in increased libido, sensitivity and (in men) improved function. Although the precise mechanisms by which the chemicals act are not yet clearly understood, animal studies have consistently shown that consumption of Panax ginseng increases mating behaviour.
Pamax ginseng is usually sold in one of four forms, all of which use the root of the plant. Although the leaves of the plant are sometimes used, the levels of ginsenosides in the leaves are too low to have much effect. Fresh Ginseng is simply the fresh, raw product. White Ginseng is the dried root of the plant, which is harvested after four to six years of growth. Red Ginseng is the steam-cured or boiled root of the plant, which is harvested after six years of growth. Finally, sun Ginseng is white Ginseng that is subsequently boiled at a high temperature (120C), and is thought to contain the highest concentration of ginsenosides.
It is recommended that people who are taking heart medication, or medications for either low or high blood pressure avoid consuming ginseng, as it may interfere with these medications and cause complications. It is also advised that diabetics taking insulin do not take ginseng, as it may have an effect on blood sugar levels. Side effects are reportedly rare, but in some cases ginseng may cause mild nausea, headaches and sleeping difficulties.
Panax ginseng continues to grow in popularity and is being tested in more and more areas of research. It is widely available from health food stores, herbalists and online stores.
By: Dave Jackson
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