Ginseng is a highly treasured, potent and versatile herb referred to as the ‘King of tonic herbs’. It has been used as a supplement for energy and vitality, to support cognitive function, to support digestive and immune health, aid in balancing blood sugar levels and cholesterol, and as an aphrodisiac. It is an adaptogen, anti-inflammatory and may contain anti-cancer properties.
Many different species of Ginseng exist all around the world, with 13 different types categorised under the name ‘Panax’; derived from the Greek word ‘panakeia’ - meaning ‘all healing’. The term ‘Ginseng’ originated in China and translates as “man plant” due the quirky, human-like resemblance that the Ginseng root embodies, and may explain the reason herbalists prescribe ginseng as a full-body treatment.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) indicates that by utilising the root of the Ginseng plant, you may increase qi (氣), or energy. In Ayurveda we refer to this as prana - vital life force energy that enters the body via the breath, food and water.
TCM refers to Ginseng as the ‘Tonic herb for Qi deficiency’ when an individual is lacking in one of the ‘Four Treasures’ (Qi, blood, yin and yang), and can help to anchor the mind. Generally, Qi tonics are sweet and enter via the spleen and lungs, as they are the organs most associated with the stimulation of Qi. Ginseng is warm in nature, and can therefore help those with too much ‘cold’ in their body by revitalising the natural heat of the body, and help to harmoniously balance yin and yang.
Due to its bitter taste, Ginseng has a cleansing and detoxifying action on the body, by eradicating heat, drying dampness and encouraging bowel movements and urination. While the sweet nature replenishes the Qi and blood, and the adaptogenic properties bring peace, harmony and balance back to the mind and body. Additionally, Ginseng regulates the urinary system, blood flow, increases overall vitality, reproductive health and is anti ageing.
Siberian Ginseng and Korean Ginseng are the most commonly cultivated and revered - but what’s the difference?
Also known as: Eleuthero, Eleutherococcus Senticosus or Ci Wu Jia 刺五加
Nature: Sweet, slightly sour, warm/heating
Siberian Ginseng is native to southeastern Russia and is a small, woody shrub with a history of traditional use - dating back more than 2,000 years - and translates from Greek as “free-berried”.
It is not a part of the “true” Panax Ginseng family and instead belongs to the Eleutherococcus Genus species. Eleuthero was coined ‘Siberian Ginseng’ due to its similarities to Panax Ginseng. It can be grown and harvested within one year, and as a result is a milder form of the Ginsengs - suitable for all dosha types, including pitta and the elderly.
Siberian Ginseng is an adaptogen which aids in adapting to stress, and retaining balance and harmony within mind and body. It is an immunomodulator and can either stimulate or suppress the immune system - depending on what your body requires - by re-energising depleted adrenal glands.
The medicinal and active ingredients are located in the root of the plant and consist of eleutherosides and polysaccharides. Research suggests that eleutherosides enhance and support the immune system, and increase the production of lymphocytes - your body’s antiviral defence mechanisms against incoming pathogens and bacteria.
The naturally-occurring polysaccharides are associated with supporting the immune system by increasing white blood cell activity, known as macrophages, and consequently help to break down infected cells. Studies suggest that polysaccharides have a powerful anti-diabetic effect and can help to decrease and balance blood sugar levels, as they can stimulate the insulin pathway and increase the uptake of glucose into our cells.
Energy & Endurance
Siberian Ginseng is a rejuvenating tonic herb, or rasayana in Ayurvedic medicine. It has the ability to increase oxygen uptake to the cells, and consequently, is an energy boosting supplement increasing stamina and endurance. The increased oxygenation leads to an increase in blood flow and circulation to the body -especially to the brain- and aids in increasing memory, concentration and cognitive sharpness.
As a replenishing and rasayana herb, Siberian Ginseng is very effective for sexual health - male and female alike. It can help to support a regular and healthy menstrual cycle and tone the uterus, and is often recommended by herbalists to help with infertility.
Also known as: Panax Ginseng, Red Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Asian Ginseng or Ren Shen 人参
Nature: Sweet, slightly sour, warm/heating
Korean Ginseng is also an adaptogen and originates in Korea, utilising the root of the plant where the bioactive compounds are found. Korean Red Ginseng is considered the most potent of the Ginsengs. Consequently, it should be taken early on during the day as it can interrupt sleep, and is best suited for severe fatigue related conditions and as a supplement for low energy. Korean Ginseng’s sweet, sour and heating qualities can help to reduce kapha and provide boundless energy, but increase vata and pitta.
Red Ginseng refers to the ginseng root being harvested after 6-9 years, and utilising the ancient Korean method of steaming between 100-110 degrees for 2-3 hours and then drying. This method creates its familiar reddish/brown appearance, while preserving the bioactive plant compounds. This drying method results in a more potent form of Ginseng, due to the longer duration of harvest and increased amount of ginsenosides.
While White Ginseng is grown for 4-6 years, and then once harvested it is immediately dried in the sun. Korean Ginseng and Chinese Ginseng are synonymous and are both the same plant (Panax Ginseng) - the only difference being the country they are grown in and the harvesting and drying method used.
Research studies suggest that Korean Ginseng may help to improve mental ability and function within the brain, most notably those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It is indicated that the ginsenosides and compound K found within Korean Ginseng comprise of neuroprotective properties which help to prevent and protect the brain against free radical damage. While, the increased uptake of blood glucose by cells enhances performance and reduces mental fatigue and increases energy.
Immune & Metabolic Health
Korean Ginseng contains ginsenosides, glycans, polysaccharides, vitamin A, B vitamins and Zinc - making it an immunity-boosting powerhouse!
Studies suggest that Ginsenoside Rh2 - (a Ginseng saponin) may have anti-cancer properties, while the phytosterols found in Korean/Panax Ginseng may help to reduce blood lipids and high cholesterol. Korean Ginseng can also help to decrease blood glucose levels, and maintain a stable glycaemic index post-meal for type 2 diabetics - due to glycosides.
Korean Ginseng is a powerful rejuvenating tonic for male and female sexual health. Due to it’s potency, Korean Red Ginseng has been found to be particularly effective for treating erectile dysfunction and increasing libido during menopause. Research suggests that this is because of the ginsenosides and B vitamin constituents, as well as the increase in nitric oxide which can improve muscle relaxation and increase blood circulation.
If you are pregnant/breastfeeding or on pharmaceutical medication, we recommend consulting with your health professional before use.
Ginseng is a stimulant and it is recommended to take frequent breaks, as its effects may decrease with extended use. It is best to start with a lower dosage and then increase over time as required. We recommend that you first understand your dosha, and consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner for specialised advice.
To help carry the medicinal properties of Ginseng to deep internal tissues, Ayurveda promotes the use of anupāna when taking your supplements.
Warm water or ginger tea is the best anupāna for vāta.
While water, hot water, honey or pomegranate juice can be used for kapha.
Written by Natalie Poppy Sheehan
Nutritionist (BSc, ANutr) & Ayurvedic Massage Therapist (FHT).