There are various species of ginseng. Three of them are panax ginseng, panax quinquefolius and panax notoginseng. They each have their own library of compounds called ginsenosides
Panax ginseng was originally discovered growing wild in the mountain forests of Northeast China and North Korea.
Ginseng is now widely cultivated in many countries while its wild form has become very rare.
History of Ginseng
Panax Ginseng is the most valued herb in China.
It is consumed, both by the common people as a daily tonic, and by the wealthy as a rejuvenating and revitalizing agent.
Marco Polo brought ginseng to the West, where it gradually gained the attention of the aristocrats of Russia and Europe.
True Panax ginseng is generally regarded as indigenous to Korea and China. It is grown everywhere now.
Genuine Chinese ginseng, first described in the two thousand year old Herbal Classic, the Divine Plowman, was collected from the Kilin Mountains of Manchuria.
The wild root is now at the brink of extinction because it has been fiercely hunted over the decades. It currently sells for upwards of $100,000 per kilo.
Cultivated ginseng, as a reasonable alternative, combines reasonable cost with ecological soundness.
For thousands of years in China, the harvesting of ginseng was restricted by the imperial dynasties.
The local residents risked beheading for stealing ginseng and received 40 strokes with a wooden plank for just using it.
Due to its rarity and cost, many counterfeit ginseng-like plants were used as substitutes.
Siberian ginseng was originally introduced for this purpose before it gained its own well-earned acceptance.
Traditionally, ginseng is used short-term to improve stamina, concentration, healing, and stress resistance.
Ginseng is also thought to improve wellness and help delay the degenerative conditions associated with old age. This is probably due to the RG3 component, which is receiving much interest as a drug to treat cognition disorders.
Ginseng is given to individuals that are deficient in qi, with marked restlessness, irritability and insomnia.
Ginseng is an excellent short-term treatment for the anticipated effects of stress including exercise, examinations, jet lag and work.
Ginseng raises the threshold at which stress becomes debilitating and out of control.
Athletes may find their emotions are more under control despite being more energetic. This is the most positive effect that ginseng offers athletes.
Only the root of the ginseng plant is used in preparations.
White ginseng represents the peeled and sun dried root, while red ginseng root is unpeeled, steamed and dried.
Chemistry of Ginseng
Ginseng contains multiple active constituents.
Neuro and cognitive disorder are being tested with one in particular, RG3 This is the molecular conformation that is believed to improve cognition and memory.
Other conformations are believed to enhance well-being as well as athletic performance.
The value of ginseng, as a preventive lies in its totality as a plant.
The chemically separated components are presented here to offer a scientific explanation for the well-established effects of ginseng. Besides the usual assortment of proteins and carbohydrates found in most plants, ginseng contains other important ingredients (antioxidants, saponins, polysaccharides, fatty acids and vitamins).
In Korea, ginseng is known as the “elixir of life”. Its rejuvenating effects are believed due to a strong antioxidant component (maltol). The structure of maltol is similar to that of vitamin E. Maltol offers specific antioxidant protection for cardiac and brain tissues.
The improved mental acuity perceived with ginseng consumption may be attributed to the quenching of free radicals within the brain. Since nervous tissue is incapable of rejuvenation, the beneficial effect of protecting nerve cells from oxidative damage is readily apparent. The antioxidant components have also shown to protect the body against atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), thrombosis (clot formation), and liver damage.
The other important components of ginseng are the saponins. Saponins represent the bulk of the active constituents of ginseng. Saponins are modified sterols (unsaturated solid alcohols) with two or three hydroxyl groups attached to the sugar entity.
Saponins contain five carbon rings while steroids contain only four rings. This structural resemblance provides the membrane solubility and receptor activation that is similar to endogenously produced steroid hormones.
Ginseng contains many terpenoid saponins. These compounds are interchangebly termed ginsenosides and panaxosides. They were named by Japanese and Russia researchers respectively.
Ginsenosides have been divided into two groups, which are chemically classified based on the number of hydroxyl groups (OH) carried. Protopanaxadiol and protpanaxatriol contain two and three hydroxyl groups respectively. The Rb and Rc (relaxing) series of saponins are diols, while the Rg (stimulatory) series is a class of triols. Triol ginsenosides are stimulatory while the diol versions are relaxing. Diols dominate in American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), while triols predominate in the Korean species.
The diversity of ginseng saponins (ginsenosides) is based on the various sugar side chains found upon hydrolysis of each saponin. Isolated saponin constituents have been identified from Panax ginseng and designated as Rb-1, R b-2, Rc, Rd, Re, Rf, R g-1, Rg-2, and Rg-3 etc. Each individual saponin has specific actions and causes different effects.
All of the ginsenosides studied demonstrated specific anti-fatigue and anti-stress effects. The Rg series of ginsenosides, the triols were found stimulatory, while the Rb, Rc, and Re series of saponins are considered relaxing or anti-stimulatory. The saponin content varies between different Panax species. For example, in Panax ginseng the major ginsenosides are Rb-1 and Rg-1 whereas in American ginseng or Panax quinquefolius only the non-stimulatory saponins Rb-1 and Re predominate. All ginseng roots contain variable amounts of total saponins as well as differing proportions of the individual series. Several ginsenosides have been found to increase DNA, RNA and protein synthesis in bone marrow cells.
The use of a standardized product containing 7% total ginsenosides, with an Rb/Rg ratio of greater than 2:1, is the pharmaceutical concentration of choice for Panax Ginseng.
The use of ginseng, high in Rg content, would be most appropriate for short-term performance enhancement while an extract high in Rb, ginsenosides found in the American species, promotes relaxation.
Unstandardized products cannot guarantee specific ratios of saponins due to the varying conditions of growth and the quality of the manufacturer’s extraction process.
Studies on ginseng report an ability to improve physical endurance and mental ability in animals and humans. In addition, daily ginseng consumption produces an overall improvement in sleep, appetite and an absence or drop in mood swings.
The structural similarity of the terpenoid saponins (ginsenosides) to steroid hormones support the contention that saponins work by interacting with human steroid receptors.
It is speculated that steroid receptors in the hypothalamus responsible for regulating adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) secretion, via a releasing factor, are either stimulated when required by the body or suppressed when not. For example, during exercise when the level of stress increases dramatically, ginsenosides stimulate the steroid receptors in the hypothalamus signaling the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH. ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol, the stress hormone.
When the individual is idle, the steroid receptors in the hypothalamus fail to elicit binding and cortisol and ACTH are not secreted. This is classic adaptogenic behavior, which supports the view of biological switches. Biological switches stimulate or inhibit activity based on the condition and needs of the body.
The effect of ginseng is thereby dependent both on the type and amount of saponins present and the body’s homeostatic condition.
Ginseng exerts a demonstrable drop in blood pressure (hypotensive effect). Ginseng has been shown to substantially lower the heart rate of healthy men, presumably due to the prolonged contraction of cardiac muscle allowing more complete emptying. Ginseng causes vasodilation in cerebral and coronary vessels resulting in improved brain and coronary blood flow.
Ginseng’s vasodilating effect is due to the relaxation of vascular smooth muscle presumably caused by the inhibition of calcium uptake by the muscle membrane (sarcolemma). Ginseng extracts lower cholesterol levels, which may also be a factor contributing to the observed decrease in blood pressure.
Central Nervous System Effects
Ginseng produces tranquilizing effects on athletes due to the calming and relaxing properties of the Rb-1 faction of ginsenosides. Russian investigators reported improved concentration, superior intelligence, improved eye adaptation at night and strengthened conditioned reflexes with oral administration of ginseng.
It is theorized that ginseng improves reflexes by increasing the sensitivity of interneurons. Interneurons are nerve cells that communicate between motor and sensory neurons, which govern coordinated activity.
Many of the actions exhibited by Panax ginseng have been attributed to its corticosteroid- like activity. Studies suggest that ginseng saponins (ginsenosides) may act primarily by augmenting the production of
steroids by the adrenal gland.
Ginsenosides bind with steroid receptors in the hypothalamus and increase corticosteroid production through an indirect action on the pituitary gland. The action is mediated through an increase in cellular cyclic AMP concentration.
Ginseng effect on the adrenal cortex
1. The adrenal cortex, under stimulation from ACTH, synthesizes corticosteroids. Ginsenosides have been shown to stimulate the pituitary release of ACTH by promoting the release of corticotrophin releasing factor from the hypothalamus.
2. The stimulation of corticosteroid production in the adrenal gland is mediated through the actions of cyclic AMP. Ginseng has been shown to increase cyclic AMP concentration in adrenal cortex cells.
3. The increased corticoid production causes an increase in the breakdown (catabolism) of fat stores and muscle tissue.