Ginseng

AKA: Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng), Panax notoginseng (Tienchi ginseng), Panax quinquefolium (American ginseng, five fingers, five-leafed ginseng, redberry), Panax schinseng (Asiatic ginseng, Chinese ginseng, Wonder-of-the-world), Panax trifolius (dwarf ginseng), ren shen.

It has been used as a general health tonic in China for the past forty centuries.

Effects: Works as an adaptogen, a nontoxic substance that normalizes body functions and protects against various stressors on the body. Many people believe Ginseng stimulates the brain and improves concentration, memory and learning, visual acuity, color perception, and aural acuity; works as a general stimulant to combat fatigue and stress; fights free radicals; reduces cholesterol; improves brain circulation; reduces heart rate; normalizes blood pressure; normalizes blood sugar; stimulates endocrine activity and metabolic functions; aids circulation and digestion; helps the body resist toxins, chemotherapy, alcohol, and drugs; boosts athletic performance and recovery from workouts; helps reduce insomnia and sleep disturbances; stimulates macrophage activity in the immune system; normalizes body functions; and improves sexual performance (though it is not an aphrodisiac). It has also been used to treat arthritis, tuberculosis, indigestion, cancer, and the symptoms of menopause.

Precautions: Solid research of its benefits is lacking. Quality can vary widely, and good ginseng is very expensive. Unfortunately, most of what is available is cheap and offers very little in the way of active ingredients: one study in the 1980s found that 50 to 70 percent of the products sold were diluted or adulterated, and a 1997 study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms found that most liquid ginseng contains alcohol, some as much as 34 percent. Many commercial products which contain ginseng, such as soft drinks, contain too little of the herb to provide any health benefits. Further, there are over two hundred different varieties, and experts cannot come to a consensus on what is the best type. Even within each variety, the quality can vary widely. Koreans routinely strip the bark during processing, the part of the plant which contains the highest amount of the active ingredients; red ginseng always has an intact bark, but white may or may not be stripped. Products should only be made with six-year-old roots, as it should not be harvested before then.

Some prefer American ginseng because it is a milder form than its Asian counterpart and avoids some of the side effects. Those suffering from acute inflammatory disease, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), heart palpitations, asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis should avoid American and Asian ginseng. Panax ginseng contains an estrogen-like compound that could cause problems in some individuals. Siberian ginseng is, strictly speaking, not ginseng at all, even though it comes from the same plant family; it has fewer side effects and more consistent results, but since it creates heat in the body, it should be avoided by those suffering from hot dry eyes, rashes, chronic sore throats, or high blood pressure.

Ginseng may cause allergy symptoms, increased blood pressure, diarrhea, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, heart palpitations, hypertension, insomnia, nervousness, tissue swelling, skin eruptions, weakness, tremors, masculinizaton in women and feminization in men, and skin rash, especially if taken at high doses for prolonged periods of time. Large doses should not be taken during an acute infection, as that may suppress the immune system.

There should be at least a three-hour span between taking ginseng and taking vitamin C, as some of the ginseng may be neutralized.

Dosage: From 500 to 3000 mg/day in divided doses. Extracts produce the most consistent results. Taking higher doses should be done only under the supervision of a health professional, and avoided as a general rule. Thomas H. Crook III, Ph.D., and Brenda Adderly, M.H.A., do not recommend taking it, based on many of the precautions cited above, while Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., recommends taking four to eight tablets a day of the Chinese medicine Ching Chun Bao, which contains, among other things, Royal Manchurian ginseng, the strongest and most effective form of ginseng.

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