Ginseng: Understanding the scientific benefits of a 'miracle root'

Ginseng: Understanding the scientific benefits of a 'miracle root'

Ginseng has long been known as the "miracle root", capable of curing all sorts of ailments, from heart conditions, diabetes, fatigue, to even as a complementary therapy to AIDS patients.

Mothers boil the root and feed the concentrate to their children studying for exams, and wives and mother-in-laws do the same for their husbands to boost their strength, or for a pregnant mother-to-be.

Its health benefits have long been touted, but what gives it its miraculous properties?

The answer to this lies in just one word: Ginsenosides. Ginsenosides are a unique compound to the Panax species - the genus Ginseng belongs to.

They are what characterises the ginseng root, and are believed to be the active compound behind claims to ginseng's efficacy.

Not all ginsenosides have the same health properties however. The compound is classified into two main groups, the Rb1 group and the Rg1 group.

The Rb1 group is known to have more sedative effects on the central nervous system, and are believed to be good for increasing digestive tract movement, stamina, learning abilities, liver protection and as an anti-oxidant.

Some studies have shown that Rb1 Ginsenosides to have anti-fatigue, anti-convulsant, analgesic and ulcer protective properties.

The Rg1 group on the other hand is believed to be more arousing and stimulating. Hence, Rg1 is excellent for improving learning ability, boosting immune systems, combating fatigue, and as an anti-stress compound.

The difference between American, Chinese and Korean ginseng

The root Panax ginseng is often called Korean ginseng to differentiate it from similar plants often called by the same name.

The most common examples are Panax quinquefolius L. (also known as American ginseng) and Panax notoginseng (also known as Chinese ginseng).

All these are different plants, with different appearances, active ingredients and uses.

According to the Korean Ginseng Corporation, American ginseng is known to have higher amounts of Rb1 ginsenosides, which makes it a more "calming" root which is good for sedative and relaxing purposes.

While American ginseng is good for increasing the "yin" energy, Korean ginseng, which is higher in Rg1 ginsenosides, conversely is good for increasing the "yang" energy in the body.

This means Korean ginseng is good for purposes such as concentrating the mind and improving stamina.

The different types of ginseng mean that they can be used in a variety of ways to supplement the health.

For example, if your heart beats too fast, you can take American ginseng to slow down the pace. Or if your heart is not strong enough, you can take Korean ginseng to strengthen it.

It is also important to note that the different types of ginseng contain different amounts of ginosenosides. Korean ginseng contains the highest number of ginsenosides (24 ginsenosides), followed by Chinese ginseng (15 ginsenosides) and American ginseng (14 ginsenosides).

Non-ginsenoside components

In addition, ginseng also contains a number of compounds outside the ginsenoside family, such as polyacetylene and acidic polysaccharide.

Polyacetylene has been shown to deter the growth of cancer cells, prevent thrombosis (the formation of a blood clot inside a blood vessel) and inhibit lipid peroxidation, which results in cell damage.

Acidic polysaccharide similarly has anti-ageing properties, in addition to reducing the side effects of anti-cancer drugs, improving the immune system and preventing obesity.

Korean red ginseng has been tested to reveal that it contains the highest amounts of polyacetylene (0.089 per cent) and acidic polysaccharide (7.47 per cent).

This is compared to American ginseng (0.064 per cent polyacetylene, 2.09 per cent acidic polysaccharide) and Chinese ginseng (0.075 per cent polyacetylene, 2.25 per cent acidic polysaccharide).

Warnings

However, while the root is generally good for young and old, male or female, people with certain conditions might want to avoid taking it.

High dosages of ginseng can cause overstimulation, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, headache, and insomnia.

Discuss with your doctor before using a ginseng product if you have a heart condition, are taking blood pressure pills, hormone medications, anti-depressants, or have a serious health condition.

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