Ginseng is the root of two different herbs from opposite sides of the world, American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng). American ginseng is wild-harvested and grown in eastern North America. Asian ginseng, which includes both Korean and Chinese ginseng, is cultivated in China, Korea, and Japan. Ginseng is a herbaceous perennial. It has fleshy roots with the texture of a parsnip, branched with root hairs and up to 30cm long. The stem has whorled leaves, which are leaves that are arranged in a circle around the stem. Each leaf on a mature plant has five leaflets.
Panax ginseng has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years as a tonic indicated for its beneficial effects on the central nervous system, protection from stress ulcers, increase of gastrointestinal motility, anti-fatigue action, enhancement of sexual function and acceleration of metabolism. Siberian ginseng did not really come into the picture as a botanical remedy until the 20th century. Found in the northern regions of the former Soviet Union, the roots of Eleutherococcus senticosus were sought out as a cheaper substitute for the expensive Oriental ginsengs. Soviet researchers found Siberian ginseng to be an excellent tonic to enhance athletic performance as well as to strengthen the body during times of stress. Modern herbalists consider Siberian ginseng to be a more neutral, less stimulating adaptogen than its cousin, Panax ginseng. Several other "ginsengs" are used as adaptogenic tonics throughout the world; among them are Panax quinquefolium (also known as American ginseng) and Ashwagandha, sometime called Indian ginseng, (although not a true ginseng). American ginseng is the most similar to "true" ginseng and is actually prized in the Orient where it is thought to provide a "cooler" invigoration than the native ginsengs.
Ginseng is often called an "adaptogen," because it bolsters the body's ability to resist physical and mental stress. As such, ginseng may reduce fatigue, and promote physical endurance. Ginseng also works like a tonic, protecting the body against disease. Along with increasing resistance to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and various infections, the medical literature on ginseng claims that it can improve memory, increase fertility, protect the liver against many toxins, and protect the body from radiation.
The active chemicals in ginseng are called ginsenosides, and many of these are known to have specific effects on the immune, hormonal, cardiovascular, and central nervous systems. How exactly ginseng exerts its effects is unclear, although several ginsenosides have been found to either stimulate or depress the activity of the central nervous system. Many ginsenosides are antioxidant compounds that protect cells. In general, most of the top-quality ginseng products, whether whole root or extract, are standardized for ginsenoside content. The active components in Siberian ginseng are considered to be eleutherosides. It has been theorized that ginseng’s action in the body is due to its stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis to secrete adrenal corticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH has the ability to bind directly to brain cells and can affect a variety of behaviors in the body. These behaviors might include motivation, vitality, performance and arousal.
Ginseng, whether Siberian, Panax, or one of the other varieties, is termed an adaptogen. An adaptogen is defined as a therapeutic and restorative tonic generally considered to produce a “balancing” effect on the body. The properties required of a substance to fulfill this definition are that the substance should be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, that the action be non-specific in that it increases resistance to a wide range of factors (including physical, chemical and biological factors), and that the substance should possess a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological changes. In general, an adaptogen can be thought of as a substance that helps the body to deal with stress.