Stress can be sneaky. It doesn't always come from a high pressure job or sudden trauma. It can sneak in from unexpected places – daily responsibilities, ramping up your workouts, experiencing changes in your usual routine, reaching for a goal... As stressors build up, the body might struggle to keep everything in balance. Stress can feel overwhelming and exhausting, and it can have tangible effects on the immune system, memory concentration, and sense of well-being.
Ginseng may minimise the effects of mental and physical stress. It is known as the king of herbs – but there are actually five medicinal roots from across the world that have earned the title:
- Eleutherococcus senticosus – also known as Siberian ginseng or eleuthero
- Withania somnifera – Indian ginseng or ashwaganda
- Panax ginseng – Asian Ginseng, or Korean ginseng
- Panax notoginseng – Tienchi ginseng
- Panax quinquefolius – American ginseng
What do all of these herbs have in common? They contain active ingredients that may improve vitality, concentration, and mental and physical performance – plus a rich history of traditional use to treat stress and exhaustion.
1. Ginseng is a natural remedy that may minimise the effects of stress
Ginseng may improve the body's ability to deal with stress by influencing the “HPA axis” — a signal network that runs between the brain, the adrenal glands, stress hormones, and the entire nervous system. If your HPA axis is super reactive, the smallest things could send you down a path of panic. Set off this alarm too often and you might burn out – a chronically stressed HPA axis can result in fatigue, nervous exhaustion, and hormone imbalances.
Living with ongoing stress is like overstretching a rubber band. In theory, it can only go one of two ways: it will either snap or crumble completely. But there is a third option: adaptation.
Ginsengs are adaptogenic herbs – which means they may minimise the effects of stress by helping the body to adapt. The active constituents in American ginseng and Indian ginseng have been shown to modify the body's response to stress by influencing hormone levels and rebalancing the HPA axis – no snapping or crumbling needed.
2. Ginseng may improve vitality
Stress and fatigue go hand-in-hand. If you're reaching for a coffee to get you through the afternoon, think again – rather than overstimulating the nervous system a la caffeine, ginseng may improve physical performance and vitality during times of stress by increasing circulation and improving the function of mitochondria (the powerhouses in our cells). Probably more sustainable than a coffee buzz, right?
A combination of ginsengs has been traditionally used for its anti-fatigue properties, and a recent randomised controlled trial found that Siberian ginseng may improve energy in cases of moderate fatigue .
3. Ginseng supports the immune system
Ginseng's active ingredients like ginsenosides may also support the body's immune system during times of stress. When the HPA axis is activated, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones suppress parts of the immune system by slowing down healing processes and the production of white blood cells. The body's immune system becomes more vulnerable under any kind of stress — this could be from pushing yourself physically, overbooking your to-do list, experiencing trauma, or not getting enough sleep.
In a 2005 study, participants who took an extract of American ginseng each day for four months of winter experienced far fewer colds – and when they did get the sniffles, the severity and duration of their symptoms was far less than that of the control group participants' .
4. Ginseng may reduce stress-associated mood changes
Prolonged stress can cause symptoms of low mood, restlessness, and irritability. Cortisol and other stress hormones also mess with neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – the feel-good chemicals that usually promote feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Remember that overstretched rubber band? It isn't feeling happy or satisfied – it's ready to snap.
Ginseng has been traditionally used to treat symptoms of mood changes associated with stress  – this could be thanks to the active constituents in ginsengs protecting the production and function of those feel-good neurotransmitters.
5. Ginseng may improve concentration
Walking into rooms and forgetting what you were looking for? Can't quite remember the name of the thingy that goes in the whatsit? Yep, it's thanks to HPA axis. Unchecked stress hormones can cause foggy thinking, compromised memory function, and they may actually reduce the size of the brain !
Ginseng may improve concentration and memory performance, and has been used for hundreds of years as a traditional remedy to enhance cognition. Two studies found that taking a Korean ginseng extract significantly reduced mental fatigue, and American ginseng has also been shown to improve concentration and memory in a preliminary study.
How To Take Ginseng
- Ginseng is traditionally given as a tea – but the bitter taste is shocking. Tablets are easier and more convenient.
- Take ginseng tablets as directed, early in the day.
- Speak to your doctor, naturopath or herbalist for personalised advice.