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.
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, 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 distinguish major body parts such as the legs, torso, arms, neck and a deformed head which may leave you either impressed, or feeling uneasy at the sight.
Can you eat ginseng?
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?
When consumed in moderation, ginseng boasts several great health benefits such as:
- Increased alertness
- Improved cognitive performance
- Increased stress resistance – improves the body’s natural stress coping mechanisms
- Stimulates immunity
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 synthetic 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?
Find out below what are the side effects and contraindications of ginseng consumption:
- Possible insomnia, irritability and headaches.
- Diarrhea and other minor gastrointestinal problems such as nausea and vomiting.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure), tremors, palpitations, extrasystoles.
- At the opposite pole, hypotension (low blood pressure), blurred vision and fatigue.
- Lack of appetite, eczema, bruising and bleeding.
- Mammary gland sensitivity and possibly also pain.
- Seizures and severe mental confusion (in case of consumption of large amounts).
- Pregnancy side effects.
- Allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock.
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 refrain from eating ginseng if you have been prescribed either antidepressants or anticoagulants. In the latter case, constant or excessive intake of ginseng can cause bruising and bleeding. Also, pregnant women 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. If you know you are allergic, avoid the plant in all forms and preparations.
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.