Ginseng, a highly-prized herb in the Orient has been used since the time of early Chinese emperors, valued for its healing properties. The emperors proclaimed the root to be a panacea that could be eaten and used in soaps and lotions.
There are many types, but the one from the genus Panax, is what’s most sought after. The term panax was derived from the Greek word, panakeia, which translates to “universal remedy.”
The word “ginseng” on the other hand came from the Chinese word jen-shen that translates to in the image of a man because of the root’s unusual shape. Oftentimes the roots are shaped like that of a human body.
These are the highly-desirable ones especially if these are century-old roots because the users believe that its longevity can be transferred to the persons who eat them. It is an adaptogen, which means it contains substances that help the body restore itself back to health and work without serious side effects.
Discovery of Ginseng
There is a belief that ginseng was first discovered in Northern China’s mountains, in the region of Manchuria about 5,000 years in the past and in all probability was consumed as food. Records show that since 3,000 years ago, ginseng had been used as a medicinal plant.
It is written in the ancient Chinese Canon of Medicine that the root opens the heart, brightens the eyes and even expels evil and strengthens the soul. Prolonged consumption is purported to extend life and invigorate the body.
Demand for the Medicinal Herb
The Chinese emperors were the highest consumers of ginseng in Ancient China and were willing to pay for the highly prized herbal root in gold. The demand spurred the growth of a thriving industry, which not only attracted diggers of wild ginseng, but also traders as well as thieves for the black market.
As early as the third century AD, Korea established a robust export business for ginseng. However, the demand was so high that the wild form found in select locations in Asia was almost wiped out.
Korea started to experiment with cultivating ginseng in the 16th century, and became the first country to farm Panax for commercial purposes. It is an industry that continues to this day.
Common and Rare Types
The genus Panax has 11 species of ginseng, all of them slow-growing perennial plants. These are found only in Eastern Asia, particularly in Korea, Eastern Siberia, Bhutan and in Manchuria, as well as in North America and in some cool regions in the Northern Hemisphere.
In North America, Panax grows in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario and only in Wisconsin in the United States. Only those that belong to the Panax genus are considered to be true ginseng, which contain the active compounds called ginsenosides.
On the other hand, the Siberian ginseng, although coming from the same family (Araliaceae) contain eleutherosides rather than ginsenosides. Also, its roots are woody rather than fleshy. It is therefore not considered as a true form.
Forms of Panax
There are four forms of the commercially available Panax, which includes sun, white, red and fresh ginseng:
1. Sun Ginseng
Sun ginseng is created by a heat process which increases specific ginsenoside contents of the roots. The process involves steaming white ginseng at 120 °C (248 °F) for three hours.
2. White Ginseng
The raw product is the fresh ginger, although its availability is quite limited. White ginseng is fresh ginseng from America that has been dried without applying any artificial heat. This is usually peeled and air dried under the sun to reduce its water content by at least 12%.
Sun drying causes the root to turn yellowish white in color, although it is believed that some of the therapeutic constituents of the root break down as the roots are drying.
3. Red Ginseng
Red ginseng is also a product of heating. It is produced from the ginseng cultivated in Korea. The roots are peeled and heated through boiling or streaming at a temperature of 100 °C or about 212 °F. Afterwards the roots are mechanically dried or dried under the sun.
Most of the time red ginseng is marinated in an herbal concoction that causes the roots to be exceedingly brittle. This type is commonly used as herbal medicine and usually used to increase a person’s energy and as a stimulant for sexual functions.
Uses and Benefits
In Asia, ginseng is used in the manufacture of cigarettes, chewing gum, candies, tea, soft drinks and toothpaste. The product is also available as whole roots, powder capsules, soft gels, tea, tablets, extract and crystals. In the United States, ginseng imported from Korea is sold in health food and Asian stores. The kind coming from Asia is said to have warming properties while those coming from America has cooling properties.
It can be taken by people recovering from illness to improve their health. It brings about an increased sense of stamina and wellbeing, and improved physical and mental performance. It also helps with hepatitis C, erectile dysfunction, menopause-related symptoms. It helps lower blood glucose levels and control blood pressure. It had shown that it can help reduce high emotional and physical stress levels in people with regular intake.
It is the adaptogenic properties of ginseng that make it widely used for prevention of infection, reduce stress and fatigue, increase endurance and energy and lower cholesterol. Some of its anti-aging properties include increasing physical and mental capacity and the slow down the blood system’s degeneration. Colds, flu and fatigue are said to be relieved by the Siberian type.
What are Ginseng’s Potential Side Effects?
While ginseng is well-tolerated when take through the mouth, there are still potential side effects that users should take note of. The most common of these side effects are gastrointestinal problems and headaches. Allergic reactions are also something to look out for.
It can lower blood sugar to very low levels and your ability to concentrate has the potential to be decreased. It is not advisable to be taken by pregnant and breastfeeding women because of its estrogen-like effects.
It is also a stimulant and can trigger sleeplessness, nervousness, anxiety, restlessness and euphoria. There had been reports of ginseng increasing high blood pressure and causing vaginal bleeding, breast pain, nosebleed, vomiting and diarrhea.
It continues to be under preliminary research for its inherent properties and curative effects for fatigue felt by cancer patients, influenza, quality of life and illnesses connected with the respiratory system.