Ginseng is one of the most important herbs in Asian medicine. It has traditionally been used to tonify, i.e. to build energy. In Chinese, it is called Ren Shen (person root) because it is a root that has a shape similar to humans. It is an adaptogenic herb, meaning that it responds to the internal environment of your body and brings the body back to a natural internal balance. The reason it can work to both stimulate and calm the body is because it has many different active ingredients called ginsenosides. In Asian medicine, ginseng is often combined with other herbs to heighten the desired affect.
The latin name for ginseng species is Panax, meaning all-healing, it is the root of the word panacea. Though ginseng is not a true panacea, the ginseng species are truly a small pharmacy, there are over 30 ginsenosides and many of those have affects on different systems in our body. They can regulate blood pressure, metabolism and immune function. The two main varieties of ginseng are Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), but there are several other varieties.
In our modern world, patients with chronic fatigue or depression benefit most from formulas with ginseng in them. Traditionally, it was often used to nurse people back to health after serious illness or from fatigue due to overworking. It is a very safe herb and can be taken long term without side effects. In my experience, the only side effect is insomnia if taken to close to bed-time. It can be mildly stimulating. As usual, if you are considering taking ginseng, consult with a trained herbalist to make sure you are taking the right formula and to avoid any complications with other medicines you might be taking.
Ginseng Root photo by Daniel Go, American Ginseng photo by Janet Powell