Botanical and Common Names
- Family Araliaceae
- Panax ginseng (Chinese Ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Oriental Ginseng, Five-fingers, Red berry, Ren Shen)
- Panax quinquefolium (American ginseng, Pannag, Man Root, Finger Root)
- Panax notoginseng (San Qi, Pseudoginseng)
- Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)
- Oplopanax horridum (Devil’s Club – see at end)**
Do not take San Qi during pregnancy as it may adversely affect the fetus.
Avoid high doses of all varieties as some side effects have been reported. Very high doses can cause nausea, vomiting, insomnia, muscle tension, and fluid retention. Ginseng is safe when used appropriately, but the best advice is to start with a low dose and gradually increase after a few weeks, if necessary.
Ginseng should not be taken for more than several weeks without a break.
Do not use if hypertension is present.
Do not take during extremely hot weather.
Ginseng should not be used by individuals with heart or thyroid disease, diabetes, or a history of migraines.
Avoid such stimulants as tea, green tea, coffee, and cola drinks when taking any ginseng.
It is advised that people, especially men, under the age of forty should not use American or Asian ginseng (use Siberian instead) as they possess strong estrogenic effects. Consistent use can interfere with sexual development. However, they are definitely indicated in those over forty.
The strengths of ginseng vary considerably in commercial preparations. One well-publicized study analyzed fifty-four ginseng products and found that one-quarter of them contained no ginseng at all, while others provided less than the stated amount. Some even contained dirt, fillers, and other substances. Therefore, be sure of your source.
Ginseng is native to northeastern China, eastern Russia, and North Korea; but it is now extremely rare in the wild, and cultivation requires great skill. It is a deciduous perennial, growing to three feet in height, producing oval, toothed leaves with a cluster of small green-yellow flowers and red berry-like fruits. Since it is a slow-growing plant, taking four to six years to mature, it is difficult and expensive to grow. The root grows in the shape of a human form and is harvested in the autumn when the active constiuents are most concentrated.
San Qi is cultivated commercially in southern and central China, where it is unearthed before flowering or after the fruit has ripened.
American ginseng is native to North America and the Himalayas, but is rarely seen in the wild because of overharvesting. It is now cultivated in Wisconsin, China, and France.
Siberian ginseng is native to eastern Russia, China, Korea, and Japan. It is a hardy, deciduous plant, growing to about ten feet with up to seven toothed leaflets on each stem. The root is much more branched and hairy than other varieties. Although it can be grown from seed, it is a difficult plant to germinate. However, this variety is considered more adaptable and matures more quickly than others, making it less expensive to cultivate.
Technically, there are six species of ginseng and all possess relatively the same chemical constituents to a greater or lesser degree. Korean chemico-botanists are among the most skilled in the world when it comes to plant medicine research and have produced a root far superior to any other through a process of selective germination. Korean Ginseng is now regarded as the finest in the world.
Panax means all healing .
Ginseng has been used in China for over 7,000 years. It was so revered that wars were fought over control of the forests where it thrived. There is an old Oriental proverb that says if two men were to walk around the world non-stop, the one who looked untired and refreshed at the end of the journey would have a piece of ginseng hidden under his tongue.
Despite its long use in the Orient, ginseng was not taken to Europe until the 9th century CE by an Arabian physician.
As a Chinese herbal medicine, San Qi was first recorded in 1578 in the Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shizen, where it was described as being more valuable than gold.
Marco Polo wrote of this wonder drug; and, when a delegation from the King of Siam visited Louis XIV, a root of gintz-aen was presented to him. From then on, ginseng was widely used by wealthy Europeans for exhaustion and debility.
Ginseng did not reach the West until the 18th century. It became even more popular in America when they found their own indigenous species (P. quinquefolius). American ginseng was considered by the Native Americans as a means of increasing female fertility. The Ojibwa people always planted a seed to replace the herb; but this was not a universal practice, and it soon became rare toward the end of the 19th century. The Delaware, Algonquin, Iroquois, Mohegan, Cherokee, Menominee, and many others have long used it as a tonic. The juice from the root was used on wounds and sores by the Alabama Creek, while the Iroquois used root infusions as eye and ear drops.
From the mid-18th century, the collection of the herb for export to China became a virtual goldrush. North American ginseng first came to the attention of Europeans in 1716 when a Jesuit priest, Joseph Lafitau, a former missionary in China, identified a similar plant growing near a Mohawk village in Canada. He had learned of the plant from Father Jartoux, who had earlier written A Description of a Tartarian Plant Called Ginseng. In it, Jartoux detailed his personal experiences with the plant while in China and correctly predicted the discovery of it in North America based upon comparisons of a similar climate between the two countries. Jartoux set up ovens for curing the roots and had the Mohawks gather and process them for the Chinese market. By 1717, it was being brought from as far away as Green Bay, Wisconsin, by the Fox natives and shipped to Hong Kong via France. The trade quickly prospered. However, in 1752, a shipment of spoiled roots so shattered the faith of Asian buyers that it took nearly a century for the market to recover fully. By 1798, in South Carolina, especially, the shortage of ginseng was blamed on the overharvest by the Cherokees rather than the true source of the problem. China still continues to import large amounts of ginseng from the US and Canada. However, wild ginseng has been harvested so heavily that it has disappeared from many places where it once grew in abundance. To compensate, the Canadian government now restricts the gathering of wild ginseng; and, to meet consumer demand, the plant is now cultivated in North America, Europe, and many Asian countries.
Both Native Americans and colonists alike used ginseng in infusions to increase the appetite or to strengthen the digestion, particularly in the elderly and children. Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially when whiskey was added.
By 1800, several patent medicines were available that had “seng” or sangtone” in them. Between 1889 and 1905, ginseng farms sprang up all over the US. Ironically today, the US buys ginseng products from Asia that are made with roots raised in America and shipped abroad for processing.
San Qi was used extensively by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War to increase recovery rates from gunshot wounds.
Siberian ginseng can help those exposed to toxic chemicals and radiation, and was given to people following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. It is also used by Russian cosmonauts and many of their athletes to improve stamina and resistance to stress.
- antiviral (stimulates production of interferon and enhances natural killer cells and antibody activities)
- regulates blood sugar and cholesterol levels
- stimulates the immune system
(b) San Qi
- supports the function of the adrenal glands in the production of corticosteroids and male sex hormones
- improves blood flow through the coronary arteries
- hastens blood clotting
(c) Siberian ginseng
- similar to Chinese ginseng, but more stimulating
- protects the immune system
- steroidal glycosides (including those identified as being similar to the human sex hormones)
- triterpenoid saponins (up to 3%) [at least 25 ginsenosides have been identified]
- volatile oil
- vitamins and minerals (especially vitamins D, B1, B2, and minerals calcium, potassium, iron, sodium, silicon, magnesium, titanium, barium, strontium, aluminum, and manganese)
- acetyleneic compounds
(b) San Qi
- steroidal saponins (including arasaponin A and B)
- flavonoid (dencichine)
(c) Siberian Ginseng
- eleutherosides (o,6-0.9%)
- triterpenoid saponins
Siberian ginseng has proven to increase phagocytosis, B lymphocytes, and natural killer cells. Its other active ingredients (lignans and coumarin derivatives) have milder effects than those of the American or Asian varieties.
Ginseng increases non-specific resistance against several pathogens.
P. ginseng and P. notoginseng are considered warm (yang), but P. quinquefolium is cool (yin).
The major active ingredients in the Asian and American varieties are ginsenosides, which are composed of more than twenty saponin triterpenoid glycosides. In the body, these substances are thought to function like steroid hormones, but herbalists value them for what they call adaptogenic (body-balancing) properties. Although most American herbalists do not distinguish between the two varieties, Asian herbalists do and find the American variety rich in the Rb1 group of ginsenosides, which are said to have a more sedative, or cooling effect on the CNS. By contrast, the Asian variety has a somewhat different Rg1 group of ginsenosides that are more arousing and stimulating or warming to the body. Both forms are said to improve circulation, increasing the blood flow to the brain and producing a sense of mental alertness which may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Panaxin is a substance that directly stimulates the CNS and acts as a tonic to the heart and circulatory system.
Panaquilon is a substance believed to stimulate the endocrine system in general and to maintain proper hormone levels in the body. Related to Dong Quai, ginseng works in much the same way on female hormones.
In addition to sex hormones, the adrenal glands manufacture hormones that regulate blood sugar metabolism and those that regulate mineral content of body tissues. Ginsenin resembles insulin in its effects, explaining its use in treating alloxan diabetes.
Panoxic acid facilitates the efficient functioning of the cardiovascular system helping prevent the formation of cholesterol, as well as facilitating the burning of the body’s fat deposits. It has also proven to protect the liver and enhance the appetite.
Researchers around the world have been testing ginseng’s effectiveness against everything from cancer to ulcers as compounds isolated from it have been found to inhibit ovarian cancer cells.
One recent study shows that ginseng seems to do the work of the hormones which the adrenal cortex naturally produces in response to everyday stress. As a result, the body does not have to manufacture them in such large quantities, thereby easing the workload of the organ. Despite its adaptability, this vital organ was not designed to work well under conditions of frequent or prolonged stress as those found in the everyday life of modernism. In one experiment, chickens were exposed to extreme cold over a two-month period. This normally tends to decrease their egg-laying abilities. The hens received daily doses of ginseng and continued to produce as usual, laying over twice as many eggs as the control group. Many other such experiments have been done that show ginseng to increase stamina. Estimations are that, when humans use the herb, their life spans are increased by at least ten years.
The steroid constituents of ginseng are so similar in their structure to the body’s own anabolic agent that it is fairly certain they act in a similar manner. An anabolic agent builds up the general health of the body by regulating the burning of energy. The opposite of anabolic action is a catabolic one. One example of this are the drugs amphetamine or caffeine. They temporarily give a person more energy, but in doing so, tear down the body’s energy reserves. In a sense, one process is healthy and constructive, while the other is unhealthy and destructive, especially if the practise is carried out over a long period of time. Panasen, according to some researchers, has a direct stimulant effect on the brain similar to that of caffeine, but far less harmful.
Soup is a common way to consume ginseng in China and is eaten daily.
Tablets are a convenient short-term way to take ginseng.
Decoctions are a general tonic.
Tinctures are used for diarrhea related to a weak digestive function and also for chronic coughs (if combined with walnut and ginger).
Powder is usually taken in the form of a capsule and used as a tonic and for wounds, bleeding, or pain, and can be combined with slippery elm for gastric ulceration pain.
A poultice of San Qi helps heal wounds and bruises and stops the bleeding.
American ginseng is a yin tonic and taken in China for fevers and for exhaustion from such chronic wasting disease as in tuberculosis. It can also help coughs, wheezing, and fever, related to lung weakness. As an adaptogenic, ginseng’s action increases tolerance to stress and stimulates young people with strong qi (vital force), but also is able to restore and even sedate those who are weakened by illness or old age. It is also used to correct such female complaints as relieving PMS and menopausal symptoms.
There are currently a number of ginseng products on the market promoted as “fatigue fighters”. Scientists have studied ginseng in various ways, coming to the conclusion that these claims are valid.
In the West, ginseng is viewed, not so much as a medicine, but as a life-enhancing tonic and useful in coping with stress. Because of this, ginseng is often abused and should not be taken for more than six weeks at a time.
Chinese ginseng is the most prized of all the varieties and one of the most expensive herbs. It is a yang tonic, replenishing the energy (qi), especially in the spleen and lungs. Chinese ginseng should be taken for one month in the fall to strengthen the body for winter; and, if taking it regularly, a break of at least two or three weeks every two months is strongly advised.
San Qi is used as an analgesic and to stop bleeding, both internally and externally. It is also added to treatments for coronary heart disease and angina.
Siberian ginseng seems to have a general tonic effect on the body, especially on the adrenal glands. It helps the body to withstand heat, cold, infection, radiation, and other physical stresses. It has even been given to astronauts to counter the effect of weightlessness. Athletes have experienced as much as a 9% improvement in stamina. Siberian ginseng is the only one that lives up to the claim of counteracting stress.
When boiled in a tea, ginseng tastes rather like dirt, yet many prefer it this way. It can be found whole or in a processed mass of red slices. Three slices are usually sufficient for a cup and a half of boiling water. Let this boil down to one cup, strain, and drink sweetened with honey.
**Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridum) is a member of the ginseng family and, like most ginsengs, is helpful for the general vitality and health of human beings. The plant grows mainly in the northwest of the Americas. Formidable, the stems grow from six inches to twelve feet in height and are usually an inch or less in diameter. They possess frightening needle-sharp thorns that cover most of the exterior of the stem. The plant grows upright until its height becomes too much for the root, and then it falls over producing new roots along its length. The recumbent stem will remain about five inches above the forest floor and prefers dark, moist, old growth forest where it is difficult to see.
Although the stems can be tinctured, it is the root that has a more powerful effect. It is useful in moderating the symptoms of adult-onset diabetes and hypoglycemia. The herb will smooth out the peaks and valleys of the fluctuating blood sugar levels and keep it at a constant level. Extended use of the tincture in conjunction with American ginseng is quite useful in men over fifty-five who are lethargic and frequently ill. It acts much like Siberian ginseng by elevating the vitality levels of the body, eventually restoring natural immune system levels, skin colour and tone, and stamina. The dosage is a full dropper full of tincture three times a day for six months to a year.