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Ginseng (Panax ginseng [Latin]) is the most widely used herb in Chinese medicine, a true panacea used to treat just about everything for thousands of years. The root of the ginseng plant is used medicinally, and has a quasi-human shape; the original Chinese name for this herb is jen shen, which means “man root.”

Although there are several different species of ginseng, it is the Chinese form of this herb (Panax ginseng) that has been most widely studied. American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) is popular in both Asia and Western countries, and the medicinal properties of Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) are also becoming increasingly well known.

Many studies have shown that ginseng can boost mood, improve memory, increase concentration and physical endurance, ease anxiety, and even improve test scores. Ginseng’s ability to improve mental function seems to increase when this herb is given in combination with ginkgo.

Ginseng is thought to be an adaptogen, meaning that it adapts itself as necessary to treat imbalances in the body. It has been shown to help balance blood pressure, blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and hormones in both men and women.

Ginseng is also an immune system booster and natural detoxifier. It helps keep the liver, adrenal glands, and thyroid healthy, may help prevent illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer.

There have been numerous Asian studies demonstrating ginseng’s ability to slow the progression of cancer. Studies in South Korea and China both showed that people who regularly consumed ginseng were less likely to get lung cancer, and that ginseng seemed to enhance the effects of both radiation and chemotherapy. Studies suggest that two compounds in ginseng, ginsan and polyacetylinic alcohol help destroy lung cancer cells and slow tumor growth.

Ginseng is thought to have a mild stimulant effect, which may account for its purported ability to sharpen mental awareness and relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue. Tests have also shown that ginseng can help prevent a heart attack by lowering the heart rate and blood pressure. Ginseng has been shown to reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, and to increase the strength of the heart muscle itself.

One of ginseng’s most well known uses is that of a libido-stimulant. Research has supported the traditional belief that ginseng acts as an aphrodisiac by stimulating the hypothalamus to produce sex hormones that stimulate cell growth and healing in the sex organs. Ginseng is particularly helpful to men experiencing fertility or erectile dysfunction; it increases testosterone levels and blood flow to the penis. Women who are in the early stages of menopause and experiencing hot flashes may also benefit from ginseng supplementation, because ginseng has been found to stimulate the ovaries to produce more estrogen.

Ginseng’s ability to improve brain function and act as a stimulant may be helpful to people suffering from depression, stress, and some drug dependencies (cocaine or methamphetamines, for example). Studies have also shown that ginseng injections can help raise levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and adrenaline in the body, which supports the adrenal glands in times of stress and prevents the adrenal gland burn-out that can lead to serious illnesses such as Addison’s disease.

The usual dosage is 250 to 500 milligrams in capsules or 1 teaspoon of liquid extract daily. You can also buy fresh or dried ginseng root at some health food stores to make a potent, home-brewed tea—use ½ teaspoon of dried root in a cup of hot water once or twice a day.

Some people may be sensitive to this herb, and may get diarrhea or upset stomach. The phytochemicals in ginseng may cause breast tenderness or irregular periods in some women. Other reported side effects include allergic reaction, rash, heart palpitations, insomnia, and mood swings—make sure to follow the recommended dosage instructions, as most side effects were reported from those taking very high doses. You may want to avoid this herb altogether is you have heart disease, and should definitely consult your cardiologist before taking ginseng supplements.

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