Ginseng as an Aphrodisiac - Does it Work?

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Among the many ingredients that are purported to evoke sexual desire, ginseng is today one of the most popular. It has gained something of a mythical character with claims being made about the root’s power to help humans in combating a range of conditions including diabetes, stress, sexual dysfunction together with an ability to raise general immunity. While there is still no hard medical evidence to ascertain how much of the claims, if any, are based on fact, here are some points to consider before one decides to use ginseng as a supplement and especially as an aphrodisiac.

What is ginseng? In common usage, ginseng refers to the root of a herb from the Panax family and may be of two types – the Panax ginseng also known as the Asian, Korean or Chinese ginseng or the Panax quinquefolius, also known as the American, Canadian or North American ginseng. The word Panax in fact means “all-healing” in Greek and is thus a reference to the root’s supposed revitalizing properties for the whole human body.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that each type of ginseng has unique curative properties directed to particular systems of the body. While the Asian ginseng is considered to have “heating” properties and is thus useful for improving circulation, the North American ginseng is supposed to possess “cooling” properties and valuable for treating fevers or respiratory disorders.

How does ginseng work as an aphrodisiac?

In order to understand if and how ginseng works as an aphrodisiac, it is first necessary to go over what a compound would have to do in order to work as an aphrodisiac. An aphrodisiac is an element which stimulates or evokes sexual desire. Here it is important to understand that the main purpose of aphrodisiacs is to create desire and not merely improve sexual performance. This is why Viagra is a drug and not an aphrodisiac.

According to experts aphrodisiacs can work in two ways – either by working on the mind to create sexual desire or by affecting certain parts of the body to stimulate sexual desire.  An instance of the former would be something like chocolate that can make our body produce more of the chemicals that are associated with sexual arousal while an example of the latter type of aphrodisiac would be ingredients that increase the blood flow to the sex organs, mimicking the act of sexual intercourse and thus stimulating desire. Researchers believe that certain foods and ingredients said to be aphrodisiacs stimulate the production of chemicals or certain hormones like testosterone that are linked with higher libido.

So where does ginseng figure in this?

Ginseng is supposed to contain steroid-like compounds known as tetracyclic triterpenoid saponins. Also known as ginsenosides, these compounds are said to enhance physical performance and build energy as well as vitality. This is one aspect of the root that is thought to have a direct impact on increasing libido of human beings.

Again ginseng is also believed to have an effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenalin or HPA nexus of the human brain where an increase in the plasma levels of corticotrophins and corticosteroids may lead one to experience greater sense of vitality and well-being including feelings of sexual pleasure. According to an article titled ‘Clinical Efficacy of Korean red ginseng for erectile dysfunction’ and published in International Journal of Impotence Research 7.3 (1995):181-6, researcher HK Choi and others found that in a study of ninety men with erectile dysfunction, around sixty percent reported improvement in their symptoms with regular intake of ginseng compare to only thirty percent of those on the placebo.

Yet another aspect of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is based on the doctrine of signatures since the adult root has a phallic shape. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that ginseng’s resemblance to human form is proof of its rejuvenative properties in general and aphrodisiac properties in particular and in fact considers that the closer its similarity to the human figure, the more potent, the root.   A Chinese medical text of the fourth century mentions a list of ginseng-based exotic recipes that are reputed to stimulate sexual appetite. According to ancient sources, Shen Nung, one of the first Chinese emperors who practiced alchemy, recorded that he experienced a warm and sexually pleasurable feeling after chewing a bit of the ginseng root. Ginseng also prominently figures in ritual sexual practices of Taoism according to which sex without ejaculation is a means of rejuvenating the body and maintaining the balance of the yin (female) and yang (male elements).

How to take it?

 In contemporary societies, Ginseng is usually taken in an extract form in capsules and most research studies use a dosage of 200 mg per day. Many followers of traditional medicine however believe that chewing the ginseng root is more believable since saliva is said to activate many of its qualities. The Chinese also make ginseng tea by boiling one teaspoon of the root filament in a pint of water for ten minutes. The concoction is strained and then slowly sipped to maximize its benefits. At the same time, traditional herbalists recommend that ginseng be taken for a maximum of three weeks at a time followed by a rest period of one to two weeks.

Does ginseng really work?

There is no hard scientific evidence that aphrodisiacs like ginseng directly work to stimulate sexual desire. Even if research finds that some ingredients like ginseng do stimulate production of chemicals that positively affect the libido, what is far less certain is whether such chemicals are produced in sufficient quantities in the body to really make a difference. All this is made more difficult by the fact that libido is a highly subjective matter and exceedingly difficult to study. Critics also point out that much of the success claimed by use of aphrodisiacs in sexual performance is the result of a positive mental attitude – in other others just by thinking that one is using an aphrodisiac may be sufficient to experience a positive change. Finally the Food and Drug Administration in United States claims that aphrodisiacs have no scientific basis and are just myth.

So whether ginseng really works as an aphrodisiac is still open to debate. What is important is that those who are eager to use it should first go through all the evidence available and consider the side effects of the herb as well possibilities of herb-drug interactions, so that any decision finally taken will be an informed one.