Properties and Benefits of Ginseng

While its roots may look like eerie little humans, the ginseng plant (Panax ginseng) ranks high as a favorite medicinal herb worldwide, with China being the largest consumer. The biologically active compounds in ginseng are ginsenosides, saponin terpenes to which the plant owes much of its curative properties. Although ginseng has been attributed a wide variety of health benefits, not all claims are supported by research. For instance, consuming ginseng root will definitely and significantly increase alertness and improve cognitive performance.

Preparations from the plant appear to increase resistance to stress, improve immunity and help us keep up with today’s considerably more active living. Unfortunately, ginseng is not a solution for everyone as it can trigger a series of unpleasant side effects if taken in moderate to high amounts. Common side effects of ginseng include arrhythmia, extrasystoles, palpitations of the heart, but also agitation, irritability, headaches, confusion and difficulty focusing.

Ginseng benefits

What does ginseng look like? The ginseng plant is a green, broad-leaved bush with clusters of bright red berries resembling a sort of flower. Ginseng roots, the most prized parts of the plant, look like distorted little humans of a creamy white or brown, even reddish brown color, depending on the age of the plant, but most importantly on the variety (American, Korean, etc). In most cases you can easily distiguish major body parts such as the legs, torso, arms, neck and a diformed head which will leave you at least impressed, if not simply weird-out.
Ginseng roots, stems, leaves and berries are all edible. There are about 11 varieties of the plant, the most notable of which are: Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), Panax notoginseng (or Notoginseng), Panax vietnamensis (Vietnamese ginseng) and Panax zingiberensis.

What does ginseng taste like? Ginseng roots are bitter-spicy with earthy undertones. Although the flavor is not overwhelming, chewing on a piece of raw root might need some getting used to. The berries don’t have much of a taste as one might expect. Ginseng root can be eaten as such, made into soup, turned into powder and added to tea and other drinks and foods.
Ginseng leaves are dried and used for herbal infusions. The berries can be eaten raw and so can the tender stalks apparently. However, you need to pay close attention to the amount you eat because not everyone can tolerate the plant well, especially in high amounts. Moderately small amounts work best.

What are the benefits of ginseng? When consumed in moderation, ginseng boasts several great health benefits such as:
1) Increases alertness.
2) Improves cognitive performance.
3) Increases stress resistance and improves the body’s natural stress coping mechanisms.
4) Stimulates immunity.

Ginseng

It is a well known fact that taking ginseng regularly has an overall potent revitalizing effect on one’s body, boosting endurance and stamina. As a result of its action, it improves both cognitive performance and resistance to physical effort. Moreover, it would appear that ginsenosides, the natural compounds to which the plant owes its health benefits, help our body deal better with stress, limiting its harmful effects on our health and general well-being.

For this reason, it is considered to be an excellent adaptogen. Some studies also suggest that regular consumption can help delay aging and even stimulate immunity in view of a better response to bacterial and viral infections causing colds and flu. Nevertheless, as stated above, ginseng ought to be taken in moderately small amounts.

Just as important, you need to make sure that what you are getting is actually ginseng. Numerous brands have been shown to add completely different plants, even dirt or synthetical compounds to so-called ginseng supplements. I recommend you go for the root and, if possible, grow it yourself. If climatic conditions or lack of garden space worry you, then keep your ginseng in a pot. Foraging it from the forest can be an alternative, provided you live in an area where ginseng grows naturally and you known exactly how it looks.

What are the side effects and interactions of ginseng consumption?
1) Possible insomnia, irritability and headaches.
2) Diarrhea and other minor gastrointestinal problems such as nausea and vomiting.
3) Hypertension (high blood pressure), tremors, palpitations, extrasystoles.
4) At the opposite pole, hypotension (low blood pressure), blurred vision and fatigue.
5) Lack of appetite, eczema, bruising and bleeding.
6) Mammary gland sensitivity and possible pain.
7) Seizures and severe mental confusion (in case of consumption of large amounts).

The larger the amount consumed, the more dangerous and prominent the side effects. If you experience any of the above mentioned side effects while taking ginseng, interrupt treatment and seek medical help immediately.

Being quite a powerful natural stimulant, ginseng can alter normal heart rhythm and even blood pressure levels and interfere with sleeping cycles and mood. Ginseng also contains phytoestrogens, plant compounds similar to the female hormone estrogen, which is why it may cause hormonal imbalances in more sensitive people with symptoms such as mammary gland pain or sensitivity.

It is recommended that you restrain from eating ginseng if you are prescribed either antidepressant medication or anticoagulants. In the latter case, constant or excessive intake of ginseng can cause bruising and bleeding

Also, pregnant and nursing mothers are advised to avoid ginseng because it may prove harmful for the fetus or newborn baby. In addition to this, the plant may trigger an allergic reaction in some individuals.

Conclusion. As you can see, ginseng is not at all a win-win herb. Despite having several great health benefits, it can do a lot of harm when taken in excessive amounts. If you are lucky enough to be able to enjoy it without suffering the side effects, then good for you. Nonetheless, as with all things, moderation is in order. Use it wisely so you won’t have to experience its side effects.

6 Replies to “Properties and Benefits of Ginseng”

    • Hello, Prof. Bhusari. I believe the English word ‘ginseng’ comes from Chinese.

  1. Some one sold a certain root to me saying it’s a ginseng root. It tasted slightly sweet and not bitter. Could that be a ginseng root?

    • I can’t tell you for sure, John. Normally, ginseng root tastes somewhat bitter, but not excessively and a little spicy, similar to the taste of ginger, I’d say (enough to give you a slight burning sensation in the tongue, but not enough so you can’t chew on pieces of the root for hours). But it also has earthy undertones, which could mean various degrees of a kind of sweetness, a sweetness similar to carrots, but not quite like it.
      And the taste of ginseng and a lot of foods actually is influenced by soil, climate and other growing conditions. So I’m guessing it’s possible for ginseng to taste slightly sweet and not necessarily bitter, but rather earthy, woody, licorice-like or like an aromatic bark which could be interpreted as somewhat sweet.
      Could you tell anything from the way the root looked? And have you had ginseng before so you can compare?
      In any case, I think it’s best to be careful with these things because it’s not that difficult to pass some root for something like ginseng, especially if the root is young or grounded. If you can’t be sure, it’s better to not get it at all. It would be great if you could go to someone actually growing ginseng (a ginseng nursery, maybe) and ask them to help you identify the root, show you how it’s harvested and maybe get a potted ginseng or root for yourself. I think there is no better way to really learn about ginseng. Hope this helps and wishing you lots of health!

    • Hello, Gongdon. To my knowledge, a true ginseng variety growing naturally in India hasn’t been discovered (yet, at least).
      In India you may find a plant similar to ginseng called Indian ginseng or ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Indian ginseng is not a real ginseng variety because it does not belong to the Panax genus. According to its use in the Ayurveda medicinal system, Indian ginseng root has effects primarily on the nervous system, acting like a sedative, but must be employed with great care as it can be a source of side effects. To my knowledge, other parts of the plant (except the root) are not safe for use. According to reports, the root of this plant smells like a horse, which I presume refers to the specific odor of horse hair and skin.

      If you want real ginseng, it’s best to get it online or in health food stores or a health food section in a supermarket. There are also producers that cultivate true ginseng all over the world. Look for ginseng cultivators in the area to see if there are any and get your roots from them. It’s best to always get certified ginseng. Hope this helps and wishing you lots of health!

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