The most characteristic compounds in the ginseng roots are the ginsenosides, and most biological effects have been ascribed to these compounds. The ginsenosides are dammarane saponins and can be divided into two classes: the protopanaxatriol class consisting primarily of Rg 1, Rg2, Rf and Re, and the protopanaxadiol class consisting primarily of Rc, Rd, Rb1 and Rb2. Ginseng also contains other saponins, polysaccharides, amino acids (in particular glutamine and arginine) (Kuo et al 2003), essential oils and other compounds. Three new sesquiterpene hydrocarbons have also recently been isolated from the essential oil: panaxene, panaginsene and ginsinsene (Richter et al 2005).
Ginsenosides Rh1, Rh2, and Rg3 are obtained from red ginseng as artifacts produced during steaming. It is likely that ginsenoside is actually a prodrug that is converted in the body by intestinal bacterial deglycosylation and fatty acid esterifi-cation into an active metabolite (Hasegawa et al 2004) and therefore extrapolation from in vitro studies or studies in which ginseng or isolated constituents were given by injection must be made very cautiously.
Commercial ginseng preparations are variable in quality. An analysis of 50 products sold in 11 countries show that there is a large variation in the concentration of ginsenosides (from 1.9% to 9.0%). Some products were even found to be void of any specific ginsenosides. Some ginseng products have also been discovered to be contaminated with ephedrine. Therefore, it is essential that only quality ginseng products are used (Cui et al 1994). Although the root hairs have a higher level of total ginsenosides than the main root, the main and lateral roots are the preferred medicinal parts. In all probability, it is the ratio of ginsenosides that is important and that other important compounds are also active.
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