Ginseng has been one of the most highly prized herbs used in ancient China and in various parts of Asia because of its wide range of uses. Believed to be one of nature’s best gifts, ginseng has been used traditionally as a nourishing stimulant, aphrodisiac, and adaptogen, and the people of today still rely greatly on this herb for treating different kinds of health conditions. For more than 5000 years, this perennial plant has been a huge part of Chinese traditional medicine. It derives its English name from ‘renshen’, a Chinese term that means man (ren) and plant (shen).
This is mainly due to the root of this herb significantly resembling the human body, having a head, body, and limbs. With the popularity that ginseng has gained over the years, the West have become familiar with this herb and learned to acknowledge its capacity in enhancing stamina and boosting the body’s resistance to physical and mental stress, though only in the 1800’s was the herb recognized by Westerners. However, ginseng was introduced in around the ninth century in Europe by an Arabian doctor.
Ginseng belongs to the Panax genus, whose name is Greek for ‘all heal’. It shares similar origin to ‘panacea’, a type of medicine believed to treat every kind of disease. Linneaus, the father of modern taxonomy, gave name to this herb because he knew of its muscle relaxing properties in Chinese traditional medicine. American and Asian are the two major types of ginseng, though there are other herbs considered part of this family. American ginseng, based on Chinese medicine, helps in promoting ‘yin’ (cold, shadow, female, negative) energy and removing excess ‘yang’ while putting the body in a relaxed state. Contrariwise, Asian or Panax ginseng is believed to promote ‘yang’ (hot, sunshine, male, positive). This is because in traditional Chinese, those living in colder areas, southern part of the rivers, or northern mountain areas posses strong yang, while those living in hotter places have strong yin, creating a balance between the two. Other types of ginseng include the Panax Vietnamensis, which southernmost ginseng naturally grows in Vietnam, Panax Trifolius, which is also known as Ground Nut and Dwarf ginseng, Panax Notoginseng or the Himalayan ginseng, and Panax Japonicum, which is naturally found in Japan. Siberian ginseng is considered to be among this group but it does not belong in the same genus.
All ginseng types are characterized by ‘ginsenosides’, the active components responsible for their medicinal benefits, except for Siberian ginseng, which contain ‘eleutherosides’. Their benefits, however, are inferior to the two major ginseng types. There are different ways in which ginseng works as an adaptogen, with experts theorizing on varying mechanisms for its many benefits to the body. Ginseng is believed to stimulate younger individuals’ bodies gifted with strong ‘qi’ or ‘vital force’ in Chinese. For older people or those experiencing a certain illness, the herb’s action varies, where it acts as a tonic and provides a restorative effect. Weaker and older people may benefit from its sedative effect. Despite the widespread use of ginseng as an aphrodisiac, the herb is best known to be a stimulant. This is also used by athletes as an herbal tonic and for alleviating physical stress while enhancing their performance. Around their middle ages, people in central and northern China begun taking ginseng and took it as long as they can to allow them to counter the debilitating effects of getting old. This is also taken by those who want to boost their body’s endurance for the long winters.
Major parts of the Western world view ginseng as more of a life-improving herb and not as an herbal medicine. For those who live in environments filled with stress, ginseng could be a great equalizer with its stress-relieving effects physically and mentally. Ginseng is considered a ‘cycle’ herb, which means it should only be taken for a certain period and wait for a several weeks before taking it again. Oftentimes, because of the hopes of experiencing better effects, many people abuse this herb. Ginseng may produce certain side effects and should not be used in this way to avoid its side effects.