Ginseng: Red, White and True?
When you start looking around for a ginseng, you'll find all kinds of products:
Siberian ginseng, red ginseng, Chinese ginseng, and wild ginseng in capsules, whole roots, powders, formulas and tinctures. The labels will try to entice you with promises of quality based on various measures: guaranteed levels of active constituents, the age of the roots, method of cultivation, or a system of grading. What's a ginseng seeker to do?
What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is an ancient and revered plant. Its genus name, "Panax" is derived from the Greek word "pan" meaning "all" and "akos" meaning "cure." True ginsengs are members of the genus Panax in the Araliaceae family. Plants in other families are sometimes called ginseng because they have similar actions. This has led to a lot of confusion (accidental and intentional) as to what is actually in a bottle labeled "ginseng."
Panax ginseng, also known as Asian, Chinese or Korean ginseng, has been used as a tonic and restorative in China for 5000 years. The roots were once dug from the wild but today such roots are rare and expensive, selling for thousands of dollars apiece. Most of the Panax ginseng sold today is cultivated in China and Korea. After 100 years of refinement of cultivation practices and seed selection, good quality cultivated roots are being produced. Both China and Korea produce red ginseng and white ginseng. Red ginseng is produced by steaming the peeled roots before drying, while white ginseng roots are dried in the sun. The steaming process changes the composition of the roots and produces a warmer, more stimulating (Yang) root. Most Korean ginseng is sold as red ginseng. Roots processed in sugar are also available. They are milder and more cooling (Yin).
Panax quinquefolium is American ginseng. First used by Native Americans, it was "discovered" in 1715 by a Jesuit missionary in Canada. Harvesting for export, which began in the late 1700's, has drastically reduced native populations, so American ginseng is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). States that want to export ginseng must have ginseng programs that provide for registration of dealers, records of purchases and sales of ginseng, and a limited season for harvesting. Wild roots are considered the most valuable because of their higher potency.
Much of the ginseng in the U.S. is now cultivated in fields under artificial shade. Ginseng is susceptible to a number of fungus infections that can destroy the crop, so fungicides are routinely sprayed on cultivated crops to prevent infection. Woods grown ginseng may be a good alternative to wild and cultivated ginseng. Roots are planted in a natural woods setting. The method of production is quite variable, though, and the quality of the roots inconsistent.
American ginseng is used the same way as Asian ginseng except that it's considered more cooling and balancing (more yin). It's a good choice for otherwise healthy people with overheated conditions brought on by stress, excessive caffeine intake, or over stimulation, as is typical of many Americans.
Other Panax Species
Several other Panax ginsengs are available, although they're seen less often in the U.S. market: Panax japonicus or Japanese ginseng, listed as an official drug in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, and Sanqi or Tienqi ginseng, (Panax notoginseng) which is not used as an energy tonic like the other ginsengs. Other species that are used medicinally include Pearl ginseng (P. elegantior), Himalayan ginseng, (P. pseudoginseng), and ginger ginseng (P. zingiberensis). Another American species, Panax trifolius, also known as groundnut, was used by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes, but there's no commercial market for this species.
Some plants are given the name ginseng although they're of a different genus or even an entirely different family. This is partly because they're similar to ginseng in their use and partly due to attempts to cash in on the lucrative ginseng market. Eleutherococcus senticosus is often known as Siberian ginseng. This spiny shrub is a member of the same family as ginseng. A number of studies conducted in Russia have demonstrated its ability to fortify the body against environmental stress and improve performance. Prince ginseng, Pseudostellaria heterphylla, is a member of the carnation family, but has a long history of use in Chinese medicine as an energy tonic. Two other herbs used in Chinese medicine are dong quai and codonopsis. While not usually called ginseng, donq quai has appeared in promotional literature under the name of women's ginseng. Codonopsis is used as a ginseng substitute, sometimes without clear label identification. Ashwagandha is sometimes called Indian ginseng, also because of its use as an energy tonic, especially for men. A fairly new ginseng-like tonic herb on the market is suma, Pfaffia paniculata, which has been advertised as Brazilian ginseng. It's helpful to know that other herbs have properties similar to ginsengs, it's also important to know which herb is in a product because prices for these substitute herbs are much lower than for true ginseng.
Ginseng quality can be confusing. There are different grading systems depending on the type of ginseng and where it's grown. Some general quality conclusions can be drawn. Ginsenosides, a group of saponins are regarded as the most important group of active constituents in ginseng. The ginsenoside content increases until after the fifth growing season, when it stabilizes or increases only very slowly. If the label does not include the age of the product, you can determine it yourself on whole roots: just count the leaf scars on the neck of the root (which is attached in the better grades of ginseng). Ginsenosides are lost with age and improper storage, so roots should be kept in a cool, dry place.
Ginseng roots are often graded by size. For example, Heaven 15 is a grade of Korean ginseng which means 15 roots fit into a standard ginseng container (catty). Heaven 30 means 30 roots fit into the same container. The larger the number, the smaller and less valuable the root. Cultivated roots are larger (but less potent) because they grow more quickly than roots grown in the wild. It is most important to buy a product that is what it says it is. Because of the high prices ginseng commands, there are many products with little or no ginseng content. Buying from a trusted source is the best way to make sure you're getting what you pay for.
How to use Ginseng
Extracts and capsules are the easiest ways to use ginseng. Another way to consume ginseng is to chew a piece of whole root. If it's too hard to chew, it can be softened first by steaming for 5 minutes. Another good method is to cook whole roots in a ginseng cooker, a special type of double boiler. Or make a tea by simmering 2 ounces of ginseng in four cups of water for 2 hours in a non-metal container. The liquid can be poured off and stored for several days in the refrigerator and the root can be cooked one more time before discarding it. An average dose is 1 or 2 cups a day between meals. You can also make a tincture which is slightly more stimulating than using the tea. Grind up roots in the blender with enough 100 proof vodka to thoroughly cover the roots. Place in a glass jar, seal, and shake every day for two weeks then strain through a linen or cotton cloth. One-half teaspoon twice a day is an average dose.
To be sure of getting the optimal benefits of ginseng be sure to buy from a source that can verify the authenticity, age and potency of the plant. Our ginseng is purchased from the finest sources in the world.
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