What Is Ginseng?
For millennia, people in east Asia have used the native ginseng plant as a healing herb. Once believed to be a cure for everything from over-sleeping to baldness, the plant’s most notable use today is as a supplement to improve sexual function in men. Shoppers can find the powdered root in capsules, liquids, pressed tablets and even energy drinks. Some contemporary research has established ginseng’s benefits as an herbal supplement for erectile dysfunction.
Products that contain ginseng might be referring to one of a number of species of plants native to China, the Korean peninsula and parts of eastern Russia. These plants are members of the genus Panax, a word that comes from the Greek term for a cure-all, but they go by different commercial names, including red ginseng, Korean red ginseng, Asian ginseng and white ginseng.
Ginseng gets its name from the Chinese words for “plant root” and “person” because of the shape of the herb’s most valuable part, its fleshy, tuberous root. Early practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine thought the forked root looked like a person’s legs, which led them to try it in male potency remedies. Although the early concept of using herbs that look like the areas of the body they were meant to treat has been discounted by research, the active properties in ginseng plants happened to match their intended use. Today, ginseng is well established as an ingredient in herbal preparations for ED as well as for general well-being.
Originally, ginseng species grew wild throughout central and eastern Asia, but as herbalists and early physicians needed an increasing supply and a steady source for their ginseng, they began cultivating it. Although wild plants still grow throughout eastern Asia and even parts of North America, cultivation produces about 85 percent of the 80,000 tons of the plant roots harvested every year. Ginseng farmers have bred plant stocks over hundreds of years to produce more potent and consistent remedies. As demand for ginseng increased in the West, some farmers brought their crops to the United States and Canada where the ginseng plant also thrives.
Ginseng plants grow in cool to temperate climates and prefer relatively dry soil. They grow well at higher altitudes, which is why this crop thrives in the Appalachian mountain chain of eastern U.S., the Rockies of western United States and Canada, and the foothills of the Himalayas. Almost all the world’s production of cultivated ginseng comes from China, South Korea, Canada and the U.S., but wild plants may come from Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Japan.
Because ginseng plants take five years or more to reach maturity, farmers who cultivate it must plan for the long term. This long period between planting and harvest time makes ginseng a costlier crop to grow, and those prices get passed along to buyers. ED products containing genuine Korean red ginseng or American ginseng typically cost more than those containing plants that are called ginseng but are not part of the Panax family.
Types of Ginseng
All members of the Panax genus are types of ginseng, but not every form of ginseng on the market as a supplement is the same. Panax ginseng subspecies include Panax japonicus, or Japanese ginseng; Panax vietnamensis, commonly known as Vietnamese ginseng; and Panax quinquefolius, a variety with five-lobed leaves most commonly found in central U.S.
These different ginseng subspecies vary slightly in their strength and uses, but the bigger difference between types of ginseng sold as an herbal remedy for ED is how the herb is processed. Ginseng plant extracts, powders and liquids sold as Korean red ginseng are:
Korean Red Ginseng
The most familiar kind of ginseng, Korean red ginseng, also called Asian ginseng, is a cultivated herb in China, Korea and Japan. The plant may be either Panax ginseng or Panax japonicus, both of which have very similar medicinal profiles. The ginseng roots undergo steam heating to loosen the skin from the flesh, which is then either sun-dried or kiln-dried. Because this processing leaves the ginseng plant brittle, the roots are then crushed into powder for capsules, pressed into pill form or mixed with distilled water to make liquid supplements.
This subspecies of the Panax family is closely related to the herb that’s familiar to buyers as Korean red ginseng, but it grows wild in Vietnam’s mountainous regions. The plant’s notched roots are harder to peel than the smooth root structures of Korean red ginseng and other varieties of Asian ginseng, so it is most often peeled by hand before drying. Because of its relative rarity and more labor-intensive processing, Vietnamese ginseng is often costlier than other Asian ginseng plants. Some manufacturers no longer use Vietnamese ginseng as the wild plant populations are threatened and its effectiveness is similar to that of other Asian ginseng plants.
Vietnam is not the only country in which ginseng plants grow wild. Throughout rural China, Korea and northern India, Korean red ginseng grows in mountainous regions. North America’s wild native species also thrives, especially in Kentucky, West Virginia and rural parts of Ohio. In the West, wild plants grow in the Aspen forests of Colorado and Wyoming. Products containing wild ginseng root command high prices because harvesting the plant from its forest habitat is more difficult. Research has not established any significant difference between wild ginseng’s use as an erectile dysfunction remedy and that of cultivated ginseng plants.
White or American Ginseng
The Panax quinquefolius member of the ginseng family is native to North America. As its name suggests, the root is paler than its eastern relative’s, and it tolerates drying well. Unlike Korean red ginseng, it typically gets cold-processed instead of steam-heated to remove the thin skin from the roots. Despite its name, white ginseng and Korean red ginseng can be difficult to tell apart by color once dried, and they contain similar levels of active ingredients.
Relatives of Ginseng
Other herbs and supplements are sometimes marketed as ginseng plants but are not members of the Panax genus. Because the word “ginseng” has close associations with overall good health, marketers of similar herbs associate their products with true ginseng. For people seeking remedies for erectile dysfunction, these herbs may not provide the same potential benefits. To make informed choices, scan labels for the following terms:
Also called eleuthero after its Latin name, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Siberian ginseng is sold as a performance enhancer for general physical activity. Some herbal medicine practitioners refer to it as an adaptogen, an herb that supports general wellness and the ability of the body to cope with environmental stress. No studies have indicated a link between the Siberian ginseng plant and erectile function.
Although Korean red ginseng grows in India, plants labeled Indian ginseng are more typically a type of Withania somnifera, a mild herbal relaxant and antioxidant. As with Siberian ginseng, no studies have established a link between any Withania species and male sexual function.
Also called suma, the dried and powdered root of the Pfaffia paniculata plant comes from the Brazilian rain forest and is not related to Korean red ginseng or American white ginseng. Aside from its purported adaptogenic properties, it has also been considered an aphrodisiac in its native country. While further studies are still being conducted on suma, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Reproduction and Development did find the herb increased sex hormone production in mice.
Studies of Overall Ginseng Benefits
Ginseng’s scientific name and the word “panacea” share the same root because ginseng plants have long been thought to be a cure-all. Current evidence shows the plant may live up to many of these claims, although reported findings vary from study to study. Studies on the herb’s safety have also been encouraging. A 2010 peer-reviewed survey published in the Journal of Ginseng Research includes findings of beneficial results for vascular disease, sleep disorders and testicular function.
An overview of the herb’s utility at NYU Langone Medical Center details studies suggesting that Korean red ginseng and its relatives could be useful to strengthen the immune system against the common cold, improve blood sugar control for people with diabetes and enhance lung function in athletes. Another study suggested the herb could enhance the effectiveness of certain anti-cancer medications.
For older people who are at risk of developing memory problems, some studies suggest ginseng could help protect against memory loss and cognitive difficulties. It has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to energize patients, and some studies bear out this use of the ginseng plant. The herb may also make influenza vaccines more effective.
Perhaps more meaningfully to people seeking remedies for erectile dysfunction, the survey of studies also cites double-blind trials that produced “significantly better sexual function” after taking Korean red ginseng supplements. Double-blind trials mean that neither the study participants nor the researchers knew until after the study which men got ginseng and which men got placebos.
Ginseng Benefits for Erectile Dysfunction
In their Quick Guide to Erectile Dysfunction Herbs, the Mayo Clinic described studies that found ginseng effective for improving sexual function as a supplement and for helping with premature ejaculation when used as a topical cream. It’s also listed as generally safe for treating ED. It’s worth looking more closely at these findings and what they mean for people who are treating erectile dysfunction with ginseng supplements.
Researchers have not yet discovered how ginseng works to improve penile blood flow, support testicular function and increase sex hormone volumes, but they attribute these benefits to a class of compounds called ginsenosides. These natural compounds affect many metabolic pathways in the human body, so discovering the exact mechanisms by which they work is a puzzle scientists are still solving.
Ginseng varieties contain about two dozen ginsenosides, but the amounts and proportions of these natural phytochemicals varies from sample to sample. How and where the herbs are grown, how they are processed and when they are picked all influence ginsenoside levels.
Another ginsenoside difference occurs between species. Both American ginseng and Korean red ginseng contain the ginsenoside Rb1 that supports testosterone production and metabolism, but American ginseng contains more of it while Korean red ginseng has more of the Rg1 group that could protect against memory loss.
While studies are still being done to understand the action of ginsenosides in the body, possible ginseng benefits for erectile dysfunction include:
- Increased blood flow during arousal
- Higher testosterone levels that could contribute to a higher sex drive
- Improved sexual performance
- Extended performance when used as an ingredient in a topical cream
American and Korean Ginseng Safety Precautions
Before adding any supplement or herbal remedy for ED, patients should consult a physician and discuss all options. Even though ginseng is recognized as non-toxic and safe for regular use, it may have mild side effects that users should know about before starting a supplement regimen. The herb’s reputation as an energizing supplement means it may also cause insomnia in people who are susceptible to it.
Although double-blind studies have found no link between the herb and elevated blood pressure, some users have noted a rise in their blood pressure after starting a ginseng regimen. Others have reported heart palpitations, but as many supplements that combine multiple herbs, the ginseng may not have been the culprit. Supplements designed to give users energy often add caffeine, yerba mate and other stimulants to the blend, making it hard for people who take them to pinpoint which herb caused the side effect.
Because herbal remedies often vary in strength and composition, anyone taking ginseng plant supplements should read carefully about suppliers. Choose companies that are open about the sources of their products and how they are processed. As with any herbal supplement, anyone taking ginseng for health should consult a physician before taking a new remedy.