Ginseng has been used in traditional folk medicine as a powerful immune booster and as a treatment for a variety of ills for thousands of years. The first written accounts were of Chinese ginseng, Panax panax, in the "Shennong Bencao Jing," a Chinese medical book dating back to 100 A.D. But, as with many plants, there are various species, and not all of them share the same healing properties. The differences between Korean ginseng and Siberian ginseng are notable, because they contain different active chemical components. Before taking any type of ginseng, consult a qualified health practitioner.
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Siberian ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus or eleuthero, is a shrub native to the Far East, growing in places such as Siberia, China, Japan and Korea. Although it has stems and leaves, only the root is used as a medicinal. Siberian ginseng is referred to as an "adaptogen," which means it can help the body adjust for optimal health under stress conditions. The active ingredients in Siberian ginseng are called eleutherosides, which researchers think stimulate the immune system. It also contains polysaccharides, thought to help boost immunity and lower blood sugar. Siberian ginseng, now more often referred to as eleuthro, is not a member of the Panax family, unlike Korean and American ginseng, which means it is not a true ginseng.
Korean ginseng, referred to as Panax ginseng or Asian ginseng, grows in both Korea and China. As with Siberian ginseng, Korean ginseng's root is used for medicinal purposes. The root needs to grow for six years before it can be used, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The active ingredient in Korean ginseng, and American ginseng, is ginsenoside or panaxoside, which is thought to be responsible for its medicinal value. Like Siberian ginseng, Korean ginseng is considered an adaptogen, although that is not a recognized label in modern science.
Despite their chemical differences, the medicinal uses for both forms of ginseng are very similar. Both are used to support the body's immune system, reduce stress, support recovery from illness, increase stamina and enhance concentration. Other shared uses include, as adaptogens, treatment for blood pressure -- both high and low -- and heart disease. Korean ginseng has more uses, however, and has been used as a treatment for menopause, blood sugar levels, cancer risk reduction and erectile dysfunction. Siberian ginseng has been used to treat herpes simplex 2. One key difference, according to traditional Asian medicine, is that Korean ginseng is considered yang, which means it is believed to have warming properties, while Siberian ginseng is considered yin, which means it is thought to have a cooling effect in the body.
Both forms of ginseng have similar side effects and possible risks, so consult with a doctor before using either of them. Common medications that can interact with Korean and Siberian ginseng include blood thinners, heart medications, sleep aids, immune-suppressing drugs and any form of sedative or stimulant. Children should not take either form of ginseng, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Due to the variety of types of ginseng, it can be easy for manufacturers from countries that don't have rigorous testing methods to export the wrong form of ginseng, one with adulterants added or a form that doesn't contain enough ginseng to be of value. Also, Siberian ginseng is much less expensive than Korean ginseng, and if you aren't familiar with the raw form of ginseng or buy from a non-reputable manufacturers, you may get the wrong form and pay a hefty price. Buy from reliable manufacturers or consult with a knowledgeable herbalist if you are going to buy the raw form.