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Botanical Description & Habitat

Panax ginseng


Common names
Asiatic ginger
Chinese ginseng

Ginseng, Asian (Panax ginseng) also including Korean Red Ginseng, which is processed, making the root red and giving it a bit differing properties from the unprocessed yellowish-white ginseng root

Ginseng, American (Panax quinquefolius) 95% of domestic production is exported (c. 100,000 lbs in 1980).

The dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) is also American.

Ginseng, "Siberian" (Eleutherococcus senticosus) - better to call this Eleuthero, as it isn't a true ginseng.

Ginseng, "Brazilian" (Pfaffia paniculata) - better to call this Suma, as it isn't a true ginseng.

Ginseng, "Indian" (Withania somnifera) - better called Ashwagandha, as it isn't a true ginseng

While not all of these are ginsengs, they are all adaptogens.

Indigenous to the mountain forests of Asia from Nepal to Manchuria, and is cultivated primarily in Korea.

Has a perennial root which annually produces a smooth, round stem reaching one foot in height. The stem terminates by dividing into two to three stalked compound leaves which consist of five to seven petiolate, oblong-ovate, serrate leaflets.

A solitary, simple umbel of greenish-yellow flowers grows from the top of the stem blooming from June to August. The fruit is a red, kidney-shaped berry.

Medicinal parts
Root - dried or fresh

Historical Properties & Uses

Ginseng possesses some powerful and seemingly contradictory effects. For instance, under certain conditions the herb can lower blood pressure, but under other conditions, it can elevate pressure. Other characteristics of ginseng will appear in unhealthy organisms, but will be absent in normal, healthy organisms.

These apparently inconsistent findings have led researchers to the hypothesis the guiding principle behind ginseng's action is to "restore normalcy" to organisms, and to resist any change from the condition of overall health (such as infection). Thus the organism's ability to "adapt" to environmental changes is increased. Any herb or other agent that increases an organism's ability to adapt is called an "adaptogen," and this possible explanation of ginseng's properties is known as the "adaptogen hypothesis."

Russian researchers, who originated the term, have used the qualities of Panax ginseng and related Siberian ginseng to define the characteristics of an adaptogen, but such a definition excludes many herbs and other substances whose properties do not exactly match those of the ginsengs. Echinacea, for example, has a powerful ability to build resistance to infection, and many of the so-called alteratives likewise contribute to the adapting ability of animals and humans.

As an explanation of ginseng's activity, Hans Selye's model of stress adaptation is not so restrictive. His model pre-dates the adaptogen hypothesis; it concerns the relationship between the nervous system and the glands of the body, and the way these interact with environmental, nutritional, and physiological stresses. The model holds any substance, including ginseng, affecting those interrelationships will ultimately affect the immune system and the body's ability to deal with stress in either a positive or negative manner.

Further adaptogens are for example:

Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
Rose root, gold root (Rhodiola rosea or Sedum rosea)
Maral root (Leuzea rhaponticum or L. carthamoides, or Rhaponticum carthamoides), a Russian plant - you use the root and/or seeds.

Ginseng affects the body in very positive manner. The herb works on the central nervous system directly, affecting its ability to increase output or to acquire equilibrium when in a state of tension. It stabilizes uncontrolled reactions in the blood, such as sugar levels. It constricts or dilates vessels in the direction of normalcy. Analgesic, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory action occur when needed. The herb can either thin the blood or increase its clotting ability, depending on circumstances.

Visible effects of the herb include increased learning ability, resistance to infection, and endurance. Resistance to and recovery from many types of poisoning are enhanced. As a tonic for the whole body, ginseng species are among the best.

Some of the most important and promising studies presently being conducted with ginseng are those investigating its effect on the aging process. Though not all results are in, preliminary findings indicate regular use of small amounts of ginseng can increase lifespan. Use of the herb as an aphrodisiac may even have an effect, although such actions are often exaggerated.

Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero) has approval status by the German Commission E.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.

Method of Action

The various components of ginseng have been shown to possess a wide spectrum of effects, some of which are contradictory. The following lists of effects were compiled from research literature on general pharmacological evaluations of ginseng in mice, rats and guinea pigs.

The physiological or behavioral effects are listed for the specific ginseng extracts obtained at each step in the extraction process, both for water and alcohol (or ether):

Water Soluble Extracts
First step: slight central nervous system stimulant, cholinergic, histaminergic (blood vessel dilation), serotonergic (vasoconstrictor), and blood pressure elevation.

Next step: all of the above, and papaverine-like action (antispasmodic, smooth muscle relaxing).

Alcohol Soluble Extracts
First step: central nervous system depressant, cholinergic, histaminergic, ganglion stimulant, and blood pressure elevation.

Second step: All of the above, and papaverine-like action.

Third step: serotonergic.

Fourth step: tranquilizing, blood pressure lowering, analgesic, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory.

Generally, water soluble components have a slight CNS stimulant action which the alcohol components lack. However, the alcohol extracts exhibit tranquilizing effects, lowered blood pressure, analgesic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory properties not shared by the water soluble extracts.

The following is a more detailed breakdown of effects:

Fraction G No. 3: central nervous system depressant, cholinergic, histaminergic, serotonergic, and blood pressure elevation.

Fraction G No. 4: slight central nervous system stimulant, central nervous system depressant, histaminergic, serotonergic, and blood pressure elevation.

Fraction (I-V): hemolytic.

Fraction (VI-VIII): anti-hemolytic.

Fraction III: increases nuclear and cytoplasmic RNA and RNA polymerase, and increases rate of serum protein synthesis.

The following is a breakdown by specific saponin:

Ginsengoside-Rb1 (alcohol soluble extract; ginsengoside-Rb2 and -Rc can generally also be included): central nervous system depressant, tranquilizing, blood pressure lowering, analgesic, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, facilitate small intestine motility, protect against effects of stress on ulcer formation, papaverine-like, increase synthesis of hepatic cholesterol, and increase RNA activity in rat liver.

Ginsengoside-Ro (alcohol extracts; Fraction I): central nervous system depressant, blood pressure elevating, analgesic, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory and extremely hemolytic when injected intravenously.

Ginsengoside-Rg1 (water soluble; ginsengoside-Rg2 and -Rf can also be included): slight central nervous system stimulant, blood pressure elevating, anti-fatigue, and stimulates DNA, protein, and lipid synthesis in bone marrow (this effect occurs with -Rc and -Rb2 also).

Ginsengoside-F (extracts from ginseng leaves and foliage): lower blood pressure (in low doses), raise blood pressure (in high doses), hemolytic, central nervous system depressant, tranquilizing, analgesic, cholinergic, histaminergic, and papaverine-like.

Panaxoside C: stimulant (genin = panaxatriol).

The CNS depressant action is found in all saponins of ginseng except ginsengoside-Rg1, and is particularly strong in ginsenoside-Rb1 which belongs to the panaxadiol type saponin. Rb1 has remarkable sedative and tranquilizing action.

It may be noted American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) has much higher quantities of panaxadiol saponins than does Panax ginseng, and might therefore be expected to possess much greater sedative effects.

Ginsengoside-Rg1, with its mild stimulating action, increased the ability of rats to learn a Y-maze. Caffeine, another stimulant, also increases the ability of rats to learn this maze, but in a slightly different manner. Whereas caffeine increases running time, indicating increased nervous behavior, the ginseng saponin significantly shortened running time, meaning the animal was able to go straight to the end of the maze without wasted energy.

G No. 3 from the ginsengoside Rb series was found to have central nervous system depressant activity, whereas G No. 4 and ginsengoside Rg series had stimulant and anti-fatigue activity.

Some studies indicate the whole plant may not act in the same manner as any particular constituent. Some constituents may cancel others out, or may act in concert to produce some entirely different and new effect.

One study found whole ginseng in small amounts (2.5-5.0 mg/kg) increased general activity, but in large doses (50 or more mg/kg) decreased activity.

Whole ginseng has no hemolytic activity, but half of the active constituents of ginseng are hemolytic; the other half are anti-hemoltyic. Other constituents have been shown to increase RNA activity of rat liver (Rb saponins), while others (Rc saponins) decrease RNA incorporation.

The following is a list of pharmacological results reported by Soviet researchers. Since it is unclear what kind of extracts, fractions or saponins were used to obtain these results, the results are presented without such information:

intensification of inner inhibitory effects in the cortex
transitory and slight hypotensive effects
carbohydrate sparing effect
enhanced resynthesis of glycogen and high energy phosphate compounds
increased body weight
restoration of blood albumin after massive bleeding
stimulation of immune body production
increased physical and mental efficiency in man
increased endurance of white mice in water swimming and rope climbing tasks
radio-protective action
increased life span in rates with alloxan-induced diabetes
impeded hypertrophy and atropy of adrenals
reduced sugar level in hyperglycemia and increased sugar level in insulin-induced hypoglycemia
normalization of both leucocytosis and leucopenia
normalization of both erythrocytosis and erythropenia
produces an anti-alarm reaction to stress
stimulated growth of yeast cells
protozoan and bacteria
anti-radical and antioxidant effects (important in aging process)

One of the earliest modern experiments with ginseng involved putting it into the mouth of one of two men chosen on the basis of similar physical characteristics. The men both ran a certain distance. The one without the ginseng showed shortness of breath and the other felt relatively easy.

Ginseng saponins of the Rg group reportedly have true stimulating effects on the central nervous system, and certain of the combinations of fraction IV may have possible CNS action, but here, the effect has been reported to be metabolic in nature rather than neural excitatory.

In one study, lethal doses of ginsenosides -Rb1, -Rb2, and Rc decreased alertness and grooming behavior in mice, lowered body temperature, reduced spontaneous movement, abolished touch responses, pain responses, and relaxed muscle tone before death. Decreases in spontaneous and exploratory movement were induced by small doses. The same substances in other studies were shown to have tranquilizing and papaverine effects.

Ginseng has been shown to increase the rate of synthesis of RNA in the nucleus and cytoplasm of rat liver cells. It also causes a rise of 46-49% in the synthesis of protein in the blood, especially albumin and gamma-globulin. A single injection of certain saponins was also shown to increase the activity of a substance which helps produce RNA. Also, the increase of amino acid incorporation within the liver was 85% more active than in control animals.

Changes in the liver induced by ginseng have been shown to enhance the synthesis of cholesterol. Particularly active was -Rb1, the most predominant of ginseng saponins. This saponin also increased the breakdown of cholesterol into other steroids. An increased rate of excretion of cholesterol was observed in bile and feces. Ginseng has also been found to increase incorporation in the liver, of fats coupled by a slight decrease in blood sugar level. The investigators suggest ginseng acts by increasing the conversion rate of sugars into the necessary substrates for the synthesis of fatty acids (lipogenesis).

Other researchers found ginseng-extract-treated rat liver produced an increase over control animals in the incorporation of radioactive labeled precursors into nuclear and cytoplasmic RNA and DNA-dependent RNA polymerase activity. Administration of ginseng extract directly into the stomach caused on increase in the ratio of serum protein creation such as albumin and gamma- globulin. Endoplasmic reticulum (the part of the cell most involved in these metabolic changes) was increased after four weeks, as seen by electron microscope.

Physiological changes due to stress seem to be mediated, prevented, and reversed by the action of ginseng. Mixed ginseng inhibited major changes in the weight of mouse adrenals, thymus, spleen and thyroid as compared to controls.

Ginseng has been shown to significantly improve an animal's ability to tolerate temperature stress, but when the adrenals were removed, the effect vanishes. Ginseng also decreased oxygen consumption and has anti-fatigue properties, as assessed by swimming endurance tests. The adaptive mechanism of the body appears to be enhance by ginseng, as shown in the above studies as well as in experiments in which the weight of the adrenals, the ascorbic acid content of the adrenals (normally depleted during stress) and the cholesterol content were used as measurements of stress.

In experiments using ascorbic acid content of the adrenals of male albino rats as the measure of stress reaction, the greater the stress, the less ascorbic acid that is found on autopsy. Using heat and cold as stressors, it has been found ginseng alone did not significantly change the rate of depletion of ascorbic acid, but in the presence of the heat or cold stress, the herb initially helped deplete all ascorbic acid and then greatly helped to restore ascorbic acid in the adrenals. In another experiment, in hyophysealectomized rats, similar results were obtained, demonstrating the site of action of the ginseng extract was the adrenals themselves. This line of research invalidates the theory ginseng affects the stress reaction by influencing the central nervous system.

Similar conclusions were reached in a study in intraperitoneal administration of saponins were found to delete cyclic AMP in a dose dependent manner, and increase plasma 11--hydroxy corticosteroid in intact rats; but, in hypophysectomized rats, saponin treatment did not increase adrenal cyclic AMP whereas corticotrophin treatment did. It was therefore concluded ginseng saponin indirectly stimulated the adrenocortical function in intact rats.

Finally, when ginseng saponin mixture was administered to rats intraperitoneally, plasma ACTH and corticosterone increased significantly. The kinetic pattern of the increase in plasma ACTH was almost parallel to plasma corticosterone. Isolated ginsenoside, protopanaxadiol or protopanaxatriol glycoside increased plasma corticosterone. The ginseng-induced increase was suppressed by pretreatment with dexamethasone. Thus the ginseng saponin was found to act on the hypothalamus and/or hypophysis primarily, and stimulated ACTH secretion which resulted in increased synthesis of corticosterone in the adrenal cortex. This finding, and (HIA3), seem to contradict the results of (KIM2) who found a direct action on the adrenals.

Ginseng is reported to facilitate healing, and has anti-inflammatory effects, as well as prevents an increase in white blood cells in the circulatory system; it is also antipyretic. Studies with patients with stomach and duodenum ulcers have shown faster recovery after stomach operations if given ginseng.

Increasing concentrations of panax ginseng caused a dose-related inhibition of phytohaemagglutinin-induced transformation of peripheral blood lymphocytes in 4 normal health adult volunteers. A combination of ginseng and hydrocortisone produced a greater suppression than either drug alone. This suggests panax ginseng has a steroid-like effect in vitro, and may have a potentiating effect with hydrocortisone on T-cell-mediated immunity.

Two of the saponin glycosides isolated from the methanol extract were found to have delayed and prolonged anti-inflammatory properties based on albumin stabilizing activity and carrageenin edema tests in rats.

The following are further research findings on ginseng, not so well investigated as preceding observations:

Brain wave pattern (EEG) of rabbits was activated in the sensorimotor and occipital regions by doses of 0.05 to 2,0 ml/kg of ginseng extract.

There is evidence to support the theory ginseng influences the readiness of the nervous and muscular systems through an effect on potassium stores inside neurons. It thereby facilitates the function of conditional reflexes of evoked potentials.

Ginseng has been shown to increase the capacity for mental work as well as intellectual performance; although there appears to be no noticeable increase in the volume work, there is a significant reduction in errors.

More on the central nervous system stimulating properties of ginseng:

Ginsengoside Rg1, the main component of ginsenoside Rg fraction, accelerated the recovery from fatigued states in mice exposed to 4 hours oscillation. GRg and G No. 5 have produced a slight shortening of the response latency to the conditioned stimulus in pole-climbing and shuttle-avoidance tests, and G No. 5 disrupted the discrimination of sound stimuli in the avoidance situation.

Neither G No. 5 nor GRg produced significant changes in the acquisition of a conditioned emotional response to shock stimuli. However, GRg produced significant acceleration in the acquisition of discrimination behavior in the presence of sound stimuli, and small doses of G No. 5 produced a significant decrease of in acquisition of the discrimination task.

Ginseng seems to be effective in protecting an organism from stress and facilitating healing, but the results in this area are still somewhat of a surprise. A mixture of saponins, mostly -Rb1, -Rb2, and -Rc, was found to significantly increase the time it took for mice to die after being injected with three convulsants: pentylenetetrazol, strychnine, and nicotine. Time to death was increased an average of about 20% over control animals who received no protection. However, ginseng was not as effective as the strong depressant chlorpromazine.

Russian research, which always seems to find more dramatic results, indicated an alcohol extract of ginseng prevented the death of 50% of mice given a lethal dose of strychnine. Furthermore, almost all of the surviving mice did not develop the characteristic strychnine convulsions.

Ginseng has also been found to protect lab animals against nitrogen and mustard gas poisoning as well.

Injections of a ginseng extract have increased the rate of synthesis of serum albumin and gamma-globulin as well as DNA, RNA, protein and lipids in bone-marrow cells. And even minute amounts of ginseng caused changes in mast cells. Based on these findings, studies were done to investigate the action of ginseng on radiation exposure. Ginseng treated mice have experienced increased survival times against chronic irradiation with a total of up to 7000 rads, and a radio-protection about equal to cysteamine after an acute irradiation of 800 rads. The percentage of mice surviving irradiation of 675 rads almost tripled (an astonishing 80%) as a result of intraperitoneal injections of a ginseng saponin mixture 5 minutes after irradiation.

In a recent study, ginseng extract was applied to cells in culture at a dose of 10 micrograms/ml, and found to be significantly radio-protective against gamma-irradiation. Through control comparisons they were able to determine that ginseng saponin increase radiation resistance by altering cell physiology rather than through the DNA repair process.

In fertility and geriatrics, ginseng has provided some interesting results. Male patients complaining of infertility were treated with glutamine, ginseng, or vitamin E. Administration of gluthamine or extract of ginseng and hormones showed good results. Increases of sperm were observed in 28% of the cases and successful pregnancies occurred in 25 cases. Ginseng was not used by itself.

In another study, rats were divided into five groups: groups of 20 were either not treated, castrated, treated with testosterone after castration, with ginseng after castration, or treated with ginseng before and after castration. Certain cells (anterochromaffin cells) decrease radically after castration. Ginseng before and after castration had about the same increase over controls in these cells as the group receiving testosterone.

There is a case of a 70-year old woman who developed swollen, tender breasts with diffuse modularity after taking ginseng powder regularly for three weeks. It was and is not clear how ginseng produced these symptoms.

Ginseng has been shown to lengthen the lifespan of human cells in culture. Extracts had as much effect on cell density and growth rate as did hydrocortisone, i.e., ginseng prevented the normal degeneration occurring in cells left in a normal medium.

Using a human diploid fibroblast strain paradigm, it was found ginseng saponins significantly increased the level of cellular lactate levels and the specific activities of enzymes associated with an anaerobic shift in metabolism. It is hypothesized since in aging rate heart and brain tissue there is a characteristic shift in lactic dehydrogenase isoenzyme patterns decreasing the ability of these organs to tolerate anaerobic conditions such as might occur during sustained work, and since ginseng effectively inhibits that shift, then the herb also helps to maintain or restore the capacity to tolerate anaerobic conditions, thereby counteracting this particular age-related change.

Drug Interactions & Precautions

Known Interactions
A mixture containing astragalia radix, cinnamon, peony, cnidii rhioma, angelica root, ginseng root, and licorice root was shown to enhance antitumor activity and decrease toxicity of mitomycin C.

Concurrent use of ginseng with phenelzine (MAOI's) has resulted in manic-like symptoms.

Ginseng inhibits blood coagulation and decreases INR. (Janetzky, 1997)

Possible Interactions
The adrenocortical or corticosteroidal action of ginseng may be antagonized by the use of heparin, while the adrenocortical responsiveness to ginseng may be impaired by the use of amphotericin B.

In addition, the anti-inflammatory activity of ginseng can be seriously inhibited by phenobarbital and certain other sedatives and hypnotics, such as chloral hydrate and meprobamate. This is also true of beta-adrenergic blocking agents, such as propranolol.

To the extent ginseng's action depends on the presence of cholinergic substances, it will be affected by the decrease in cholinergic-receptor stimulation produced by anticholinergics.

In the absence of other hard data, it may still be assumed observable interactions may occur between the many central nervous system drugs and the psychoactive principles in ginseng.

Safety Factors & Toxicity

Ginseng has a very low toxicity. Some reports appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association would have you believe otherwise; but those reports are, unfortunately, in the worst tradition of medical research, not the best.

The so-called "ginseng abuse syndrome" hypothesis was, and still is, based on poorly conducted observations in a highly skewed population whose members bear no similarity to the millions of regular ginseng users throughout the rest of the country and world.

Nevertheless, all authorities on ginseng recommend, usually more for philosophical than biological reasons, the herb be used in moderation.

The use of ginseng, as is also true about all herbal products, is not a case of `if a little is good, more must be better'.

This herb has approval status by the German Commission E.

The German Commission E recommends a limited duration for the use of Eleutherococcus and other ginsengs of up to 3 months, while a repeated course is feasible.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.

Preparation & Administration

Recommended daily dosages for Siberian ginseng in Germany are as follows:

2 - 3 g of root.

Other ginseng roots are given in dosages of 1 - 2 g.

The German Commission E recommends a limited duration for the use of Eleutherococcus and other ginsengs of up to 3 months, while a repeated course is feasible.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.



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Panax ginseng

? Southwest School of Botanical Medicine