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Panax ginseng

by Evelyn Leigh, HRF Editorial Director

Perhaps the world's best-known herb, Panax ginseng has been used medicinally in Asia for more than 5,000 years. In China, ginseng has been treasured since the dawn of written history, and at times was valued even more highly than gold. Western scientists are now beginning to direct their attention to this magnificent herb. In the western world today, ginseng is commonly considered an "adaptogenic" herb, meaning that it strengthens body functions and the immune system to help people adapt to the effects of physical stress. It is popularly used as a health-enhancing tonic and to increase energy and stamina during physical activity.

Primary uses of Ginseng


Ancient healers in India, Russia, China and Japan all revered ginseng for its medicinal and health-enhancing properties. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ginseng is used for many purposes, including normalizing blood pressure and blood sugar, as a sexual tonic for both men and women, and to strengthen overall health when the body is debilitated.

The botanical name Panax comes from the Greek word panacea, meaning "cure all." The Chinese name for ginseng, ren shen, means "man root" for its characteristic shape that resembles the trunk, arms and legs of a human being. Closely related to Panax ginseng, wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was widely used by Native Americans. Unfortunately, this North American plant is becoming endangered in the wild because of over-collection and habitat loss. American ginseng is now cultivated extensively, and environmentally conscious consumers look to cultivated sources of ginseng products.

Health Benefits of Ginseng

Ginseng is an adaptogen, an herb that can improve the body's overall ability to adapt to and cope with the negative effects of physical and environmental stress. Clinical studies confirm that ginseng can help enhance endurance, reduce fatigue, and improve coordination and reaction time. There is also some evidence that ginseng can boost immune function, helping the body fight off infection during times of stress. In laboratory studies, ginseng has shown potential in protecting liver and heart health, regulating the function of reproductive hormones, normalizing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and improving memory and learning. Studies in humans are needed to investigate the effectiveness of ginseng in these promising areas.

Ginseng is considered "energizing," but has not been shown to stimulate the central nervous system the way coffee does. People taking ginseng often report feelings of improved overall well-being.

State of Knowledge

Clinical (human) research
Laboratory research
History of use / Traditional use
Safety record
International acceptance

Stars indicate level of knowledge on a scale from 0 - 5

Research Findings

Thousands of clinical, laboratory and animal studies have been performed to investigate the actions and chemistry of ginseng. Much of this research has been performed in China, Korea and Japan. The best-documented effects of ginseng in humans are for improving resistance to stress and enhancing mental and physical performance under environmental stress, such as shift work, sleep deprivation, or rigorous athletic training.

Specific Studies:

Clinical Study: In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, 20-week trial involving 28 male athletes between 20 and 30 years of age, a daily dose of 200 mg standardized ginseng extract increased performance significantly by increasing the oxygen transport capacity of the heart and shortening reaction time to visual stimuli (Forgo & Schimert, 1985).

Clinical Study: In this placebo-controlled, double-blind, two-week trial, 12 student nurses working night shifts experienced improvements in mood, feelings of fatigue, and performance after taking unstandardized ginseng extract at a daily dose of 1200 mg per day. (Hallstrom, et al. 1982).

Clinical Study: In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, 12-week trial involving 60 male and 60 female subjects, daily doses of 200 mg of standardized ginseng improved reaction times, pulmonary function and self-assessments of general well-being (Forgo, et al. 1981).

Clinical Study: Daily doses of 200 mg ginseng were associated with improved mood, psycho-physical performance and glucose balance in this placebo-controlled, double-blind, eight-week trial in 36 patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes (Sotaniemi, et al. 1995).

Clinical Study: In a placebo-controlled, double-blind, 10-day trial involving 49 elderly patients, 1500 mg of red ginseng daily significantly improved self-assessments of well-being, reaction time, and psychological coordination (Fulder, et al. 1984).


At recommended doses, ginseng is well tolerated by most people. However, taking large doses of ginseng in combination with stimulants, including caffeine, is not recommended. Ginseng is best avoided by those with high blood pressure or anxiety conditions and during pregnancy.

Using Ginseng

Ginseng root is the part of the plant used medicinally. Today ginseng root is available commercially in a number of forms including dried root, liquid extract, powder, capsule and tablet. Standardized extracts in capsule or tablet form are also available. Standardization ensures that a consistent level of active or marker compounds are present in the extract. Most clinical studies on ginseng have utilized ginseng extract standardized to 4% ginsenosides at a dosage of up to 500 mg/day.

The Asian ginseng most prized by the Chinese is Panax ginseng. Other Asian ginseng species include Japanese ginseng (P. japonicus) and sanchi or tienchi ginseng (P. notoginseng. These plants all have somewhat different properties. Even within the single species Panax ginseng, different traditional preparation methods result in different actions. "Red" Asian ginseng, for example, is steamed and cured, resulting in a product that is considered more stimulating than "white" ginseng..

The officially recommended usage levels, and those used in research studies are:

*Usage recommendations from the German Commission E monographs and the British Herbal Compendium.

Important Note:

Some researchers recommend that ginseng should not be used continuously for periods of time longer than three months. The British Herbal Compendium recommends occasional use or use for a period of one month followed by a rest period of two months.

Taking ginseng is not a substitute for other medical interventions. Many serious medical conditions are not appropriate for self-diagnosis or self-medication and require the supervision of a qualified health care provider. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you are taking. Educate yourself and use caution when practicing self-care.

Recommended Reading

The Healing Power of Ginseng by Paul Bergner. Prima Publishing, 1996
Asian Ginseng by Steven Foster. American Botanical Council, 1990.
The Book of Ginseng by Stephen Fulder. Healing Arts Press, 1993.

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