Few herbs are as highly prized as ginseng. Wars were fought over it in China, where it has been used for 8,000 years. Today, a single root of wild Panax ginseng can command as much as $50,000. Of many ginseng variants, three are in common use. Asian/Korean ginseng (P. ginseng) and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) are considered “true” ginseng, while Siberian/Russian ginseng is a more distant relative. The two Panax varieties may be white (the dried, unprocessed root) or red (the steamed, heat-dried root, thought to be pharmacologically more active). The uses of all three are primarily based on ginseng’s reputation as an “adaptogen” that boosts immunity and enhances physical and mental performance.
How Ginseng Works
Now widely cultivated, ginseng has been the subject of thousands of studies. The active constituents in the two Panax types are called ginsenosides, which act on the central nervous system. Research suggests that American and Asian ginseng boost the production of protective antibodies that help the body resist infections such as flu, the common cold, and other respiratory illnesses; Asian ginseng may also offer some protection against cancer and speed recovery after treatment. Siberian ginseng, which can help combat flu and herpes viral infections, contains substances known as eleuthorosides that stimulate the immune system, encouraging the body to produce protective T-cells.
Various studies show that ginseng may boost memory and concentration and combat fatigue. Two specific ginsenosides—Rb1 and Rg1—are thought to be responsible for improving cognitive function. Ginsenosides may also combat male impotence by reducing blood levels of the protein prolactin, which can cause erectile dysfunction. Asian ginseng appears to increase sperm levels and motility, as well as boosting sex drive; Korean red ginseng may also boost sexual arousal in women.
How to Use Ginseng
Many different types of ginseng are available in whole root, extract, powder, tablet and capsule form. You can also buy ginseng tea. Check to ensure you have the desired herb and follow label instructions or take as professionally prescribed.
Though considered generally safe, Panax ginseng may interact with diabetes medications, antidepressants and the blood thinner warfarin, and may enhance the effects of flu vaccines. Ginseng has not been widely tested during pregnancy or breastfeeding so it is best avoided or used only under medical supervision during these periods.
Where to Find Ginseng
Varieties of ginseng are available in health food stores, some pharmacies or from a qualified herbalist.
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