Herbs have long been a part of traditional medicine in curing various medical ailments or promoting a generally healthier well-being. Many of these traditional medicines have undergone changes to become revolutionary medical advancements; others remain more or less in their traditional forms and are still used today by people around the globe. Ginseng is one such plant that has largely retained its traditional uses as a medicine. There are many different breeds of ginseng, one of them being the Korean ginseng.
Although the name may suggest otherwise, Korean ginseng does not grow exclusively in Korea. It is known by other names such as Chinese ginseng or Asian ginseng, as its habitat covers areas from the Korean peninsula, China, Japan, and other surrounding Asian regions. However, Korea is considered to be located geographically perfect for the Korean ginseng to grow, therefore it is most prominent there, earning the plant its common name. Korean ginseng grown specifically in Korea is called Goryeo ginseng to distinguish it from its counterparts grown in other Asian regions. Korean ginseng grows to a height of about 60 to 80cm, with a fleshy root that resembles the shape of a human body, earning the plant its nickname “manroot”. They are perennial plants, and can live for longer than 100 years.
Scientifically classified as Panax Schinseng, Korean ginseng is one of the “true” ginseng plants. Ginseng is a generic term in today’s medical world, and encompasses not only plants of the Panax species but other plants who exhibit adaptogenic properties. An adaptogen is an herb that is capable of decreasing stress, fatigue, and other similar conditions. Plants that do not belong to the Panax genus and are thus not truly ginseng include the Siberian ginseng and Crown Prince ginseng. Although they are all referred to as ginseng, those that do not belong to the Panax genus exhibit distinctly different medical functions from true ginseng plants.
For over 5,000 years, Korean ginseng has been used for a variety of remedial purposes. In fact, the genus name Panax is from the Greek word panacea which means “all-heal”, reflecting the plant’s efficacy as curing a wide range of medical ailments. Ginseng root is most typically used, although their leaves are sometimes utilized as well. The root is most commonly available in dried or powdered form, or as liquid extracts. Ginseng teas can also be found, and they are sometimes used as an ingredient in energy drinks although in such cases the composition of ginseng is very minute and likely don’t have medical effects on the consumer.
The main active component of Korean ginseng is the ginsenosides, which are steroid-like chemicals that give ginseng its adaptogenic properties. The presence of ginseosides differentiate the true ginsengs from the other plants that are referred to as ginseng but do not belong to the Panax genus. Ginsenosides have effects on multiple chemical pathways and thus have a large number of uses, including but not limited to:
- Treatment of type II diabetes by decreasing the sugar level in blood.
- Enhancing the immune system and its antioxidant properties.
- Aiding the prevention of cancer.
- Stimulating the production of helper T-cells, which is a type of white blood cell that destroys viral and bacterial molecules.
- Helping with balancing hormone secretion levels of the body’s glands, including the release of endorphins which are the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals.
- Increasing protein synthesis and activity of neurotransmitters in the brain.
- Improving blood circulation in the brain, giving it abilities to aid in memory and cognitive abilities.
- Giving sexual benefits such as enhanced libido, increased sperm count, and treatment for erectile dysfunction.
- Used as treatment for post-menopausal symptoms for women.
- Promoting muscle relaxation.
- Stimulating appetite.
Ginseng also contains panaxtriol, which is structurally similar to anabolic steroids making them an alternative for athletes. Moreover, when combined with other traditional Chinese herbs, ginseng shows radioprotective effects for chemotherapeutic patients.
Side Effects And Other Precautions
One of the most common side effects of ginseng is insomnia, or inability to sleep. Other common side effects include nausea, diarrhea, headaches, bleeding, high or low blood pressure, and breast pain in women. Overdose of ginseng is uncommon, as it safe even in relatively large amounts. However, mild overdose can lead to symptoms such as dryness around the mouth area, psychological effects such as excitation, twitching, and irritability, blurred vision, increased body temperature, decreased appetite, dizziness, itching, and fatigue, in addition to the side effects listed earlier. A more serious overdose may include urinary and bowel inconsistency, fever, decreased heart rate, seizures, and convulsions. Pregnant women are advised against taking ginseng.
Although as earlier mentioned, ginseng can have additional positive effects when combined with other traditional herbs, it should never be combined with antidepressants for those suffering from depression as it can lead to mania, a condition similar to that of bipolar disorder. As with any other medical product, a physician should always be consulted for advice before utilization.
Classifications Of Ginseng
There are a number of classifications of ginseng when it comes to their medicinal uses. Fresh ginseng is the raw product; unprocessed, natural ginseng roots. White ginseng is fresh ginseng that has been peeled and subsequently air-dried in the sun, bleaching the roots to a yellowish-white color. Red ginseng is the most common form of ginseng on the market today. Unlike white ginseng, it is not peeled nor dried straight away; rather, it is first steamed, giving it a reddish-brown color, and only then they are dried. The steaming is believed to prevent the breakdown of the active ingredients such as the ginsenosides. There is also another form of ginseng, the sun ginseng. It is similar to red ginseng but steamed at a higher temperature for a longer period of time. Sun ginseng is believed to have a higher amount of ginsenosides, as the higher steaming temperature stimulates an optimal amount of biological activity that amplifies the ginsenosides.
Korean ginseng products are readily available for purchase in markets of nations where they grow, and for those outside of these areas online distributors of the product are easily come across.