The English word "ginseng" is derived from the Chinese term rénshen. Rén, which means man, and shen, meaning root, refers to the root's forked shape, which resembles the legs of a man. Other names were also given to ginseng such as magical herb, divine root and root of life.

The relationship between ginseng and man dates back some 5,000 years when it was first discovered in the mountains of Manchuria, China. The root quickly became revered for its health- and life-giving properties. Its human shape became a powerful symbol of divine harmony on Earth. From this, the idea that it treats human conditions sprung forth.

There are many types of ginseng: Korean, Chinese, American and Siberian, according to Tony Burris, a licensed acupuncturist and traditional Chinese sports medicine practitioner at Eagle Acupuncture in Eagle, Idaho. "Actually, Siberian ginseng is not a true ginseng at all," he says. "The type I prescribe most is the Chinese ginseng (Radix ginseng)."

For athletes, this herb helps promotes respiratory function and it also fosters fluid production in the body, which keeps the body hydrated and reduces thirst. It also improves cognitive function and reduces fatigue.

"This can be a very helpful herb in cases of overtraining," Burris says. "I prefer to prescribe this in a tincture form, with a standardized amount of the active components, ginsenosides at 25 milligrams daily."

American ginseng is different. Radix panacis quinquefolii has a sedative effect of the central nervous system and is milder than Chinese ginseng. Burris uses this as part of a recovery regimen at the conclusion of a sports season, meet or league schedule. He prefers to prescribe it in tincture form.

Ginseng in Chinese medicine

From a Chinese medicine perspective, ginseng is slightly bitter, warm and goes to the "lung and spleen channels." It was used more often for very weak patients as it is considered one of the strongest qi (life force) tonics in the pharmacopeia, says Dr. Phranque Wright, doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine and official acupuncturist for the Chicago Outfit Roller Derby League.

It tonifies base qi — meaning it helps strengthen a body in very weak condition. It especially strengthens the lung and spleen. It also helps the body generate needed fluids.

Ginseng can help a variety of general weakness conditions, which is why people think of it as an energy enhancer, but it should not be taken as an energy enhancer if someone is already in good shape without also being sure to get adequate nutrition and proper rest.

Ginseng should not be taken long term but rather only for a few weeks to three months to curb the chance of side effects.

It is prescribed as a general health tonic, because it's thought to improve immunity or build people back up after a long illness or surgery, and in certain cases for asthma, erectile dysfunction and/or fertility challenges. "Dosage varies with the condition of the patient; I recommend from 1 to 9 g, but the most common dose is somewhere in the middle," says Martha Lucas, Ph.D. L.Ac of Lucas Acupuncture in Colorado.

"Ginseng may also be effective for decreasing anxiety in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. Herbal formulas that contain ginseng may relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression," says Trudy Scott, author of "The Antianxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help you Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings."

Several studies have also shown that ginseng may lower blood sugar levels, and there is some early evidence that ginseng might moderately improve concentration and cognitive function, especially combined with gingko biloba, another herb used in improving memory.

Dosing

Ginseng comes in a variety of forms, including capsules, soft gels, powder, extracts, tinctures and creams. When choosing a ginseng supplement, look for one that has at least 7 percent ginsenosides and is made by a reputable company. There is no standard dose for each condition, so it's recommended you work with a practitioner familiar with herbal treatments, and specifically ginseng, to find the right dose and delivery method for your needs.

Side effects

Side effects are generally mild but can include insomnia, headaches, dizziness and upset stomach. Ginseng is not recommended for children, pregnant and breast-feeding women as well as people who have high blood pressure, take diabetes medications, blood-thinning drugs or antidepressants. Talk to your doctor before taking ginseng for any health problem or enhancement.

Related on MNN: