If the human body had stringy shoots for arms and legs, it would look a lot like the ginseng root. The curiously human-body-shaped root has long been regarded as an herbal cure for a cornucopia of ailments, both physical and mental. In part due to its appearance, ginseng—which is native to China, Korea and America—has been revered by Chinese herbalists for more than 2,000 years for its perceived power to alleviate fatigue and stress, fortify strength after illness, enhance sexual desire, confer both a sense of wellbeing and wisdom, and increase longevity. The root is thought of as an "adaptogen," something that moderates all kinds of stress, whether mental or physical.
For centuries, Native Americans have used American ginseng to treat everything from fevers to dysentery to headaches. Clearly, as far as ancient healing traditions are concerned, ginseng lives up to the name of its botanical genus: Panax, which is Greek for "cure all."
As allopathic (Western) medicine has turned its attention to the scarecrow-like root, scientific inquiry into ginseng's effectiveness has yielded mixed results. There are many reasons for this. First, there are different types of ginsengs. Ginseng native to America is white or yellow in color, while Asian (Korean or Chinese) is red. (Siberian ginseng from Russia is not considered "true" ginseng because it lacks the active chemicals called ginsenosides in its root.)
Traditional Chinese practitioners believe that American ginseng has a "cooling" effect on the body versus a "heating" effect for Asian ginseng. Scientific studies suggest there may indeed be a difference in the two varieties' therapeutic value. For example, some studies have shown that American ginseng may lower blood sugar levels in individuals with Type 2 diabetes, but Asian ginseng may raise it.
Another reason for the spotty data on ginseng's effectiveness is that it is often administered in combination with other herbs, and therefore its effect is difficult to single out. Herbal combinations containing ginseng have been shown in some studies to improve symptoms of dementia, increase red and white blood cell counts in those with aplastic anemia, reduce symptoms of coronary artery disease, and enhance mental performance on cognitive tests. But the scientific consensus is that more high-quality studies involving ginseng only are needed to confirm such health claims. Furthermore, many of the ginseng-only studies have been too small to draw conclusions from or have been conducted only on animals, so more large human clinical trials are called for.
Still, as the evidence begins to emerge, ginseng's potential benefits appear to be as broad as the ancients envisioned. Athletes swear by ginseng as a strength and endurance booster; several studies have shown that ginseng increases oxygen uptake during training, decreases the post-exercise recovery period, and lowers the incidence of muscle fatigue. In China, ginseng is commonly used to treat heart disease and cancer, and preliminary evidence suggests ginseng's efficacy for these conditions. The root appears to have antioxidant effects in heart patients, improve blood pressure, and may lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. While a few studies show that ginseng powder or extract may lower the risk of developing some cancers, those receiving chemotherapy for cancer have shown improved body weight, quality of life, and immune response from ginseng injections. Another common use of ginseng in China is to boost sexual performance. Early evidence suggests that the root can treat erectile dysfunction and increase libido and sperm count in men. Many people insist that they feel more alert when taking ginseng, and studies of Asian ginseng have found that it modestly improves concentration and memory.
The list of emerging evidence goes on and on. Because ginseng has historically been perceived as an all-in-one health panacea, it's being studied across the board—from immune function to ADHD to kidney dysfunction to menopausal symptoms. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is currently funding studies on the herb's potential to treat lung infection, impaired glucose tolerance, and Alzheimer's disease.
With so many potential benefits, it may be hard to decide whether or not to take ginseng for your specific ailment. But consider the result of one study of 500 men and women living in Mexico City: those taking Asian ginseng showed significant improvements across all quality of life measures, including energy, sleep, sex life, personal satisfaction, and well-being. Whether you boil the dried root as a tea, take it in tincture form as an extract, or savor it in a sweet ginseng candy, this ancient cure may indeed be a "catch all" for the stresses of modern life.