Under this name three different species are distinguished: Panax quinquefolium or American ginseng, Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng, and Eleutherococcus senticosus or Siberian ginseng. The panax plants are fairly similar, but there are differences in their properties, and hence they are discussed separately. American ginseng is a deciduous perennial shrub, the fleshy root of which takes 4 years to reach maturity and be used. It was extensively used by American Indians. The principal active ingredients are more than 20 saponin triterpenoid glycosides, collectively called ginsenosides. They have no names, but they are designated by their chromatographic position, that is, through the chemical method used to distinguish them, as Ra, Rb and so on, these letters denoting classes of compounds, further distinguished as Rb1, Rb2, etc.
- Calming agent. American ginseng exerts a calming, sedative and relaxing effect, in sharp contrast to Korean ginseng, which has a stimulating effect. The difference seems to be linked to the Rg1/Rb1 ratios of gingenosides in the two plants, the Rg1 compounds being far more stimulating and present in greater proportions in the Korean variety of ginseng.
- Central nervous system tranquilizer. American ginseng provides nonspecific support for the central nervous system (CNS), useful for the recovery from long term stress conditions, or where calming of the nervous system is required, as against agitation, insomnia, nervousness, poor appetite, etc.
- Immune tonic. Studies show that the herb activates the white blood cells, providing support for a weakened or otherwise compromised immune system. The herb’s calming properties together with its tranquilizing effect on the nervous system further increase the tonic effect by reducing stress, which suppresses the immune system.
- Restorative. American ginseng has been traditionally used as a preventive and restorative remedy, for general weakness, wounds, fatigue, increasing stamina, endurance, etc, but also as analgesic, anti-convulsant, antipyretic, antipsychotic, etc.
- Stress adaptive. All varieties of ginseng increase tolerance of physical, mental and environmental stress. The herb appears to normalize the way the body responds to stress, and to regulate the manufacture and secretion of adrenal hormones. Further, it seems to also strengthen the adrenal glands themselves, a matter of importance to those suffering from chronic stress.
- Stimulant. By contrast to the American variety, Korean ginseng appears to be the most stimulating variety of ginseng, and it is used where the other qualities of the herb are required together with a need for extra energy and vitality.
- Other properties. All other qualities of ginseng as described above appear to be common to all varieties, and are not separately described here.
Caution. Korean ginseng should be generally avoided by persons with high blood pressure. Various reports similarly suggest that it is not to be recommended for women with a history, or high risk, of fibrocystic breast disease, uterine fibroids or tumors, or estrogenic cancer. This warning should be taken seriously.
Although not a true ginseng species, Siberian ginseng shares virtually all the qualities of ginseng, being a calming agent, an immune tonic, a restorative and stress adaptive, but it resembles American rather than Korean ginseng, in that it is a tranquilizer rather than a stimulant. Like American ginseng, Siberian ginseng has no contra-indications. Still, it is advisable to heed the previous warning regarding women with all varieties of ginseng.