American ginseng is a perennial herb, indigenous to North America, whose roots are often used for medicinal purposes. It is similar to Asian ginseng in both appearance and effect, although traditional Chinese medicine associates the American variety of ginseng with tranquil Yin energy and the Asian variety with aggressive Yang energy. American ginseng has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels in persons suffering from type 2 diabetes, though it should not be used as a replacement for insulin shots. Ginseng roots have also been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including attention deficit disorder (ADD), colds and influenza, anemia, insomnia, stress, impotence, fever, and fibromyalgia. However, the effectiveness of ginseng in treating any of these conditions has not been sufficiently researched.
The American ginseng plant is a member of the ivy family. Its green leaves grow in a circular formation, with large yellow flowers growing at the center of the stem. The plant's roots are forked and tan in color, and their shape vaguely echoes that of the human body. Ginseng once grew wild over a large portion of the eastern and central United States, and was used as a panacea by Native Americans. In modern times, it is rare to find American ginseng growing wild, and the most abundant sources of the herb within the United States are commercial farms located in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Ginseng's medicinal properties are largely due to the presence of organic compounds called ginsenosides within the plant. Ginsenosides have anti-inflammatory properties, which may explain the efficacy of ginseng in treating fevers and headaches. These compounds also appear to have an effect on blood sugar levels and insulin production, which is why many diabetics may supplement their insulin shots with ginseng. Studies conducted on rats indicate that ginsenosides increase testosterone production, enhance libido, and combat male infertility and impotence. Other studies on lab animals show that ginsenosides may combat some symptoms of cancer, but whether or not this is true for humans as well is unknown.
Claims are often made that American ginseng is an adaptogen, a substance that increases the human body's resistance to stress and stress-related ailments. Scientific evidence for the existence of adaptogens is limited. However, some studies do suggest that ginseng boosts the immune system and supports the function of the adrenal glands, which may contribute to lower levels of emotional and physical stress.
American ginseng is available in a variety of forms that may be taken orally, including water- or alcohol-based extracts, capsules and tablets. While the American variety of ginseng is usually safe for short term use, some people taking ginseng supplements may experience side effects such as diarrhea, headache, euphoria, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Due to ginseng's effects on blood sugar, it should be taken with food to avoid hypoglycemia.