Ginseng Supplement Guide: Not All Are Equal

Ginseng SupplementsGinseng is known as the King of Herbs – these are the types of herbs you could (but probably shouldn’t) take for everything – energy, mood, cognition, wound healing, stress, libido… The list goes on. But not all ginsengs are the same. In fact, only two herbs called “ginseng” are related.

Five different herbs have earned the title of ginseng:

  • Panax ginseng also known as Asian Ginseng, Korean ginseng, Ren Shen, red ginseng or white ginseng.
  • Panax quinquefolius – American ginseng.
  • Eleutherococcus senticosus – Siberian ginseng or eleuthero.
  • Pfaffia paniculata – Brazilian ginseng or suma.
  • Withania somnifera – Indian ginseng or Ashwaganda

You may have noticed that only the first on this list, Korean ginseng, has “ginseng” in its latin name “Panax ginseng”. The other herbs are known colloquially as “ginseng” for their medicinal effects that closely mimic Korean ginseng’s actions – they all boost energy, relieve stress, support the immune system, increase libido and are good all-round tonics. However, there are some very notable distinctions between every type of ginseng.

TIP: “True ginseng” can refer to either Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) or American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). These two ginsengs have similar chemical constituents and are actually from the same botanical family.

Panax Ginseng – Korean Ginseng

Panax Ginseng Supplements

Notable effects:

  • Stimulating
  • Adaptogen
  • Warming
  • Energizing

Take it for:

  • Allergies
  • Concentration
  • Energy
  • Stress
  • Libido
  • Hypertension
  • Would healing

Panax ginseng contains potent antioxidant compounds called ginsenosides – there are so many of these compounds that they can be classified into over 100 types. These powerful molecules are extremely pharmacologically active and have been shown to reduce inflammation, support nerve growth, boost nervous system signalling, and protect against cell death.

Stress Support, Endurance & Cognition

Panax ginseng is a potent adaptogen – it appears to calm down the stress response by regulating the secretion of catecholamine hormones like adrenaline, noradrealine and dopamine. It has a mild stimulatory effect to the central nervous system and is suitable as a tonic to boost resistance and endurance in stressful situations [1]. This stimulation also increases circulation to the brain to improve cognition, clarity and memory, particularly in the elderly.

Immune Boosting, Allergy Fighting & Wound Healing

The ginsenosides in Panax ginseng are antioxidants that support the immune system, promote wound healing and break up inflammatory chain reactions. They can reduce allergy symptoms by inhibiting the release of histamine and stabilising white blood cells so that the body doesn’t over-react to allergens [2].

In a 2011 study, Korean ginseng tablets were shown to reduce symptoms of rhinitis (stuffy noses) in people who suffered from allergies from common year-round substances like dust and pet hair. The participants took 1500mg of fermented red ginseng per day for four weeks and experienced significantly reduced nasal congestion [3].

Cardiovascular Health

Despite its excitatory and heating characteristics, Panax ginseng has been shown to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. Its wound-healing actions also promote healthy arteries, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis [2].

CAUTION: Panax ginseng may interact with warfarin and other medications [4]. Check with a practitioner before taking ginseng.

Libido & Fertility

Panax ginseng is traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for all kinds of sexual dysfunction in both men and women. It is particularly useful when decreased libido is due to exhaustion, lethargy or ageing. Korean ginseng can boost serum testosterone levels in men and increase the flow of feel-good hormones in the brain. In one study, taking 1000mg of Korean ginseng per day for four weeks improved erection rigidity, penetration and maintenance in men with diagnosed erectile dysfunction [5]. Sperm count and preservation can also increase when taking Korean ginseng, likely due to its antioxidant activity, making this an all-round tonic for male fertility [6].

Red or White?

White ginseng refers to Panax ginseng that has been prepared by drying the raw herb. Red ginseng is first steamed and then dried, changing the ratio of particular ginsenosides which makes these metabolites more cytotoxic.

We recommend – Nutriana Ginsei (30 capsules)

Ginseng Root SupplementClaiming to be the world’s most effective ginseng, these capsules do pack a real punch with a 13% ginsenosides concentration. Rather than using a high-heat steaming process, Ginsei uses a cool vacuum extraction process to retain more of the vitamin content of the herb and boost absorption. With an equivalent of 1000mg of Korean ginseng per tablet, you only need to take one per day for a therapeutic dose.

2. Panax quinquefolius – American Ginseng

American Ginseng Supplements

Notable effects:

  • Cooling
  • Calming
  • Soothing Adaptogen

Take it for:

  • Stress relief
  • Improved learning
  • Memory and Cognition

American ginseng contains a heavy dose of ginsenosides just like its Korean counterpart. Panax quinquefolius shares most of Korean ginseng’s actions on the immune system and nervous system, but its effects are less stimulating and much more calming. American ginseng is a go-to for stress relief and cognition.

Stress Relief & Aphrodisiac Qualities

Where Korean ginseng can help you to power through a stressful time, American ginseng is perfect for post-stress recovery [2]. As more of a “cooling” herb, it has a relaxing quality and doesn’t exhibit Korean ginseng’s stimulating effects on the nervous system. American ginseng is used for recovery from post-traumatic stress, marathons, intense workouts and times of increased mental stress.

The libido-boosting qualities of American ginseng occur due to these soothing effects on the nervous system, though it does appear to also cause a short-term boost in testosterone. This is a great alternative to Korean ginseng if the libido is suffering due to worry, self-consciousness or stress, rather than exhaustion or age [6].

Cognition & Memory

Both true ginsengs can boost cognition and memory, but recent research has shown that the ginsenosides in the American ginseng are the more capable of boosting brain power. Studies have shown that 400mg of American ginseng can improve recall, reaction time, working memory and mood in young healthy adults [7], while the Korean kind appears to be better at fighting the structural changes of age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

We recommend – Nature’s Health American Ginseng (550mg, 60 capsules)

American GinsengTo ensure optimal ginsenoside concentration, Nature’s Health use American ginseng that has been cultivated in Wisconsin for at least five years. Each easy-to-swallow vegetarian capsule contains a guaranteed 10% ginsenoside content within 550mg of American ginseng – one per day is enough to reach a therapeutic dose, or take two for added benefits.

Next, The Pseudo-Ginsengs

3. Eleutherococcus senticosus – Siberian Ginseng

Siberian Ginseng Supplements

Notable effects:

  • Anabolic
  • Anti-viral
  • Adaptogen

Take it for:

  • Immune system health
  • Fighting acute and chronic infections
  • Endurance
  • Muscle gains

Also known as eleuthero, Siberian ginseng is not a “true” ginseng. It adopted the “ginseng” name due to its adaptogenic actions but it is gaining particular attention for its very distinct actions on the immune system and cellular metabolism. Instead of ginsenosides, Siberian ginseng contains active constituents called “eleutherosides”.

FACT: It’s said that Siberian ginseng was taken after the Chernobyl accident to counteract the effects of radiation for its immune boosting and adaptogenic properties.

Anti-Viral & Immune Boosting

While all types of ginsengs strengthen the immune system, eleuthero has been shown to specifically boost T-cells and effectively reduce the frequency and severity of viral infections. This is a great herb to take pre-emptively to protect yourself against during flu season, or to prevent oral and genital outbreaks of herpes simplex virus (HSV1) [8].

Endurance and Muscle Gains

Early animal studies have shown that eleuthero may help to beef up muscles and organ size, but its anabolic effects are yet to be confirmed in human trials. That said, there is plenty of evidence showing that Siberian ginseng can improve glycogen utilisation, heart capacity, and the metabolism of lactic and pyruvic acids, making it a potential therapy to improve exercise endurance and recovery [9].

Athletes: It isn’t uncommon to find Siberian ginseng in pre workout supplements – the energy drinks you take before exercise.

We recommend – Gaia Herbs Eleuthero Root Liquid Extract (277mg, 60 liquid phyto-capsules)

Siberian GinsengGaia Herbs have processed ecologically harvested Siberian ginseng through a glycerine extraction process and packaged the liquid into easy-to-take plant-based phyto-capsules. Each capsule delivers 3,350mg of dried herb equivalent in an easily absorbed form. This supplement doesn’t contain any alcohol, dairy, or gluten-containing ingredients, and two capsules a day will reach a therapeutic dose with at least 3.2mg of eleutherosides per serving.

4. Pfaffia paniculata – Brazilian ginseng

Brazillian Ginseng Supplements

Notable effects:

  • Traditional Energy Tonic

Take it for:

  • Weight loss
  • Lean muscle gains

Pfaffia paniculata or “suma” has picked up the nickname of Brazilian ginseng due to its traditional use as a general tonic. Its alternative name, “para tudo” means “for everything” in Portuguese. Like other ginsengs, it is used for stress relief, quick energy, and to boost the libido. Its major distinction is its use by athletes – unlike Siberian ginseng, the Brazilian version has proven anabolic actions. Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of clinical research on other actions of this herb.

Muscle Gains & Fat Loss

Research has suggested that suma extracts may promote moderate lean muscle gains and reduce body fat by up to 10%, boost testosterone levels, and even boost anabolic processes better than many pharmaceutical drugs. [10] [11] [12]

We recommend – Source Naturals Suma (500mg, 60 capsules)

Brazllian GinsengThis supplement contains one of the best doses we’ve found – each capsule contains 500mg of suma root, so a capsule per day is enough to reach a therapeutic dose. You’ll find the price of suma to be very affordable compared to the other ginsengs on this list!

5. Withania somnifolia – Indian Ginseng

Best Indian Ginseng

Notable effects:

  • Powerful and Popular Adaptogen

Take it for:

  • Stress support and recovery
  • Testosterone boosting
  • Strength gains
  • Endurance
  • Blood sugar regulation

Withania or Ashwagandha earned its nickname as Indian ginseng for the same reason every other non-Panax “ginseng” did – it helps to battle stress, enhance the libido, support the immune system, boost cognition and energy.

Check out our article on Ashwagandha for an in-depth look at this powerful adaptogen!

We recommend – Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Liquid Phyto-Capsules (60 capsules)

AshwagandhaGaia Herbs have created an alcohol-free liquid extract of ashwagandha as part of their single herbs range, encapsulated in vegan-friendly capsules each containing the equivalent of 2,700mg of dried powdered root – two capsules per day is enough to reach a strong therapeutic dose. Gaia’s liquid extracts are alcohol-free, 100% dairy-free, and free from heavy metal toxicity and gluten-contain ingredients.

6. What About a Ginseng Combination?

Many supplements contain two or more varieties of ginseng. Given how diverse the therapeutic actions of these herbs can be, taking a combination may be risky without the guidance of a qualified practitioner as these herbs can directly affect hormone levels. That said, certain blends are created with great care for symptom-specific therapy.

A 2009 study used a combination of Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus along with another adaptogenic herb to treat osteoarthritis of the knee. The researchers mentioned that they chose this combination because Panax ginseng effectively reduces TNF-a, and Eleutherococcus senticosus has been used traditionally to treat arthritis. The study found that this combination effectively reduced inflammation, pain, and knee function in patients with osteoarthritis [13].

We recommend – Sanar Naturals Ginseng Complex (100 capsules)

This ginseng complex contains Korean, American, and Siberan ginsengs with a small dose of passionflower extract. This is a great combination for stress and pain relief with a little boost of energy, too.

Further Reading:

About James Lyons

James Lyons (BHSc Nutritional Medicine) is a clinical nutritionist, medical writer, and educator. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and is passionate about improving public access to reliable and accurate health information.

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