Mind & Spirit

The scoop on ginseng

The scoop on ginseng

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

The scoop on ginseng

Historically, ginseng has been considered a cure-all by herbalists and said to perform as a medicinal tonic for everything from baby gripe to impotence. Today, the white root is increasingly being used as an energy booster, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant due to its saponin content and capacity to increase circulation and balance the system -- plus it enhances sexual function in both men and women.

Ginseng grows wild in China and other East Asian countries and has been used for well over 5,000 years for its legendary physical restorative properties. The North American species was first found growing wild in 1716 near Montreal by a French Jesuit priest. Native Indians of the time used ginseng (gisens) for digestive, bronchial and pain problems.

Ginsengs are classified as adaptogens -- agents that help the body adjust to negative stress levels. And there is a difference between the various species. North American ginseng is used when a yin (cooling or neutral) effect is desired for the body, whereas the Asian ginseng is said to have a yang (warming) effect on the body and is used for shorter time periods. North American ginseng is said to act as a restorative tonic for fatigue, while Siberian ginseng works on the adrenals to pump up the body's immune system. The leaf is used to regulate blood sugar levels.

"Asian ginseng is more stimulating than North American ginseng," says Danette Steele, who has been a clinical herbalist for twenty years. "For a person who is depleted or has been ill for a long time," she adds, "an Asian ginseng wouldn't be my first choice in terms of boosting their energy levels. It may be too stimulating." Instead, she recommends a more gentle adaptogen, such as an Indian ginseng (Withania somnifera), which is gentle enough for children and can help people sleep.

Shali Rassouli, D.T.C.M., a Chinese medicine practitioner in Toronto, uses primarily Canadian and Siberian ginsengs in her practice as an anti-aging tool to increase the skin's circulation. "If you take it internally it increases circulation," Rassouli says. "In Chinese medicine, it gives you qi -- energy. As we age, we get sagging skin and a sallow complexion because of lack of qi." She also recommends using it topically: "There is an herbal mask I apply over the face and neck."

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Types of ginseng include:

• Panax ginseng (Chinese or Korean ginseng)
• Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng)
• Eleuthrococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)
• Panax japonicum (Japanese ginseng)
• Panax vietnamensis (native to South-east Asia)
• Withania somnifera (Indian ginseng)

Choosing ginseng
Herbs can interfere with other drugs and herbs. Seek the advice of a naturopath, medical doctor or other professional before beginning self-medicating practices. Look for products that do not use fillers, additives, artificial colour, caffeine or sugar and are recognized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Capsules, teas and bulk powders may have minuscule amounts of ginseng. Buy 100 per cent pure root ginseng, whether North American or Asian. The active ingredient is ginsenocides and there should be a minimum of 1.5 per cent. Korean red ginseng can be 15 per cent ginsenocide.

Forms of ginseng
Whole root and sliced ginseng most commonly comes in a glass jar and is suspended in water, water/alcohol, honey or as alcohol liquid extracts (drops). Extracts are made from the whole root and therefore have all the chemical properties inherent to the herb and are potent. Additional forms of ginseng are powders, capsules, wine, candy and maple syrup.

Where to buy
Purchase at a health food store, pharmacy or from herbalists, Asian drugstores or naturopaths. The Chinese term jen-shen means "in the image of man" and may be on the label.

How to use
As a medicinal agent, follow label directions carefully. Most herbalists suggest taking it for 15 to 20 days, and then to stop for two weeks, and repeat procedure. Ginseng is not recommended for pregnant women or for people with hypoglycemia or high blood pressure.

Use with chicken, beef, fish and many other foods. A dry marinade along with Szechuan spice, ginger, Chinese Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry may be used on most meats. Powders are used in teas, sweet desserts, gelatin and fried rice dishes. Whole and sliced ginseng from whole root is added to soups and stews, as is extract.

Make your own ginseng tea
Buy whole 100 per cent North American ginseng. Add one to three grams to 24 oz. of water and boil in an enamel pot for 30 minutes or slightly longer. Watch pot. Strain liquid. Makes several cups. Drink hot or cold. May be sweetened with honey, or drink plain.

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Mind & Spirit

The scoop on ginseng