Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ginseng: How Well Do You Know Her?

(Panax ginseng)
Everyone has heard of Ginseng. Many people think they already know it, but despite the fact that there is more folklore written about Ginseng than any other herb in history, it is one of the least understood yet widely used herbal remedies available today. Ginseng has gained popularity among American consumers in the last decade or so for its energy-boosting properties as well as its reputation for being a male performance tonic. When taken appropriately, this would be an accurate description of some of its benefits; however, many people, not fully enlightened about when to take it or not, consistently misuse it (and its close relatives) only to their detriment.

The name Panax comes from the Greek “panacea” meaning “all-healing” and originated from China where its history stretches back over 7,000 years. In pinyin it is called Ren Shen (or Jen Shen) and most translations simply put it as “man-root” because the shape of the root resembles the form of a human. The Chinese name can be literally translated to mean “a crystallization of the earth’s essence in the form of a man,” which more closely honors its revered place in herbal medicine. It has been said that Ginseng would be found where lightning hits a clear spring because the alchemy of Earth, Water and Fire created the sacred plant.

Ginseng has been more highly valued than any other plant in history. Once it would have fetched its weight in gold and up to 250 times its weight in silver. One Chinese emperor paid the equivalent of $30,000 for a single root; in Moscow, a Ginseng root worth more than $25,000 is on display at the permanent agriculture exhibit. The wild Ginseng, which has always been very rare, is considered the most precious and valuable. Wars were fought for control of forested regions known to be inhabited by the cherished Ginseng, bandits frequently hijacked Ginseng hunters, lives were lost in the pursuit of the financial rewards that an exceptional specimen could fetch. It’s interesting to ponder the duality of a plant that can both enhance the essence of our being and seduce our shadow selves as well.

Emperors and royalty were not the only consumers of Ginseng; aging common men would purchase the best Ginseng root they could afford and judiciously decoct small pieces of the herb for an occasional tonic to bring good health and promote longevity. Another way they conserved the costly root was to tincture it in brandy and eek out small sips from time to time, serving modest portions only to their most honored guests.

Spiritual masters and sages have always been enamored by the spirit of Ginseng too; it has been said that ginseng was not discovered by man, but that man was found by Ginseng. The spirit of Ginseng was considered to be exceptionally friendly and helpful, especially to the downtrodden. One Korean legend tells of a man who was in the last days of a fatal illness and his loyal son prayed night and day for a cure. When the boy at last fell asleep, exhausted from his constant vigil, Ginseng appeared to him in a dream and showed him precisely where to locate it. After drinking the decoction his son had prepared, the man made a complete recovery.

The legends accurately describe the qualities of Ginseng; it has a strong ability to increase endurance, dispel fatigue and promote longevity. As an alterative, it can adapt to the body’s specific needs and adjust metabolism to its optimal functioning. Known as the “King of Tonics,” Ginseng soothes mental, emotional and physical stress and aids in recovery from chronic illness, weakness and deficiency. Panax can help maintain vitality and peak physical health, as well as enhance athletic performance. It is also known to be an aphrodisiac, so it will enhance amorous performance as well. Taken for depression, Ginseng can help to smooth out emotional stressors and surprisingly, it has also been prescribed for some types of insomnia, especially when associated with nervous exhaustion. When the body requires sleep, the ginsenosides in the herb mimic the body’s natural anti-stress hormones and act as a sedative.

Panax Ginseng is a whole body strengthener; it helps to improve immune functioning and to build Qi (vital energy), thereby improving all systems. By improving Lung Qi, Ginseng will help with shortness of breath, wheezing and difficulty breathing caused by exertion. By improving Spleen Qi (the energy that supports vitality and digestive functions), Ginseng will help improve the appetite, restore vigor, arrest chronic diarrhea and prolapses, as well as dispel abdominal bloating. As a hepatic and cardiac tonic, Ginseng helps to improve circulation throughout the entire body, normalize blood pressure and is even used in some cases of anemia because of its ability to nourish the blood.

Ginseng is frequently used in the treatment of diabetes because it helps to reduce blood glucose levels significantly. Some studies have shown lasting results up to two weeks after the herb was discontinued. For moderate cases of diabetes, marked by lassitude and pronounced thirst, Ginseng improves symptoms, increases fluids and its proper use can often lead to lowered insulin dosages. Blood cholesterol levels also show pronounced improvement with appropriate dosages of Ginseng, therefore showing promise for the prevention of heart disease.

Ginseng is considered a very “Yang” herb and is not prescribed for individuals showing signs of heat or excess such as inflammation, a red face or a flushed and ruddy complexion, as well as most types of migraine headaches or exaggerated dizziness. Caution should absolutely be used when treating any person with high blood pressure, and Ginseng is rarely prescribed to pregnant women. The proper dose ranges from 1-9 grams depending on a person’s weight and requirements; interestingly, regular dosages tend to be stimulating, whereas large dosages can be more sedative. Ginseng has a low toxicity; however overdosages can lead to headaches, insomnia, palpitations and raised blood pressure (an antidote for raised blood pressure is mung bean soup). The effects of Panax Ginseng are compromised by tea (Camellia sinensis) and turnips, and although it is not recommended that Ginseng be taken with alcohol, it can help with intoxication.

The name Ginseng is associated with many of its related and some non-related species, causing confusion about its usages. Even the one name Panax Ginseng can refer to either Red Ginseng, which is steamed in its processing, giving it a red color and a hard, shiny surface; or White Ginseng, which is sun-dried and has a whitish-yellow hue. Although Eleutherococcus senticosus (formerly Acanthopanax senticosus) is not a true Panax, it is also known as Siberian Ginseng; it is similar to Panax Ginseng but considered to be even stronger and less heating.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is antirheumatic and reduces inflammation; it can be a helpful addition to Lyme disease treatment protocols when there is migrating joint pain and fatigue. It is often used for convalescence, menopause and in geriatrics, as well as short term stress to the body, mind and spirit. Because it increases the appetite, improves energy, and enhances the immune system, herbal practitioners prescribe it as an adjunct treatment for cancer patients to assist in recovery after chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, in 1986 it was given to people who had been exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals at Chernobyl.

Eleuthero (called Wu Jia Pi in pinyin) boosts endurance, allowing the body to withstand extreme temperatures and conditions; astronauts take it to cope with weightlessness, students use it during challenging exams, and athletes utilize it to considerably ramp up performance levels and stamina. Siberian Ginseng stimulates virility, more so than Panax, and is useful for impotence and premature ejaculation. Because Eleuthero is so potent, it should be used responsibly; it is seldom given to women or appropriate for men under the age of forty and is prescribed for no more than 3-6 weeks at a time. As with Panax Ginseng, it is not advisable to take a higher-than-recommended dose or combine it with caffeine.

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a bittersweet tonic that is also similar to its cousin Panax Ginseng, but tends to be more Yin in nature. Its particularly nourishing for women and more gentle for children, the elderly or the infirm. American Ginseng was known as powerful medicine to Native Americans and popular in the Ozarks and Appalachia where ‘seng hunters would sell the valuable specimens to Asian traders for a hefty fee. Today, American Ginseng is endangered, and wild plants should be left alone; the United Plant Savers provides resources and instruction to reintroduce this precious herb back into the environment, for it not only enhances human health, it also has a positive impact on its natural environment. Cultivated American Ginseng is grown in Canada and the US, notably in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and tends to be rather costly.
Panax Pseudo-ginseng is called san qi or tienchi in Chinese and is considered nearly identical, if not completely identical to another herb called Panax Notoginseng. It is a true Panax, but has completely different qualities than the Panax Ginseng or Panax quinquefolius varieties. The main ingredient in a famous Chinese patent herbal formula named Yunan Bai Yao, Pseudo-Ginseng strongly stops bleeding –both internally and externally- and was used extensively on wounded soldiers in the Vietnam and Korean wars.

Other herbs have earned the name “ginseng” because they too are powerful adaptogens, but they are completely unrelated species. The scope of this article cannot begin to explore their individual uses, however it may be useful to recognize them by name as helpful herbal tonics when your practitioner prescribes them for you. 

Southern Ginseng (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is an antioxidant and tumor inhibitor that is associated with immortality…well, at least longevity; it is also called Jiaogulan.

Peruvian Ginseng (Lepidium meyenii), better known as Maca Root, is considered a super-food that enhances sexual vitality and increases endurance. Many health food stores offer the root powder to add to smoothies as a highly nutritious dietary supplement.

Prince Ginseng (Pseudostellaria heterophylla) is called tai zi shen in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is known as a diverse remedy for the lungs; it enhances immune functions and treats asthma, tumors, emphysema and various chronic respiratory ailments.

In Ayurvedic medicine, Indian Ginseng (Withania somnifera) is more often referred to as Ashwagandha -meaning “horse smell” in Sanskrit- and is known as an overall harmonizer for all stages of life promoting vitality, fertility and sexual arousal.

Brazilian Ginseng (Pfaffia paniculata) is the root of a South American vine better known as Suma that increases endurance, balances hormones, restores libido, boost the immune system and is believed to inhibit cancer.

Alaskan Ginseng (Oplopanax horridus) is actually a related Panax species that is more commonly known as “Devil’s Club” or “Devil’s Walking Stick” and had been used for generations as a nutritious food and a medicine for tumors. Today it is showing promise in the treatment of adult-onset diabetes and Tuberculosis, but it too is becoming progressively more rare in the wild.

It takes at least four years for a cultivated ginseng to mature and it is preferable to allow them 6-7 years before they are harvested. The older the root, the more potent its healing powers; a German ginseng expert claims to have found a Ginseng in the wild that was over 400 years old. Unfortunately, Ginseng is becoming increasingly endangered due to its demand, so it is even more important that people use it wisely and respectfully. Even the so-called “ginsengs” of varying species are becoming more scarce, so please understand the circumstances when it is most appropriate to take these potent adaptogens, do not take them longer than necessary and better yet, help to reintroduce these wonderful medicines back into the wild for our future generations.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.
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  1. Thanks for this very comprehensive and interesting page about Ginseng! I am going to try to grow Ginseng this year <3

  2. Hai ..... I', from Indonesia.
    I respectfully appreciate your article.
    Always be success for u