Panax ginseng is an ancient Chinese herb that is popular both in the West and China, and for good reason. It was originally used for all manner of conditions, though it is now, in western herbalism, used for two primary issues. These are stress and aging, and their plethora of related concerns.
It would certainly be a mistake to dismiss ginseng because of the fact that it can treat a wide range of conditions, some of which seem to be physiologically opposite. Whilst for many remedies this is an indicator that its’ benefits are over exaggerated, in the case of ginseng there is actually a biochemical explanation of why this may be occurring. One important consideration is that there are many types of ginseng, and panax is only one. By exploring these issues, consumers will be more equipped to deal with the many products on the market.
Ginseng is something of an umbrella term in that there are 5 species that are used medicinally all known popularly by that name. However, these plants are all quite unique, and one of them is not even a true ginseng!
There is the plant known simply as Panax ginseng, which this article is about. But there are also other panax species – American ginseng (panax quinquefolium), a species found wild in China (panax pseudo-ginseng of the variety notoginseng), and Japanese ginseng (panax pseudo-ginseng of the variety japonicus). In addition, we have the botanical ‘imposter’, Siberian ginseng. Siberian ginseng actually has some great medicinal qualities, and is recommended in some cases where the original panax cannot be used – but it is not a true ginseng. Its’ botanical name is actually Eleutherococcus senticosus.
To illustrate the differences between them, we only have to look at the effect of some of the active constituents. By having varying concentrations of even one sub-group of active principles, two of these plants have quite a different emphasis (and therefore use).
The active constituents in question are called triterpenoid saponins. These saponins are actually divided into two groups. One of these groups has a more stimulating effect, and the other a more sedative effect. It should be pointed out that when I write ‘sedative’, I don’t mean so in the way that some herbs like valerian are described as sedatives. It’s a relative effect, in that all of these panax plants still have some of each type of saponin. The effects just balance each other out. Some plants have a stronger stimulatory effect because they have more of those stimulating saponins. Yet the other plants do have stimulating saponins, just in smaller quantities. Thus, these plants are still stimulating, only less so, and in a different way.
These active principles, the saponins, are actually what helps the body deal better with whatever is causing stress. That might be work related stress, stress from school, illness, over-exertion or strong physical training, extremes in temperature, or psychological stress.
The saponins are very similar to our own steroid hormones. Steroid hormones are involved in the fight or flight response associated with stress. It is believed that because of this similarity, panax ginseng has a regulatory effect on our hormonal system, although scientists are not sure of the exact mechanism. And it is for this reason that panax ginseng is called an adaptogen in Western herbalism.
Panax ginseng is a very effective herb, though there are a few instances it shouldn’t be used. However, for most people it is an excellent resource during stressful times, and can really improve the quality of life in the elderly. Depending on the type of problem being addressed, some species are better than others. And despite not being an official ginseng plant, Eleutherococcus still has a lot of important applications. It just becomes a case of understanding the differences in each type to use it effectively.
By: Rebecca Prescott
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