Several types of plants are referred to as ginseng: Both American and Asian ginsengs belong to the genus Panax, while Siberian ginseng, or Eleutherococcus senticosus, is a different species in the same family. All three plants are regarded as adaptogens – substances that strengthen and normalize body functions, helping the body deal with stress.

Asian and American ginseng are both tan, gnarled roots, sometimes resembling a human body with stringy shoots that look like arms and legs – an appearance that hundreds of years ago, led herbalists to believe that ginseng could cure human ills. In fact, the Chinese view ginseng as the most powerful of all herbs. Both types of true ginseng contain active compounds called ginsenosides. (Siberian ginseng does not, and it was originally marketed in Russia as a cheaper alternative). Ginseng also contains peptides, B vitamins, flavonoids, and volatile oil. White ginseng (dried and peeled) and red ginseng (unpeeled and steamed before drying) are available in liquid extracts, powders, and capsules.

Ginseng may shorten the time that it takes people to recover from illness or surgery and may promote overall well-being. Preliminary research suggests that ginseng may also be helpful in speeding up metabolism and treating alcohol intoxication, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, treating or preventing cancer, lowering blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, and lowering “bad” cholesterol while raising “good” cholesterol levels. Some studies have shown that ginseng can both lower and raise blood pressure, so people with hypertension or heart disease should not try ginseng without a doctor’s supervision.

Ginseng is widely believed to enhance libido, and in animal studies, it increased sperm production and sexual activity. It is thought to make people feel more alert and able to concentrate or memorize things, especially when it’s taken in combination with ginkgo biloba. Ginseng has never been used to increase athletic performance, although study results in this area have been inconsistent.

Ginseng may cause nervousness or sleeplessness, anxiety, diarrhea, vomiting, nose-bleeds, and breast pain. To avoid low blood sugar, ginseng should be taken with food. It may act as a blood thinner and should be discontinued at least a week before surgery.

1. Ginseng should not be harvested for medicinal use until it reaches maturity – about 4 to 6 years.

2. More than 90 percent of the raw ginseng grown in the United States is harvested in Wisconsin.

3. Asian ginseng is almost extinct in its natural habitat but is still cultivated for medicinal use.

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