Ginseng the immune booster

Ginseng is a group of ancient herbs with an enormous range of medicinal properties. The question isn’t what can they do but what can’t they do? This is partly because the term “ginseng” is used to describe five different plants and partly because of the amazing quantities of phytochemicals in each one. It is no surprise that the word “ginseng” is derived from the Greek panakos, meaning “all healing”.

The five varieties of plant considered to be ginseng are tienchi (Panax notoginseng), withania (Withania somnifera), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Siberian (Eleutherococcus senticosus). The origins of these, as you can tell from some of their names, are quite widespread but many of their uses are very similar. They have been written about by various cultures for more than 5000 years and the evidence of their ability continues to grow with modern science making significant discoveries of new applications for these wonderful herbs.

The ginsengs have clearly been valued through the centuries but why are they still rated so highly today? Research has shown the variety of phytochemicals that exist in these herbs and how they create such impressive effects in the body. So which ginseng does what and why? The most important common aspect to the ginsengs is their adaptogenic property. This is the ability to help your body adapt to stressors of all varieties, be they physical, emotional or mental. Each ginseng is unique, however, and below is a rundown of the ins, outs, whats and whens of each one.

Korean ginseng is thought to be the most energising and stimulating of the ginsengs. It is commonly used to invigorate but due to this capacity is normally used for shorter periods of time as it can become over-stimulating. This ability stems from its active constituents called ginsenosides, which are a collection of substances known as steroidal glycosides and saponins. Research has shown these phytochemicals result in increased mental acuity as well as physical energy. Those found in Panax also have a direct effect on sperm motility so are commonly used to improve male fertility and can also be helpful in cases of impotence. Because of the stimulating nature of ginseng it is traditionally regarded as a tonic for elderly people but these days is taken by a range of individuals, from sportspeople to students. Because of its strength, caution needs to be taken. Unless recommended by your herbalist, it shouldn’t be taken for periods longer than around six weeks without a break; be used by those with high blood pressure; or taken by those suffering an acute infection as it can prolong the bug.

Siberian ginseng contains substances known as eleutherosides, which like ginsenosides are saponins. These are compounds that have been found to be immune-modulating and adaptogenic. This herb is also used to increase energy but is not as stimulating as Panax so can be taken for longer periods of time. This also means it is more helpful for anxious people or those exhausted by stress. Importantly, it has been found to be immune-modulating, so you can use it to help yourself get back on track after illness. Again, due to its adaptogenic properties, it isn’t a herb you should use if suffering from an active infection.

American ginseng, although also containing ginsenosides, has been found to have more focused effects on your immune function. It is less commonly used in Australia and New Zealand than the other ginsengs but with new research showing how well it can boost those who have suffered long-term infection, it is set to increase in popularity.

Withania could be considered the gentlest but by no means the weakest of the ginsengs. It has a much more supportive rather than stimulating action. It contains withanolides, which have a great range of actions. They have been found to support nervous system function so can be used to reduce stress levels and calm you generally. Withania is particularly helpful if you have been exhausted by stress and need a gentle boost in energy that isn’t overpowering. It is also great for anaemia as it helps your body absorb iron more readily. Like the other ginsengs, it is immune-supportive so again is great if you are recovering from illness.

Tienchi ginseng also contains ginsenosides but has a less stimulatory effect and a more anti-inflammatory one. It is particularly helpful for reducing bleeding, whether it be heavy periods, bruises or wounds. It has also been found to have beneficial effects on heart function and to reduce cholesterol, so indirectly it, too, will improve vitality and energy. Like all the ginsengs, though, it’s always best to check with your naturopath or herbalist on whether it is the right one for you. Used properly, this wonderful group of herbs can get you back on track or even have you performing better than ever.

Rowena York is a Melbourne naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist with a particular interest in food as medicine. E: row_y@hotmail.com

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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