Ginseng. The mysterious root of heaven

Perhaps no other herb of the Chinese pharmacopoeia has received as much attention and fame as the one with the man shaped root known as "Ginseng" (in Chinese, "ren shen"). Its invigorating and rejuvenating properties have been attested to in the West as well as the East. Many more people have, in the last few years, begun including this herb in their nutritional regimen. Exactly what are the facts on this remarkable substance, is it panacea or placebo? Let's look a little closer.

Ginseng Woodcut

This folk papercut depicts Sun Liang, the legendary ginseng-searching master. It is told that he came to the Changbai Mountains in search of ginseng, overcoming all kinds of hardships on his way. By the time he reached the River Lagu, he had not eaten for three whole days. In his hunger, he was forced to eat some crickets. The Ginseng god was moved by his tenacity in his search and permitted him to find a ginseng. Note the enormous ginseng in the center of the papercut.

Chicken Soup with Ginseng

Ginseng is the most celebrated medicinal herb among the cultures of the world. It has a rich history and is extensively used as a restorative and preventer of disease. No other natural product can match its reputed healing powers.

An aromatic relative of wild sarsaparilla, Ginseng imparts a special taste to any dish, especially one which combines hearty flavors. Whatever its medicinal properties, this is a delicious traditional Chinese soup.

  • 2 pounds of chicken pieces or small game hen
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 slices fresh ginger
  • 4 scallions, white part only
  • 1 ounce ginseng root, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Blanch the chicken pieces in a large pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. In a large pot, combine the chicken stock, chicken pieces, ginger, scallions and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover, simmer for 2 hours, adding water when necessary. Add the ginseng, cover and cook for 1 more hour. Remove the ginger, scallions, and skim off all surface fat. Add rice wine or sherry, salt, pepper, and sesame oil. Stir the soup and serve at once. Serves 4 to 6 as part of a Chinese meal, or 4 as a single dish.

In "Shennong's Classic of Herbology", compiled during the Han dynasty (206 BC), ginseng is listed as a non-toxic herb. At that time, ginseng was already considered important in vitalize the five organs, calming the nerves, brightening vision, increasing the intellect, and with long-term use, prolonging life and making one feel young. Much the same as is claimed for it today.

Soviet scientists who have conducted research into the ginseng root in recent years have coined the term "adaptogen" as the best way to describe its properties, defined as a substance which can increase the body's resistance to outside stresses of various types without making it deviate to any extent from its normal functions.

Ginseng takes six of seven years to mature. Since ginseng guzzles every particle of nutrient in the soil, if grown domestically, it has to be transplanted every three years.

Wild ginseng is highly prized and can demand an astronomical price. While a large cultivated ginseng costs only a couple of dollars, an old wild one of the same size might well cost $5,000. In 1989, a farmer in China dug up a 500-year-old root weighting over 16 ounces, reportedly worth over US$100,000! A find such as this is as rare as winning the lottery.

Adapted from "China Tourism", 1990. Ginseng articles reprinted from Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness, Spring 1991.

Panax qinsenq & Panax quinquefolium are two species of the ginseng plant. The herb grows to a height of about 60 centimeters (around two feet) and belongs to the Araliaceae family. Gin (ren in Chinese) refers to man/human and the seng (shen) part refers to "containing much nourishment". The dried root, Radix ginseng is used medicinally for several conditions. The most common condition for which ginseng is prescribed is lack of vital energy (qi/ch'i).

The plant grows very slowly and requires a cool shady climate. It grows best in China, Korea, and Japan. Ginseng also grows wild in some parts of North America. Indeed, it has been said that the best type is the wild type with roots which are several years old.

At this point, it is appropriate to talk about the difference(s) among the "types" of ginseng.

The Asian form is the Panax qinsenq, the American variety is the quinquefolium type. Both have many similar properties, but the Chinese version is more useful for a winter tonic because of its warming nature and the American variety is useful for a summer tonic because it has a more yin or cooling nature

There is an entirely different plant called Eleutherococcus senticosus which, although a botanical cousin of ginseng is often sold as "Siberian Ginseng". It has some similar properties to ginseng. Korean ginseng is considered by many folks to be the "best". The most potent ginseng is considered by some to be that which is grown in South Korea, especially in the Kunsan and Kaesong provinces.

Manufactured ginseng often varies greatly in activity and quality and some of this may be attributed to poor quality control. In fact, some ginseng preparations have no ginseng activity at all!

This problem was addressed by a company in Lugano Switzerland. This particular company makes two products, Ginsana and Geriatric Pharmaton. The Ginsana is packaged in soft gelatin capsules which have 100 mg of ginseng extract (this value is equivalent to 500 mg of Korean ginseng root in activity).

The other product, Geriatric Pharmaton, contains 200 mg of ginseng, 400 units of the antioxidant vitamin, vitamin A; 60 mg of another antioxidant, vitamin C; 26 mg of DMAE (DMAE or DiMethyl AminoEthanol is a powerful antioxidant substance which is a precursor of the brain neurotransmitter, acetylcholine); as well as other ingredients including calcium.

A double blind study (in which neither subjects nor experimenters know who was receiving what) using the two compounds made by the Swiss company, showed that in a group of 40 to 60 year olds, use of these preparations led to increased levels of sex hormones, better reaction times, and improvement in lung functioning.

In two tests which aim at gauging the health status of the respiratory system (i.e. vital capacity and forced expiratory volume measurements) an average improvement of 10% was found in the ginseng group.

Even further evidence of the worth of this valuable root was found in a study in Argentina. The Ginsana preparation was found to be able to reverse arteriosclerotic damage damage in the brain which resulted from decreased blood circulation. The statistic was that 90% of the 200 patients suffering from a stroke or "premature aging" were helped by the ginseng according to this study and significant blood flow increases were found in the carotid and cerebral arteries. The other preparation, Geriatric Pharmaton, was used in a German study with 540 patients who suffered a number of aging related problems. The results were astounding! Hypertensive patients had blood pressure lowered, diabetic patients gave evidence of more normal pancreatic activity, and a general improvement of mental function and awareness was noted in all patients.

In an Austrian double blind study which used the Geriatric fully half of the patients showed "marked improvement" in mental and intellectual functioning after use of the ginseng preparation.

Ginseng seems to have anti-stress, as well as anti-aging properties. In a Bulgarian study at the Institute of Physiology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Dr. V. Petkov using animals given ginseng found that ginseng has "normalizing" function which means that ginseng can either inhibit or stimulate biochemical and physiological processes in response to the needs of the body. This normalizing effect is especially noticed during times of environmental and emotional stress.

In other studies, ginseng's ability to enhance performance was demonstrated. A study done by I. Forgo and A.M. Kirchdorfer using twenty male athletes from the fields of karate, boxing, and wrestling, found that ginseng was able to improve athletic performance and reduce recovery time post fatigue (a bicycle ergometer was used). There was also evidence that ginseng was able to increase oxygen usage, reduce heart rate and decrease lactic acid levels in the blood. Another study was done in Hamburg, Germany. Sixty untrained men and women were measured in regards to fitness, alertness, behavior, sleep, attitude,etc. before and after receiving a daily amount of ginseng (two 100 mg capsules). The ages ranged from 22 years to 80 years of age. The results were that those taking ginseng were able to exercise longer and recover quicker than the group not using ginseng. The studies have indicated that a pharmacologically active dose of ginseng is equal to two 100 mg capsules taken in the morning and two taken at midday. At this level there are negligible side effects and at higher does, the main side effects reported are fleeing feelings of fatigue and lethargy (extreme yang going to yin).But, where does ginseng get these properties? Pat of it can be attributed to the unique substances revealed upon analysis of the herb. Analysis reveals that ginseng contains phosphorous, potassium, calciumm, sodiaum, iron, aluminum, silicon, barium, strontium, manganese, titanium, glucose, resins, saponin, tannin, aromatic bitters, volatile oils, panacin, and a dozen biological active compounds called ginsenosides. The basic molecules are 20-s-protopanaxatriol and 20-s-protopanaxadiol. They are attached to polysaccharide (complex sugars) compounds composed of glucose, rhamnose, and arabinose.

In the mid 1980s (circa 1985), research on ginseng demonstrated certain anti-cancer, radiation effect protective properties. Interestingly though , it is not the ginsenosides that seem to be the active agents of these effects, but the many polysaccharides in ginseng that have an immunostimulatory (i.e. stimulate immune system) function. Interferon production is also affected by taking ginseng (interferon is an internally produced anti-cancer substance). There are different types of interferon and Panax qinseng Meyer has been shown to induce production of Beta interferon.

Ginseng Plant

Ginseng has a warm, sweet, and slightly bitter taste. It is said to excite the nervous system and decrease fatigue, it stimulates the blood forming organs and stimulates blood circulation, increases the contractive ability of the heart and tones up heart muscle. It improves digestion, metabolism, and absorption. It can act as an "antidiuretic" and lower blood sugar (the last quality attributed to ginsenin).

Of course, there are situations in which taking ginseng is said to be contraindicated. Patients coughing up blood should not take ginseng, also folks with encephalemia or cerebrovascular accidents (this includes strokes, which is conflicting with the earlier study noted, so readers should take this into account) in people suffering from high blood pressure, in edema (fluid retention and swelling), malfunction of the kidneys, excessive insomnia (as ginseng can make an excessive condition more excessive) and common cold with fever.

An even better breakdown of the types of ginseng and uses is that there are three basic types: Chinese, Korean red, and American. The Chinese is better for lungs and digestive system and used to help lungs, produce fluids, and used in critical conditions. Korean red is warmer and used to tone up blood and energy and for increasing functions of sexual organs and the cooler American version, is useful for acting on heart, lungs, and kidneys and therefore, good for treating cough, thirst, and for treating alcoholism.

In herbology, there is an ancient theory that the shape of a plant or root often determined what part of the body the herb was useful for treating. The ginseng root is shaped like the body of a person and thus, has been used for treating the whole body.

In purchasing ginseng, "you get what you pay for". Some unscrupulous dealers market inferior ginseng or, as we have seen, may even sell another plant altogether as ginseng. Some people who have tried what they bought as ginseng but got no effects, should try again and this time, be more careful to get the real thing.

For folks under stress (and who isn't these days), ginseng may be just what you need for increasing your concentration, endurance, energy levels, and just making life more worth living.

©1990 Dr. John Raymond Baker, D.C., Austin, TX, USA. Dr. Baker regularly writes for several national magazines on a variety of health-related topics.