There are three different herbs commonly called ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), and Siberian “ginseng” ( Eleutherococcus senticosus) . The latter herb is actually not ginseng at all and is discussed in aseparate article.

Asian ginseng is a perennial herb with a taproot resembling the shape of the human body. It grows in northern China, Korea, and Russia; its close relative, Panax quinquefolius, is cultivated in the United States. Because ginseng must be grown for 5 years before it is harvested, it commands a high price, with top-quality roots easily selling for more than $10,000. Dried, unprocessed ginseng root is called white ginseng, and steamed, heat-dried root is red ginseng. Chinese herbalists believe that each form has its own particular benefits.

Ginseng is widely regarded by the public as a stimulant. According to everyone who uses it seriously, though, that isn't the right description. In traditional Chinese herbology, Panax ginseng was used to strengthen the digestion and the lungs, calm the spirit, and increase overall energy. When the Russian scientist Israel I. Brekhman became interested in the herb prior to World War II, he came up with a new idea about ginseng: He decided that it was an adaptogen.

The term adaptogen refers to a hypothetical treatment described as follows: An adaptogen should help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, whether heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, or psychological stress. Furthermore, an adaptogen should cause no side effects, be effective in treating a wide variety of illnesses, and help return an organism toward balance no matter what may have gone wrong.

Perhaps the only indisputable example of an adaptogen is a healthful lifestyle. By eating right, exercising regularly, and generally living a life of balance and moderation, you will increase your physical fitness and ability to resist illnesses of all types. Whether there are any substances that can do as much remains unclear. However, Brekhman felt certain that ginseng produced similarly universal benefits.

Interestingly, traditional Chinese medicine (where ginseng comes from) does not entirely agree. There is no one-size-fits-all in Chinese medical theory. Like any other herb, ginseng is said to be helpful for those people who need its particular effects, and neutral or harmful for others. But in Europe, Brekhman's concept has taken hold, and ginseng is widely believed to be a universal adaptogen.

If Brekhman is right, ginseng should be the right treatment for most of us. Modern life is tremendously stressful, and if an herb could help us withstand it, it would be a useful herb indeed. Ginseng is widely used for this purpose in Russia and Eastern Europe. However, the scientific basis for this use is largely limited to animal studies and human trials of unacceptably low quality.

There have been a few better-quality studies of various forms of ginseng for certain more specific purposes—strengthening immunity against colds and flus and other infections (including herpes), helping to control diabetes, stimulating the mind, increasing a general sense of well-being, and improving physical performance capacity —and some of these have found positive results. (See What is the Scientific Evidence for Ginseng?)

The active ingredients in ginseng are believed to be substances known as ginsenosides. Ginseng low in ginsenosides may not be effective. However, different ginsenosides appear to have differing actions, and the exact mixture of the ginsenosides in a given ginseng product may play a large role in its efficacy.

Two preliminary studies suggest that Korean red ginseng may have some benefits for impotence(erectile dysfunction).73,77

A poorly designed study using an untreated control group found indications that Panax ginseng might improve sperm count and motility, thereby enhancing male fertility.65

Highly preliminary evidence suggests that Panax quinquefolius might help breast cancer chemotherapydrugs work better.4Panax ginseng is also said to help prevent cancer2,47,106and fight chemical dependency,3 but the scientific evidence for these uses is minimal at best.

One study failed to find Panax ginseng helpful for menopausal symptoms.5