For thousands of years, ginseng has been used to help treat a multitude of health conditions. Today, it remains one of the most popularly used forms of alternative and complementary medicine, even to the point of being called “king of the herbs.” Some of the more common uses for ginseng include:
- Cold and flu prevention
- Mental stimulation
- General sense of well-being
- Increased energy
- Cancer prevention
- Immune strengthening
A total of 13 different types of ginseng exist, with overlapping but distinct property profiles ascribed to each subtype. All of the subtypes belong to the same genus of plant, Panax, which means, “cure all” in Greek (pan = all, axos = medicine). Sources vary regarding the number of ginseng species in existence, with some sources citing up to 13. The 13 types of ginseng all share the same class of active compounds believed to confer ginseng’s purported medicinal benefits. These compounds are called ginsenosides and constitute part of the ginseng plant’s natural defense system against insects and bacteria/fungi. Ginsenosides belong to a group of molecules called triterpine saponins, and while their exact mechanism of action is unknown, they have been shown to bind to steroid hormone receptors.
Dozens of ginsenoside types exist, with each seeming to have different biochemical properties, and thus different effects on one’s health. The 13 types of ginseng have different concentrations and ratios of each ginsenoside, which explains the variant uses attributable to each type. The 13 species of ginseng are:
- Panax ginseng (Asian or Korean ginseng)
- Panax quinquefolis (American ginseng)
- Panax japonicus (Japanese ginseng)
- Panax major
- Panax notoginseng
- Panax omeiensis
- Panax pseudoginseng
- Panax sinensis
- Panax stipuleanatus
- Panax trifolius (Dwarf ginseng)
- Panax wangianus
- Panax zingiberensis
- Panax vietnamensis (Vietnamese ginseng)
The most commonly available and popular types of ginseng are the Asian and American varieties. Siberian ginseng, or Eleuthero, (Eleutherococcus senticosus) also exists but is not a true type of ginseng, as it does contain ginsenosides.
Asian vs. American Ginseng
Asian ginseng is the older and more thoroughly studied type of ginseng. This species derives its name from the physical appearance of the plant’s roots, which resembles a human’s upright body; the word “ginseng “comes from the Chinese word rénshēn, with rén meaning “man” and shēn meaning “a type of herb.” American ginseng was not discovered until the 1700’s in North America, with Wisconsin currently serving as the U.S. ginseng capitol. Compared to American ginseng, Asian ginseng is also generally considered to more effectively enhance qi, or “life energy”/”energy flow.” Regarding ginsenoside content, Asian ginseng contains close to 40 types of ginsenosides, while American ginseng contains roughly 20 types.
Both Asian and American ginseng have evidence supporting their use in cold/flu prevention, enhancing mental function (memory concentration, attention, etc.), cancer prevention, immune strengthening, and improving general well-being. Asian ginseng, additionally, is used to promote heart health, increase physical/sports performance, and improve sexual dysfunction. American ginseng, on the other hand, has been studied more for possible treatment of diabetes, as it has consistently exhibited blood sugar lowering properties. Asian ginseng, in comparison, has shown both decreased and increased blood sugar in clinical trials.
Red vs. White vs. Sun vs. Fresh Ginseng
This classification scheme is based upon the way in which ginseng is processed.
Traditionally, red ginseng is made in China and Korea. This type of ginseng, after harvesting at six years of growth, gets its red appearance from steaming at 100 °C (212 °F). After the steaming process, red ginseng is then heat-dried. This is the most common type of ginseng found commercially. Compared to white ginseng, it is considered to be better for increasing energy.
Per many ginseng traders, red ginseng can be further classified into Korean and Chinese ginseng (though textbooks describe the same process for both). Chinese ginseng is processed with the steaming and heat-drying as described. Korean ginseng is additionally treated by soaking in a tincture (alcohol extract) of other herbs prior to the steaming process; this is believed to give Korean ginseng warmer and greater yang properties.
As opposed to red ginseng, white ginseng has not been heated prior to drying. It is also harvested at a younger age (four to six years). This type of ginseng is peeled, and then air-dried in the sun, which gives it its characteristic yellow-white color. Compared to red ginseng, the white variety is considered less potent (due to greater ginsenoside concentration attributable to the heating involved in red ginseng processing). And while less potent, white ginseng is also preferred for boosting fluids (vs. red for increasing energy). White ginseng is also generally less expensive.
The method of ginseng preparation influences the relative concentrations of different ginsenosides. Sun ginseng takes advantage of this concept and uses a specific heating method that steams white ginseng above boiling temperature (120 °C or 248 °F). Because of this high steaming temperature, sun ginseng has more potent antioxidant activity than either white or red ginseng.
Availability of the raw, untreated root is typically limited. Consumers also have the option of growing their own ginseng.
Other types of ginseng
The other mentioned species of ginseng are not as popular or commonly available, compared to Asian and American ginseng. Panax notoginseng is a more traditional Chinese ginseng, used primarily for its cardiovascular benefits and in blood clotting disorders. The vietnamensis variety has been shown to decrease stress-related disorders, protect the liver, and possess anti-tumor properties. The japonicus species is considered less potent and has a lower concentration of ginsenosides.
People also consider several non-Panax plants to be in the same medicinal class as true ginseng, based on their health benefits. This includes Siberian ginseng, as mentioned, in addition to Indian (Withania somnifera) and Brazilian ginseng (Pfaffia paniculata).
A large number of ginseng varieties exist, each with slightly different properties and medicinal properties dependent on the types of ginsenosides present. Knowledge of the different ginseng profiles is important in choosing the right ginseng for any individual. And though the various types of ginseng are generally considered safe, it remains important to follow dosing instructions and use supplements under the supervision of a health practitioner.