Ginseng is one of around a dozen plants within the genus Panax including Korean or Chinese ginseng which are members of the Araliaceae family. Panax ginsengs are adaptogenic herbs. The Siberian ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus, is not a true ginseng but is also classed as an adaptogen.
The Panax ginsengs are all found in the northern hemisphere.
Chinese Red (Korean) Panax Ginseng
This is the most well-known of all adaptogens. It is used worldwide to increase stamina, beat fatigue, and as a general health tonic. Korean ginseng contains a group of terpenoid compounds called ginsenosides which are believed to be key to ginseng’s activity. Ginseng is known to reduce the levels of stress hormones released during a normal stress response, which can protect against and reverse the negative impact that such hormones have upon our health. Several clinical trials, such as that conducted by Caso et al (1996:323), support this stress management claim. Clinical studies have also shown positive results in improving motor function and mental performance (D’Angelo et al, 1986: 15). It is important to note that ginseng can be extremely stimulating, and may be considered ‘too much’ for those in a highly strung, stressed state.
Panax notoginseng (Tienchi)
Another member of the Panax family, Tienchi is a calming adaptogen. It is well known as an ideal tonic for people who have been going through outbursts of anger, are overworked, and have difficulty expressing frustrations. In modern terms it is considered a useful agent in reducing the inflammatory mediated cardiovascular damage so often seen in those who are consistently experience considerable stress. This is due to the saponins present in tienchi root, which studies have demonstrated can reduce levels of phospholipase A2 (PLA2), which is involved in causing inflammatory damage to the inner lining of blood vessels, which can in turn lead to atherosclerotic lesions in the vessel (Li & Chu 1999: 551). Tienchi is also believed to enhance mental stamina and concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain, increase white blood cell activity, and protect the liver from chemical damage (Ng 2006: 1007).
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
American Ginseng is generally regarded as helpful in immunity and colds and infections with having a role to play in blood sugar balance.
Siberian Ginseng is considered by many to be the ‘Universal adaptogen’, as it seems to suit everyone in almost every situation. It doesn’t stimulate, and it doesn’t sedate. Hailing from Russia, it has been traditionally used for over 4000 years as a general health tonic, to increase appetite and aid memory. It contains a potent group of compounds called eleutherosides which early studies revealed cap the levels of stress hormones released during the stress response (Brekhman & Kirillov, 1969:113).
Siberian ginseng is also renowned for offering considerable support to the immune system – something that always suffers during bouts of stress, as elevated cortisol causes a lowering of white blood cell count. Clinical trials using Siberian ginseng have demonstrated significant increases in total white blood cell count, with T-lymphocytes being the most drastically increased (Bohn et al, 1987:1193).
Siberian ginseng is also known to make cells more sensitive to insulin signalling, so that they pull in glucose much faster and create ATP more effectively. This may be why Siberian ginseng is so energising without being a stimulant.