Ginseng: The Legendary Health Benefits of the Herb of Immortality and Strength
Of all the medicinal herbs known to mankind, ginseng is perhaps the most legendary of all – and with good reason: it’s health benefits are truly extraordinary, so much so, in fact, that Chinese emperors once valued the plant more than gold itself.
Widely considered a healing panacea in the ancient system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the root of the ginseng plant has deeply rejuvenating, restorative and strengthening effects that work to elevate the health of all bodily systems: mind, body, spirit and beyond. Though there are three main types of ginseng, Panax, American and Siberian, this article will mainly focus on the Panax variety (also known as Korean or Asian ginseng.)
The Herb of Emperors and Royalty
Discovered nearly 5,000 years ago in the Northern mountain ranges of Manchurian China, it didn’t take long for ginseng root to become wildly popular. After all, those who ate the root regularly found that it quickly improved their health to extraordinary levels and was useful in treating a number of diseases. As panax ginseng became more widely known throughout the country, it earned its spot as the royal health tonic of emperors and the ruling class, who often sent thousands of their best soldiers to forage for it in the wild, a testament to the extreme value they placed on the herb.
After nearly going extinct due to overharvesting in Asia around 300 AD, things settled down as the rest of the world caught on and began growing, cultivating and trading it with China. These days ginseng can be found in virtually every health food store on the planet and is one of the most widely consumed medicinal herbs on the planet – if not the most.
The Health Benefits of Ginseng
But just what, exactly, makes ginseng such an incredible healing plant? Researchers believe that it is in large part due to the plant’s high concentration of medicinal compounds known as ginsenosides, unique plant sterols and saponins that are found abundantly in ginseng root and have a range of borderline miraculous effects on the human mind and body.
The Intelligent Plant: A True Adaptogen
Panax ginseng contains a number of different ginsenosides that have sometimes paradoxical effects, for example, some types of ginsenosides are stimulating while others are calming. While this may seem illogical, it’s actually one of the plant’s greatest benefits – that is, that it is intelligent, or rather adaptogenic, meaning that it works to bring the body into greater balance and harmony. Adaptogenic herbs, of which ginseng is one of the ultimate, have different effects depending on the baseline state of health in that moment. For example, if someone is stressed out and anxious, they will likely find ginseng to be centering and calming; whereas if they are depleted and fatigued, the plant will tend to have more uplifting and energizing properties.
But even beyond this balancing effect, ginseng does have a number of highly specific health benefits that are quite common for those who consume the plant regularly.
Anti-Aging and Longevity
Perhaps the most spectacular health benefit of ginseng is its ability to extend the lifespan of those who take it regularly by generally reducing the incidence of disease in the body, known in the medical community as a reduction in all-cause mortality. In ancient China, Ginseng root was widely used as a longevity tonic by Daoists and emperors seeking immortality.
Today, researchers are testing those historical claims by conducting some fascinating studies on humans. Perhaps the most notable of which is a Korean study started in 1985 with 6,282 subjects aged 55 and over. The group of participants was divided into four groups, male panax ginseng users, male non-ginseng users and the same split for females.
After 18 years of collecting mortality data, some interesting findings emerged. The results showed a significant reduction in all-cause mortality (death by all causes) among males, but not females. However, it wasn’t all bad news for women, as those who regularly used ginseng enjoyed a significant reduction in cancer-specific mortality, which is still quite an impressive health benefit.
Furthermore, studies on mice have shown that ginseng exerts a mitochondrial-protective effect that is known to increase longevity in mammals as a whole. While no studies have been conducted on humans specifically, it is a promising finding that may indicate similar effects in the human body.
Sexual Tonic for Men and Women
If you take ginseng for long enough, often even just once, there is absolutely no denying that it is a powerful sexual tonic, increasing libido, performance and pleasure for both men and women. For men, ginseng’s benefits include boosting libido, increasing pleasure and treating erectile dysfunction, by increasing nitric oxide production similar to prescription medications like Viagra. Panax ginseng has similar benefits for women, most notably increasing libido, pleasure and sensation, also in part due to its oxygenating effects throughout the body.
Improved Mental Performance and Brain Function
Perhaps one of ginseng’s most sought-after health benefits is its effects on mental performance and brain function, which it accomplishes in a number of ways. A number of studies have shown that ginseng root has positive effects on memory, reaction time and learning speed and retention, and many users of the plant report experiences in line with these findings. After all, the plant does tend to increase energy and alertness for many people, which is related to the above health benefits of ginseng.
However, where the benefits of ginseng on brain health really get interesting is when it comes to neuroprotection and preventing and reversing age-related cognitive decline. In a number of animal studies, it has been shown to protect and repair neurons in the brain and nervous system that control a number of important functions throughout the body.
But perhaps most impressively, panax ginseng has been shown to have significant positive effects on Alzheimer’s, in some cases measurably reversing the disease.
One study done among people with Alzheimer’s disease at the Department of Neurology at the Clinical Research Institute in South Korea showed that taking ginseng root daily for 12 weeks improved mental performance significantly. They note that the herb is best taken long-term, as the performance boost tends to decrease when dosage is stopped.
Energy, Endurance and Strength
Perhaps of all ginseng’s many health benefits, increasing energy, endurance and strength is its most legendary. Ginseng has long been a favorite of Olympic athletes, endurance runners and people in high-performance capacities – from high-stress jobs to simply being a parent of one or more children. However, what is great about the kind of energy that ginseng gives is that it is organic in nature compared to stimulants like caffeine. Over time caffeine is depleting to the endocrine system and body because it simply stimulates it to work harder no matter what its current state.
Ginseng root, on the other hand, works to deeply nourish, rejuvenate and revitalize the body at the deepest levels, giving rise to energy and endurance from a place of added strength and endocrine system optimization. Unlike caffeine, most people are able to sleep fine after taking ginseng earlier in the day. The energy it gives also doesn’t make you feel anxious or overstimulated like caffeine and coffee can. Remember that panax ginseng is an Adaptogen, and so it has dual actions, meaning that it provides energy while calming you at the same time. This produces a centered, focused and calm energy that makes many people feel like they are “in the zone” and in high states of flow.
Anti-Stress: Calming and Centering
As mentioned, ginseng is an intelligent plant meaning that it tends to give you more of what you need. Even though many find it to be energizing, if you are stressed out, it can help to calm you down without making you tired or drowsy like other plants, drugs and supplements. Panax ginseng root can help take the edge off while still allowing you to feel alert, aware and dialed in, which is an amazing quality of the plant and part of the reason it has been so popular for millennia. (Note: if this is the effect you are going for you may want to try American ginseng as it is more calming than traditional panax ginseng, more on the different varieties below).
Panax ginseng’s energizing properties are systemic, meaning that they work on a number of different body systems to produce their effects, including your metabolism. Upregulation of the metabolic system typically results in a more robust processing of macronutrients like fats, sugars and carbs, which can reduce the amount of fat the body holds onto. Ginseng has been used as a weight loss aid for centuries, and a few studies have shown that it does increase lipid (fat) metabolism in humans and animals, which confirm its fat-burning properties.
Anti-Inflammatory and Immune System Booster
Multiple studies on humans, human cells and animals have clearly demonstrated that ginseng has some degree of anti-inflammatory ability. In one study, scientists treated human immune cells with different extracts of ginseng. They found that of the nine ginsenosides they identified, seven could selectively inhibit expression of the inflammatory gene CXCL-10. Another study on children with cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy found that Korean red ginseng (which is a specific variety of panax ginseng) has a stabilizing effect of the inflammatory cytokines found in the bloodstream.
Similar effects have been observed in animal studies, where ginseng of various types has shown a significant reduction in inflammatory markers. Furthermore, in-depth studies of ginseng in humans, cell cultures and animals have shown that each type of immune cell function – including macrophages, natural killer cells, T cells, B cells and dendritic cells – can be enhanced to varying degrees by ginseng.
Ginseng has benefits for those who have blood sugar issues as well. Multiple studies have shown that both American and Panax ginseng modulate increases in blood sugar after the consumption of insulin-spiking foods and drinks. In both cases, taking ginseng caused blood sugar levels to remain more stable than in the group of participants who had not taken the herb before consuming glucose-rich foods.
As such, ginseng is being researched for, and sometimes used by, people suffering from diabetes and other blood sugar-related disorders. As always, consult your doctor or naturopath before using ginseng or any herb for these purposes.
The Spiritual and Energetic Properties of Ginseng
While ginseng has an incredible array of physical health benefits, some of its most prized effects are energetic and spiritual in nature.
Qi Tonic: Increasing Life Force Energy
While each type of ginseng (see the descriptions below) has slightly different energetic properties, they do share similar effects as follows: In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Daoist philosophy, ginseng is considered one of the top Qi tonics on the planet, meaning that it works to restore, cultivate and supply Qi energy in the body, mind and spirit. Qi loosely translates to life-force energy, which is a form of subtle energy on which the body and energy bodies run. Qi can be depleted in a number of ways: stress, poor diet and lifestyle, lack of deep breathing, exercise, overexertion, sexual overindulgence and exposure to chemicals and toxins.
According to Chinese medicine and Daoist philosophy, it is this lack of – or imbalance of – Qi which underlies most all disease and dysfunction in the body. Consequently, abundant, balanced and flowing Qi energy, which Ginseng supplies, is believed to be at the root cause of good health, longevity and even superhuman abilities.
Jing and Shen Tonic: Deeply Rejuvenating and Spiritually Expansive
Ginseng also helps to cultivate Jing and Shen energy within the self as well. Jing loosely translates to primordial essence, and you can think of it like a deeper, systemic version of Qi that is not as easily restored. According to acupuncturist Neil Kingham, “Jing is the deepest and most fundamental aspect of our energy. It governs the gradual processes of development and aging. Qi is more of a day-to-day energy, which controls our everyday functioning and overall health, and Shen relates to our mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.”
When a plant or medicine supplies Shen energy it tends to have a balancing, harmonizing and uplifting effect on our emotions, spiritual connection and thoughts, among many other things. While all types of ginseng have effects on these three energies, each variety has subtly different properties.
Panax Ginseng – The primary focus of this article, Panax ginseng (also known as Asian or Korean red ginseng) tends to be more balanced in its effects, with a slight tendency to increase yang Qi. Yang Qi tends to be more energetic, activating and warming; hence, Panax ginseng tends to have this effect more noticeably than some of the other types, although it is still calming to varying degrees as mentioned previously.
American Ginseng – American ginseng is a slightly different species than Panax ginseng but is closely related with very similar effects; however, American ginseng tends to supply more yin Qi than Asian ginseng. Yin Qi has the opposite effect of yang Qi and tends to be calming, relaxing, nourishing and cooling. American ginseng, in that sense, tends to be more calming and centering than Panax or Korean red ginseng. However, it is also slightly energizing as well, but less so than other varieties.
Siberian Ginseng – While Siberian ginseng has many of the same properties as Panax and American ginseng, it is from an entirely different family of plant and has different energetic and medicinal properties. It too is considered one of the world’s top medicinal herbs and adaptogens, but it is not directly related to American or Panax ginseng.
How to Choose a Quality Ginseng Supplement
Like all herbal and natural products, organic and wild-harvested ginseng supplements are typically the best. However, in the case of american, korean red and panax ginseng, where it is grown is quite important as well, especially in terms of its energetic effects. The best ginseng grows in the wild in its native growing regions worldwide.
For Panax ginseng that is near and in the Manchurian and Chang Bai mountain ranges of northeastern China, as well as in various places on the Korean peninsula. Superior quality ginseng will be traditionally grown and harvested in these still pristine regions of Asia, grown in lush natural forests and wildernesses, just as it was thousands of years ago when the plant was first discovered. The ginseng supplements we list below are from these regions and grown according to, and exceeding, these standards of purity and ecological sustainability.
American ginseng, on the other hand, grows wildly in many parts of North America, and quality products are more easily found.
Some final things to remember: Ginseng is a powerful herb, and it’s best to start slowly dosage-wise and work your way up until you are familiar with its effects. As always, consult with your doctor or naturopath if you are pregnant or under medical supervision.
October 29, 2018