By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Ginseng is a popular plant in traditional Chinese medicine that grows in various areas of the world, usually in cooler climates. Ginseng is commonly used as a tonic to maintain and support well-being and health.
Ginseng is a type of slow-growing perennial plant that belongs to the genus Panax in the family Araliaceae.The genus name Panax means “all heal” in Greek and shares the same origin as “panacea.” The genus was so named by Linnaes who was familiar with its application as a muscle relaxant in traditional Chinese medicine.
Ginseng has been used in traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Purported benefits include its aphrodisiac effects, improvement of sexual dysfunction in men, and its antihyperglycemic effects when used to treat diabetes. The plant’s reputation for enhancing libido and sexual performance is well known worldwide.
Several types of ginseng exist including Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng). These types of ginseng contain ginsenosides or panaxosides which are steroid glycosides found only in ginseng from the Panax genus.Various other plants are mistaken for ginseng, a common example being Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which instead of containing ginsenosides contains eleutherosides. These are thought by some to boost the immune system and increase muscle strength. However, the true ginseng plants are those that belong to the Panax genus.
White, red and fresh ginseng
Panex ginseng is marketed commercially as red, white or fresh ginseng, as described below.
Native to America, this ginseng has been peeled and air-dried (but not heated). Bleaching by the sun turns the ginseng root a yellow–white colour. Some researchers believe air drying weakens the potency of the ginseng because enzymes contained in the root break down important components of the plant during drying.
Red ginseng has been peeled, steam heated at 100˚C and then dried or sun-dried. A herbal brew is often used to marinate the root which makes it very brittle. This form of ginseng is more common that white ginseng.
This simply refers to the raw ginseng product, which is of limited availability.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Jul 2, 2014