Common Names

Ginseng root , Ren-shen
Botanical Name
Panax ginseng
ARALIACEAE - Aralia or Ivy Family

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What is it?

It is the roots that are used in medicine, usually from plants that are at least 4 or 5 years old. Panax Ginseng is a small but long-lived herb with just a single stem and few leaves depending on the age of the plant. The first year of growth Ginseng has only one leaf and three leaflets, by the fourth year it will usually flower for the first time. The flowers are white, and the berries are red. This slow growing and unassuming plant is revered the entire world over by those who know its virtue.




How has it been used?

Panax Ginseng is known as ‘Renshen’ in China, ‘Ninshin’ in Japan and ‘Insam’ in Korea. These names roughly translate to the ‘fountain of youth’. Ginseng has been so revered in these places that the highest quality roots have been worth more than their weight in gold.

Ginseng is widely used in Eastern medicine for people that have sustained a severe loss of ‘energy’ (known as Chi or Qi), through illness or injury. Ginseng is used in this regard to restore strength when people have become physically exhausted or weakened.

Ginseng is also widely used by the elderly of the East. There Is a deep appreciation of the herb’s ability revitalise the life force and offset some of the tiredness and decline of getting old.

Ginseng has remained the most sought after and famous of all herbs in Chinese culture. The use of Ginseng has been recorded since 3000 B.C. though it surely will have been understood and used since even much earlier times.

Rudolph Weiss, MD, writes 'the genus Panax was named after the Greek goddess Panacea, who was said to be able to heal all illnesses. There are a total of eight known Panax species, six do not have any medical relevance and Panax Quinquefolium, i.e. American Ginseng (said to be cooling) is less potent than the Asian Panax Ginseng (a notably warming herb). Ginseng itself is one of the oldest herbal remedies in China, Korea and other East Asian countries, with truly miraculous cures attributed to it. It is said to help a variety of diseases, and is mainly used to preserve vitality to a ripe old age, and to increase the lifespan. Cultivated Ginseng must be allowed to grow for at least seven years to reach a harvestable weight of 60-100gms, it takes 150-200 years for wild Ginseng to reach a comparable weight. The official German Commission E monograph recognises the research on Ginseng proves its effectiveness for exhaustion and convalescence. It can be used to fortify and strengthen patients with exhaustion, weakness, decreased performance and lack of concentration'

Andrew Chevallier writes 'the Ginsenosides (in Ginseng) which are similar in structure to the body's own hormones, can be adapted within the body to tone up deficient hormonal states. Clinical trials support the root's traditional use by men, as they age, to maintain vitality and virility. There is also evidence it helps with both impotence and erectile dysfunction. Research indicates that Ginseng is equally valuable for women and is a useful medicine at menopause and beyond, aiding hot flashes and lowered mood, and improving sexual arousal'

Sharol Tilgner writes 'Ginseng is used to enhance stamina, cognitive function and memory, increase appetite and treat anaemia, general weakness, nervous agitation, forgetfulness and impotence. Panax has been shown to increase the activity of T-lymphocytes and interferon production'

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (BHP) describes the actions of Panax Ginseng as 'thymoleptic ((antidepressant), sedative, demulcent, stomachic, aphrodisiac'. It says it is indicated for 'neurasthenia (tiredness, headache, irritability) neuralgia, insomnia, hypotonia (abnormally low muscle tone) and specifically indicated for 'depressive states associated with sexual inadequacy' The BHP recommends a dose of 1-2 grams or by decoction.

Thomas Bartram writes that the actions of Panax Ginseng include 'enhancing the natural resistance and recuperative powers of the body. Produces opposite effects; i.e. it is both sedative and stimulant; in some it raises, in others it lowers. blood pressure, raises some cholesterol factors while reducing the overall amount in the blood. Heart-tonic, aphrodisiac, old age re-vitaliser, adaptogen.
Bartram suggests uses for it including 'physical weakness, neurasthenia, recovery after surgery, promotes physical and intellectual efficiency. A mood-raiser. Induces a feeling of well-being and stability. For depression, sexual debility and sleeplessness. The sportsperson's remedy, improving running ability and endurance. Increases resistance to excess cold or heat exposure and to a working environment with a noisy background. Lessens side effects of insulin in diabetes. To help the body adapt to a changed environment, e.g. jet-lag. Enhances mental performance in students'
Bartram recommends a dose of half to one gram daily of the powder.


Historical Notes on Panax

Panax Ginseng figured prominently in the first great Chinese herbal (the Pen Tsao Ching; the Classic of Herbs) compiled by the mythological emperor/sage Shen Nung. Here it was recommended for enlightening the mind and increasing wisdom and noted that continued use leads to longevity.

‘Panax’ comes from the Greek word 'Panacea', meaning to 'cure all'.

The word ‘Ginseng’ translates to 'man-essence' because the roots of ginseng often resembles the shape of a man’s body.

Panax Ginseng is not to be confused with Siberian or American Ginseng, those are great herbs in their own right but Panax is in a class of its own. It is the true 'Emperor Ginseng', in many ways the greatest tonic of all Chinese medicine.

Science on Panax Ginseng

There have been a large number of positive clinical trials using Panax Ginseng (in fact there are more than 1400 scientific papers on this one herb!) Nearly all of the trials have used a standardised extract of Panax that has been equivalent to 1 gram of the root per day, a level that is readily achieved in clinical practice. The following snippets are a short selection from the research:

~ Randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled quality of life studies have shown that Panax Ginseng improves well-being under stress, including alertness, relaxation, appetite, fatigue levels, sleep quality, recovery from the common cold and bronchitis and that it significantly reduces blood pressure compared with controls (Wiklund I, Karlberg J, Lund B, Curr Therapuet Res 1994;55(1):32-34)

~ Physical performance and visual and auditory reaction times were significantly increased in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial using Panax Ginseng for 12 weeks in people aged from 22 to 80 years old (Dorling E, Kirchdorfer AM, Ruckert KH, Notabene Med 1980;10(5):241-246)

~ Male athletes significantly increased their aerobic capacity and significantly reduced their blood lactate and heart rate while taking Panax in randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials (Forgo I. Munch Med Wochenschr 1983;125(38):822-824)

~ Panax Ginseng significantly improved cell-mediated immunity function (chemotaxis, phagocytic activity etc.) in a double blind, placebo-controlled study involving healthy volunteers. Significant prevention of influenza and the common cold was demonstrated and the Panax Ginseng group also demonstrated significantly higher antibody levels and natural killer cell activity (Gundling k et al: Altern Ther Health Med 7(3):104, 2001)

~ Panax Ginseng extract improved the immune response in patients with chronic bronchitis in a placebo-controlled trial, and that when taken for prolonged periods (over 4 months) it was shown to significantly increase the immune response; IgM and IgA antibody levels (Scaglione F, Cogo R, Cocuzza C et al. Int J Immunother 1994;10(1):21-24)

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes Panax Ginseng taken for 8 weeks significantly improved patients' fasting blood sugar glucose, mood, vigour, well-being and psychomotor performance (Sotaniemi EA, Haapakoski E, Rautio A. Diabetes Care 1995;18(10)1373-1375)

~ A significant improvement in cerebrovascular circulation was observed in patients with moderate cerebrovascular deficit treated with either Panax Ginseng, the drug hydergine or placebo in a double blind trial that was conducted over a three month period (Quiroga H. Orientacion Med 1982;31(1281):201-202)

~ Erectile function and HDL cholesterol were significantly improved in elderly men with psychogenic impotence treated with Panax Ginseng in a placebo-controlled study over a 2 month time frame (Kim YC, Hong YK, Shin JS et al. KJ Ginseng Sci 1996;20(2):125-132)

~ Sperm count, sperm motility, total testosterone, free testosterone and dihydrotestosterone rose significantly in men with unexplained low sperm count and low sperm counts due to variocele over a three month treatment course with Panax Ginseng (Salvati G, Genovesi G, Marcellini L et al. Panminerva Med 1996;38(4):229-254)

~ In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study postmenopausal women reported significant improvement in quality of life measures including depression and well-being. Panax Ginseng improved psychological test scores in post-menopausal women with symptoms of fatigue, insomnia and depression when compared with baseline values. The improvement was at least partly the result of an anti-stress effect as demonstrated by a decrease in the DHEA ratio (Wiklund IK et al: Int J Clin Pharmacol Res 19(3):89-99,1999)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of nearly 400 further studies and articles on Panax are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Panax Ginseng

Ginseng is not for everyone; for some people it will be too 'heating' which may be felt as an increase in agitation or irritability. In practice I am more likely to use it for a 'cool' constitution rather than a 'hot' natured temperament, unless they have gone into significant decline in their natural vitality (the subject of constitutions is introduced further at the bottom of this page)

Ginseng is one of the most revered herbs on earth for the elderly, and at least in part because of that, it has been categorised as a herb not well suited for younger people, I agree that it would be a poor fit for a typically high-energy child, one who doesn't much feel the cold and is already getting plenty of stimulation. However, note that It has been widely used in the Orient for the young when there is a need to stimulate growth or assist with challenging times (such as in exams) and I am sure that it can be safely taken by a younger person who actually needs its unique tonic properties.

Ginseng is unlikely to be used in pregnancy, not because it would be expected to do harm to the mother or the baby or because there have been any adverse events reported, but because it can have such deep effects on the hormonal system and we all just prefer to play it safe at such times.

Ginseng may not so well suit a woman of a hotter constitution who is suffering from excess sweating and overheating during the perimenopause, but this is not a hard rule. Given how deeply Panax Ginseng can nourish the adrenal glands and given how much it is the level of adrenal health that can determine how well a woman navigates the menopause, it can have a place here in any constitution and has certainly been seen to be of real help, especially when used over several months. As one of the above science snippets attests, there is no doubt that it can be of much help to a woman who is struggling with the menopausal change and who needs the sure adrenal support of Ginseng to help rebalance their hormones...

I have often used Ginseng as part of a morning regimen for people who are not sleeping well, who are agitated, stressed, hypertensive, wound-up too tight etc. From repeated observation of safe and effective use, I reject the caution in some quarters that Ginseng cannot be used for a person who is overly tense and stressed, in fact quite the opposite, I see that it can be of great aid in helping them regain their health, especially if some counterbalancing relaxing herbs are being taken later in the day or at night-time, and other necessary measures are being taken to address and reduce the stress.

General comment on herbal safety

All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm. The old maxim 'the poison is in the dose' precisely describes how too much of anything can be bad for us. The ancient rule to 'firstly, do no harm is, to this day, held as the core directive by all practitioners of traditional herbal medicine. Not only are we careful to do our best to use the right herbs, but equally we take care to not give too much of them or use them overlong.

For some years now, against this proven and safe way of herbalism, there has been a rising tide of excessive caution and scare-mongering in many parts of the world. The same authorities that, not so long ago, decried herbal medicines as ineffectual, have now taken up a different adversarial position; that they are dangerous substances that should only be prescribed by Doctors, who of course have zero training in them.

Lists of '10 popular herbs and why you should avoid them' include things like Garlic and Ginger that might 'thin your blood'. Such cautions are absurd to the point of the ridiculous, but fear is a universal driver that has long been proven to be effective at manipulating people.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry has crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb's constituents to use an all too common example.

I wonder sometimes if the writers of such articles feel that the herb will be more deserving of respect if it is thought to be a little bit dangerous, in other words more like a drug than something that has simply come out of the earth and been used by ordinary people for generations beyond count.

There is just so much misinformation about herbal medicine on the internet now. Ludicrous claims and cautions abound in equal measure; it seems like one group are trying to make money out of the public whilst the other are busily trying to scare them off.

I have to believe that the kind of reader who takes the time to read pages on herbs that are as extensive as this one is much less likely to be swayed by marketers or misinformers. I hope that you will keep your wits about you if you get conflicting opinions from people who have never really got to know these herbs, who have never worked with them, or learned how to use them safely and effectively.

I want to remind you that the reason that herbs can never be patented and owned by any individual or corporation is because they are, and always will be, the People's medicine. They belong to all of us and it is my great hope in sharing this work that you will learn how to use them wisely for yourself, and the people you care for. Be safe, but do not be afraid.


Personal experiences

I use a very great deal of Panax Ginseng in my work and consider it to be one of the most versatile and powerful of all the tools that Nature has given us to help with the all-too-common fatigue that can insinuate itself into every nook and cranny of life.

I know that there are literally hundreds of Ginseng products in the herbal market-place. Many of them will no doubt be of good quality, but it is a sad fact that, given the considerable expense of this particular medicine, far too many contain adulterated or poor quality root (this has been proven in consumer studies on a number of occasions). For this reason, we get all of our Panax Ginseng root from a highly reputable and certified supplier and we make our own medicines from it here in the clinic.

If you don't already know this, you may need to know that we do not sell any products commercially or online, that is not what this site is about, I mention this because I would similarly encourage anyone wanting to be sure they are getting the right stuff to get in contact with a herbalist or specialist herbal supplier. I use some liquid Panax Ginseng as an extract, I sometimes give it as a powder to make into a slurry, but by far my main use of Ginseng is in capsule form which we get made up for our clinic where it is combined with another of the greatest of all tonic herbs; Withania root.

The action, the 'energy' of Ginseng is really quite extraordinary, and I well understand why it is so revered in Eastern medicine as it nourishes at such a deep cellular level. Many people start to feel a benefit from it after just a few days, but I nearly always like to give quite a long course of Ginseng to my patients. Once the patient gets the rhythm of taking a daily dose they rarely want to stop, at least for a while, as it so reliably improves their energy and sense of well-being.

I usually advise my patients to use Ginseng for about 3 months, and longer if they feel they need it, and then I usually advise them that, once the 3 months are up or if they feel they have been on it for long enough, to then let it run out and allow their body to take a break from it. Eventually, for most people, when they have taken as much as they need, there will be no palpable effects when the Ginseng is stopped, it is not addictive, and it has no constituents within it that create any kind of dependency in any part of the body.

I have noted in some of my patients who take Ginseng that, if they still need its support, then usually within a few days, or a week at most, they report that they keenly feel its absence. It has been striking how this is clearly not an uncertain, wishy-washy matter for them. They either miss it at a physical, notable level, or they don't. Perhaps as much as another 'season' i.e. another 3 months may be required, that's ok, they can always try again later, to stop and see if they still need it.

My patients are assured that that they are welcome to use for it as long as they like and to trust their own body to guide them in this matter. In keeping with its traditional use, I also recognise that if a person has become old enough, or unwell enough, they may prefer to just keep using it, that's ok too.

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or just want to know this plant ally at a much deeper level for your own reasons then I warmly encourage you to take a dose of Panax in the form of its tincture, a strong tea or a half tsp of its powder mixed in water and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. This ancient method of 'experiential' learning can give an appreciation of the 'action' of the remedy that no amount of academic learning can reach. You will have to try this for yourself if you are open to making the experiment but, speaking from personal experience and having done this with students and colleagues, I can say that the 'feeling' of this root medicine is sure and deep. It is truly a great ally to the tense, the tired, and the aged.

Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here

Panax combines perfectly with other great tonics such as Withania root, Licorice root, Hawthorn and Echinacea.


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Panax Ginseng is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

Part of the reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This useful and rather fascinating subject is introduced further here

Another big part of using the right herb when it is most needed comes from understanding the need to treat what is going wrong for the person that had led up to their getting a health condition. In this light, Panax can particularly offer its benefits when a nourishment is needed in the 'cycle of healing' , more about this here

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd