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What is Ginseng?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ginseng is a fleshy root, found in Asia and parts of North America. It prefers temperate forests, and many stocks are unfortunately at serious risk, due to overharvesting. The herb has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries, and it has become popular in the West as well. Many Asian markets carry ginseng in a number of forms, and it also appears as an additive in some energy drinks and compounds designed to promote energy and mental acuity.

In order to be considered a true ginseng, a plant must be one of 11 species in the Panax genus. The two most commonly harvested species are P. schinseng, from Manchuria, and P. quinquefolius, the North American ginseng. The common name is derived from renshen, which means “man-shaped root” in Chinese. The roots are deeply forked, and they do indeed resemble little people. Above ground, ginseng has small groups of palmately compound leaves and distinct red berries.

Panax was chosen for the genus in a reference to its widespread use in China for everything from lack of energy to motion sickness, as it means “heal all” in Greek. Ginseng is commonly used as a source of energy, and it does appear to act as a stimulant. It is also believed to have benefits on memory and mental ability, and it has a long historical use as an aphrodisiac. Particularly prurient roots are said to be the most effective for this purpose.

Many people believe that ginseng is an adaptogen, meaning that it helps the body deal with stress, and research on the herb does seem to confirm this. Other studies on it have been inconclusive. Like many herbs, ginseng comes in a variety of strengths, depending on how it is harvested, handled, and processed. As a result, it is difficult to perform a true scientific study of the roots. It certainly has documented side effects, including difficulty sleeping, headaches, irregular blood pressure, and nosebleeds.

There are a number of ways to take ginseng. Some Asian users simply chew on the slightly sweet, licorice flavored roots. It can also be steeped to make tea, or ground into a powder for use in capsules. Most typically, the root is available in dried form, rather than fresh, and the leaves are sometimes available as well, although they do not appear to be as potentially beneficial as the root.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ebint — On May 16, 2012

Yes, I think it's a amazing plant. In China ginseng is also called "the king of herbs" for its medicinal and health care properties of being an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antioxidant and so on.

So we use ginseng. We plant ginseng under GAP guidance, and build a factory to extract and separate the active components from ginseng root. At present, we have sold these natural ingredients (gonsenosides, polysaccharoses) to golbal markets. They are used in pharmaceutical and nutriceutical functions, in food and beverages and cosmetics industries. So trust that it is a good plant.

By anon138771 — On Jan 02, 2011

what is the health risk of ginseng?

By pharmchick78 — On Jul 26, 2010

@Earlyforest -- Besides the side effects mentioned in the article, ginseng is associated with tremors, asthma attacks, heart palpitations and diarrhea.

Ginseng also interacts with medications, particularly anti-coagulants like warfarin.

Those on anti-coagulant medication should be particularly careful when taking ginseng supplements, since ginseng appears to greatly reduce the effects of anti-coagulants.

By EarlyForest — On Jul 26, 2010

Everybody seems to tout the benefits of ginseng, but are there any side effects that people should know about?

By musicshaman — On Jul 26, 2010

Korean red ginseng, which is essentially Panax ginseng that has been heated or dried until it becomes very brittle, has been shown to have a lot of benefits as well.

Besides the traditional ginseng benefits of increased energy and libido, korean red ginseng has also been shown to have anti-cancer components.

Additionally, one study showed that it was beneficial to AIDS sufferers when combined with antiretrovirals.

By sputnik — On Mar 01, 2008

Some recent studies conducted at a university in US have tested the effect of ginseng, the herb that has been used in China for centuries to treat illness and to stay healthy. The result of the study seem to indicate that ginseng has the power to fight breast cancer.

Probably though, it is a good idea to check with a doctor before starting to use this herb.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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