Ginseng: Everything You Need To Know

Ginseng: Everything You Need To Know
Panax Ginseng

WHAT IS GINSENG?

Ginseng is a popular Chinese herbal remedy that's made from the root of the ginseng plant. It's sometimes called "man-root" because the multi-limbed rhizome of wild ginseng plants take on a human-like shape. Other nicknames include "root of life" and "root of immortality".

For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has used ginseng as a natural cure for erectile dysfunction and to boost sagging libidos in all genders. It stimulates the immune system, increases energy, reduces stress, sharpens mental focus, and stimulates fertility. Ginseng is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, and there is some anecdotal evidence that it may even help fight cancer. Not to mention, this “cure-all” achieves all this with practically no side effects for most users.

Due to its ever-increasing demand, ginseng is also one of the most expensive herbal medicines on the market today. Some premium wild ginseng roots have sold for as much as $200,000 USD. Although rare, sales like that do happen for ginseng hunters lucky enough to stumble across a ginseng plant that's matured naturally for well over a decade. To be considered harvest-worthy, ginseng must be several years old; it grows very slowly. Wild roots sell for $500–600 USD a pound on average. Cultivated ginseng, on the other hand, is only worth about $50 USD a pound.

There are three different types of ginseng plants: Korean (Panax ginseng), American (Panax quinquefolius), and Siberian (Eleuthero). Korean ginseng is the most powerful and most valuable. American ginseng has similar health benefits, but it's not nearly as energising. Siberian ginseng is totally different. Although it does have some value in herbal remedies, it does not contain ginsenoside (AKA panaxoside), the active ingredient in Korean and American ginseng.

Over time, Ginseng became so popular in Asia that profiteers overharvested this highly coveted plant. That means authentic Korean ginseng is rare and hard to find. As a result, the United States exports tonnes of American ginseng to China every year. Even if you purchase a ginseng product that's made in China, you may receive American ginseng. Pay close attention to the labels and only buy from a reputable dealer.

GINSENG'S EFFECTS

GINSENG'S EFFECTS

For thousands of years, ginseng has safely treated a wide range of complaints as a general vitality booster. That's because Panax ginseng belongs to a special class of herbs and plants called adaptogens. Instead of blindly focusing on one organ, whether it's functioning properly or not, adaptogens "adapt" to the current condition of your body. In that way, ginseng is like a smart drug that will regulate your endocrine system and balance your hormones—if, and only if, they need balancing. This holistic approach gives ginseng a unique ability to heal without doing harm.

Ginseng is world-famous for its value as a sexual aid. Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction often have stronger erections and more staying power after they begin using this herb. It's even supposed to increase sperm count. Ginseng's most popular benefits aren't restricted to the male gender; it can also help post-menopausal women who lack desire naturally increase their sex drive. According to animal studies, ginseng makes our furry friends more willing to mate too, indicating that man-root's more sensual side is no mere placebo effect.

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If you suffer from brain fog, ginseng might clear your mind and allow you to focus. It acts as a mild stimulant to relieve minor fatigue and improve cognition. Ginseng is not a cure for long-term sleep loss, and it only improves mental function if you're actually tired. It did, however, improve hyperactivity and attention scores among test subjects with ADHD. It can also improve your mood, calm your mind, and heighten your memory. Researchers have found that ginseng aids both the mental abilities and behaviour of Alzheimer's patients.

This root is often used as an immune-boosting tonic to ward off the common cold and influenza, and it's been known to help ailing patients regain their strength. It's particularly helpful for people who are fighting cancer, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, and COPD because it improves the body’s response to stress in addition to supporting the immune system. However, claims that ginseng can improve physical performance and endurance in healthy subjects are highly debated.

Ginseng reduces blood sugar levels and blood pressure, but only if you have type 2 diabetes or hypertension. It's still safe to take for those who don't suffer from either condition. The ginsenosides in ginseng can also combat inflammation, a condition that is now thought to be the underlying cause of many serious diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

It seems like ginseng's virtues are endless. Other benefits include weight loss, protection from alcohol toxicity, anti-cancer properties, and cholesterol reduction. However, ginseng does not work for everyone or for every disease. It you suffer from a serious condition like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or erectile dysfunction, please consult with your doctor about using ginseng as a complementary treatment in addition to traditional medicine, rather than using it for self-care.

GINSENG'S SIDE EFFECTS

For most people, ginseng is safe to take for short periods of time. If you're sensitive to ginseng's active ingredients (ginsenosides), or if you take this herb for a prolonged period (over six weeks), you may experience side effects like:

  • diarrhea
  • headache
  • fast heart rate
  • anxiety
  • change in blood pressure
  • insomnia
  • vaginal bleeding
  • tender breasts

Allergic reactions can be serious. Please discontinue use and seek immediate medical attention if you develop hives, have trouble breathing, or experience swelling of the tongue, throat, lips or face. Other serious reactions include burning of the eyes, skin pain, sore throat, high fever, and skin rashes, blisters, or peeling.

Ginseng may interact with other drugs and supplements. The combined effects can be dangerous. Do not use ginseng with other supplements that can reduce blood sugar, including psyllium, chromium, and alpha lipoic acid.

You should always discuss all prescription and over-the-counter medicine you take with your doctor along with any supplements. Take special care if you plan to take ginseng with any blood thinner, immunosuppressant, antidepressant, or diabetes medication. There haven't been any studies conducted to show whether ginseng is safe for use by children or pregnant women; use by these groups should be avoided.

HOW TO CONSUME GINSENG?

HOW TO CONSUME GINSENG?

There are many ways to consume ginseng. Most people start with gelcaps containing ground ginseng root. You can also make teas, tonics, or tinctures. Prepared products are readily available in most health food stores, but you can also use the fresh or dried root to create your own.

How to make ginseng tea:

  1. Cut fresh or dried ginseng root into thin slices.

  2. Drop the slices in a pot of boiling water.

  3. Turn off the heat and steep for 5 minutes.

  4. Sweeten to taste with honey if desired.

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How to make ginseng tincture:

  1. Slice a whole ginseng root and place it in a jar.

  2. Cover with 190-proof grain alcohol.

  3. Tighten the lid to prevent evaporation and place in a cool, dark place for 30 days.

  4. Strain.

  5. Dose yourself with 5–15 drops once or twice a day.

Ginseng

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You can also eat ginseng root. Slice it, steam it in a basket for 15 minutes, then eat it as is, or use it in any recipe that calls for root vegetables.

If you're able to harvest your own fresh ginseng, you can preserve the roots by drying them. Wash gently to remove dirt and debris, being careful not to break the skin. Let them air-dry for several hours. Place the roots on a screen in a single layer with space between each root. Put the screen in a warm, dark place where the air is still for two weeks to allow the drying process to complete.

Technically, ginseng roots must be at least six years old before they're harvested to be considered red ginseng, but some people use this term to refer to ginseng that's been steamed prior to drying. If you prefer this method, steam your roots after they air dry, but before you place them on the screen. Do so by placing them in a steamer basket over boiling water for one to two hours.

For best results, use ginseng for two to three weeks, stop for one to two weeks, then repeat the cycle. This practice will eliminate most side effects, unless you're allergic, and prevent your body from building up a tolerance to ginsenoside.

Start off with a low dose of ginseng to see how your body reacts to it. If you tolerate it well, you can increase slowly after the first week. Most people never exceed 2g of raw root or 400mg of dried ginseng in a 24-hour period.

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF GINSENG?

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF GINSENG?

Ginseng has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine with great success, and researchers have now identified some of the scientific mechanisms responsible for its effectiveness. Here are some of the health benefits of ginseng.

1. Ginseng Is An Antioxidant & Anti-inflammatory

Chronic inflammation and oxidative damage cause more than just pain and swelling. It's now believed that they contribute to life-threatening conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer's disease. Researchers have shown that this herb can reduce inflammation markers and increase antioxidant activity in otherwise healthy subjects. Here are some of the studies.

  • Ginseng reduced the inflammation and oxidative activity associated with eczema in a test tube study.
  • After supplementing with ginseng for a week, male athletes were shown to have less inflammation than those who were given a placebo.
  • Postmenopausal women who took ginseng for 12 weeks under a doctor's care also had less inflammation and oxidative stress markers at the end of the study than those who took a placebo.

2. Ginseng May Help Prevent Cancer

Although no one's claiming that ginseng can cure cancer, it can do its part in combination with a healthy lifestyle to reduce your risk of this deadly disease.

  • Two studies show that ginseng can reduce your chances of developing cancer. The first found that people who take ginseng developed cancer 16% less often than those who don't. The second found that ginseng users tended not to get specific forms of this disease like lung, stomach, liver, colon, esophagus, lip, and mouth cancer.
  • Ginseng can also help during cancer treatment. It reduces side effects, helps maintain the patient's overall health and vitality, and it can even increase the effectiveness of some cancer drugs.

3. Ginseng May Stabilise Blood Sugar Levels

Fluctuating blood sugar levels aren't good for anyone. They're a real and immediate danger for diabetes patients, and in healthy individuals, these ups and downs can affect your energy levels, your mood, and your weight. Here are some studies that prove ginseng can help keep blood glucose levels nice and even.

  • A group of 19 type 2 diabetes patients were given 6g of Korean red ginseng along with traditional treatment. At the end of the 12-week study, they all showed marked improvements. On average, they reduced their blood sugar by 11%, their fasting insulin by 38%, and their insulin sensitivity by 33%.
  • Fermented red ginseng was shown to be more effective than a placebo at lowering blood sugar after the subjects were given a meal.
  • By taking ginseng, 10 healthy subjects had better blood sugar results on the sugary drink test.

4. Ginseng Supports The Immune System

Most research into ginseng as an immunity booster has focussed on cancer patients, but that doesn't mean it can't help healthy people too. After all, it does appear to make vaccinations, like the flu shot, more effective for everyone.

  • Patients recovering from surgery to remove stomach cancer took 5400mg/day of ginseng for two years. Testing showed their immune system functioned at optimal levels and cancer recurrence happened at a lower rate than the general population.
  • Another study shows similar results. This one found that patients who took ginseng and had their cancer surgically removed were 38% more like to survive the surgery and 35% more likely to be cancer-free at the five-year point.
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5. Ginseng May Improve Sexual Performance

Ginseng is more famous for its use as a potent sexual aid than for any of its other benefits, and science says this isn't a myth. Here are some studies that prove it works.

  • After 8 weeks of taking 1000mg/day of ginseng, 86 men reported significant improvement in their erections.
  • A different group of men found that their erectile dysfunction symptoms were reduced by 60% compared to a mere 30% improvement enjoyed by men who took a pharmaceutical ED treatment.
  • Ginseng works in two ways to help ED. It reduces oxidative stress in penile tissues and blood vessels, and it increases nitric oxide production to increase blood flow.

6. Ginseng May Improve Brain Function, Increase Energy

Ginseng does more than fight disease; it can improve both your physical and mental vitality if either have been lagging. Here's how this Chinese herb has been proven to help.

  • Ninety people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome where given either ginseng or a placebo for four weeks. Those taking ginseng felt they had more physical and mental energy during the study than the placebo group.
  • Thirty healthy test subjects were given 200mg/day of Panax ginseng for four weeks. They showed measurable improvement in mood, social functioning, and mental health.
  • A different set of thirty healthy adults were given either 200mg or 400mg of ginseng in a single dose before taking a 10-minute test. All showed improvement, but the 200mg group had the biggest increase in mental performance. A little ginseng goes a long way.
  • Multiple studies have shown that ginseng can benefit Alzheimer's patients too. When given this herb, both their cognitive abilities and behaviour improve.

HOW TO GROW GINSENG?

HOW TO GROW GINSENG?

If you'd like to grow your own ginseng, it's possible, but it will take a lot of time and patience, plus the right environment. The plants grow slowly and they're picky about their surroundings. It helps if you live in a place where wild ginseng flourishes, such as the US East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, or Asia. To be successful, you should simulate the conditions that wild ginseng prefers, choosing a sloped woodland area with natural shade instead of a typical garden setting.

Ginseng grows best in soil with a neutral pH level. If it's not in the 5.6 to 6.0 range, adjust with soil amendments like lime before you plant. The desired area will also need to have about 80–90% shade and not get excessively hot, even in the summer. Make sure you'll have access to the plot for years into the future and that the ground will not need to be disturbed for any other type of project. Your newly planted ginseng may need a full decade for the roots to reach the desirable size.

If possible, keep your new enterprise a secret. Because of its value, ginseng theft is a real threat. Poachers have been known to sneak into fields under the cover of darkness to dig up roots well before the owner would be ready to harvest in order to make some quick cash.

1. Buy Ginseng Roots Or Seeds

You can grow ginseng using either seeds or roots to start your garden. One or two-year-old rootlets are sold to new farmers so they can quickly establish their fields. They'll take hold in the soil easier than seeds, and you'll see live ginseng plants emerge much faster than if you started from seed. Plus, you'll also have a headstart on your harvest. Once you get the hang of growing from roots, try growing from seeds. You can harvest your own as your plants get older, or you can buy those too. You'll get many more seeds than roots for the same amount of money.

If you're in an area where ginseng grows naturally in the wild, like the Appalachian Mountains, try to find a local source for your seeds and roots. Not only will you know they're fresh and authentic, you may be able to see where they grew and get some ideas for your own garden. Moreover, a local source might be more willing to answer your questions after your purchase than someone online.

A reputable seller will only ship ginseng roots and seeds in the fall when they should be planted. But don't wait too long to look for one; the best sources often have waiting lists and take pre-orders.

Seeds come in two forms: green and stratified. Green seeds are picked that year and are still encased inside the berry. If you sow green seeds, they will not sprout until the second spring after they're planted. It will take them that long to shed the flesh of the berry and fully mature. A stratified seed, on the other hand, is no longer encased within the berry. They cost about twice as much as green seeds, but they will germinate the first spring after they're planted in most cases.

2. Choose Your Site

Look for a wooded area with mature hardwood trees like walnut, oak, maple, or hickory. The canopy should provide about 90% shade and there shouldn't be a lot of smaller trees or bushes under the canopy. The shade will keep your developing plants cool in the summer and prevent crowding from undergrowth.

Choose a site on a slope that faces east or north. These areas are cooler than those that face south or west. The sloped area will also help the soil drain; ginseng does not like to grow in soggy areas. Clay-based soil should be avoided. Plants that like to grow in the same conditions as ginseng include goldenseal, black cohosh, and wild yam. If you see those growing on your potential site, you've found a good spot.

3. Plant Your Roots Or Seeds In The Fall

Wait until after it rains or snows to plant your roots or seeds. The ground should be moist, but not saturated. Before planting, make sure you're not planting directly above a rocky layer in the soil. If a stick will easily penetrate the soil to a depth of at least 5cm, you're good.

Start by removing any of the fallen leaves or natural mulch covering the area where you will be planting. Sow the seeds about 50cm apart. Poke a hole about a centimetre deep, drop the seed in, cover with soil, then pack it down firmly. Finally, recover the area with about 8cm of the leaves you removed when you started to plant. This is a wild-simulated method that requires no tilling.

Roots must be kept moist prior to planting and should be placed into the soil whole. Plant as soon as you receive them or store in the refrigerator. If stored, they must be aired out daily to prevent mould or rot. Don't try to stretch your order by breaking them into sections. Plant rootlets using the same spacing as seeds, but they'll need to be positioned in a larger hole at a 30–45° angle. The top should be a couple centimetres below the surface once the soil is replaced.

4. Let Nature Take Its Course

This is where patience comes in. You have no choice now but to wait until spring for the young plants to emerge. There's nothing you can or should do to help them. They'll have to thrive, or not, on their own—just like wild ginseng.

Whether you start from root transplants, green seeds, or stratified seeds, not every one will result in a ginseng plant. Viability rates depend not only on the quality of the seeds and roots, but the weather, how they were planted, and their environment. Sometimes, if a spring season is hotter or dryer than usual, even stratified seeds will lie dormant until the next year when conditions are better.

5. Harvest Mature Roots In Five To Ten Years

Be very careful when you dig up the roots of a mature plant. You don't want to break any of the root hairs or damage any immature plants nearby. Starting about 15cm away, use a small pitchfork or spade to loosen the soil around and under the plant. Finish with your hands, gently wiggling the roots from the soil. Once the root has been picked, place it on a wooden tray. Keep all the roots in a single layer to promote airflow and prevent breakage. Wash them briefly and gently before drying on wooden racks. Never let your ginseng touch metal if you can prevent it.

THE CHEMICAL COMPOSITION OF GINSENG

Like most edible plants, ginseng roots contain carbohydrates, sugars, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, but ginseng's saponins are the active components responsible for most of ginseng's health benefits. So far, scientists have identified 13 saponins in ginseng. They're referred to generically as ginsenosides or panaxosides.

THE HISTORY OF GINSENG

THE HISTORY OF GINSENG

No one knows when mankind first started using ginseng as a tonic. The first time consumption was recorded was in an ancient Chinese text from the first century AD. This writing by Chinese herbalists claimed the roots could brighten the mind, prolong life, and increase wisdom, as well as improve sexual vitality. Its reputation as a potent aphrodisiac has made ginseng a popular and highly sought-after herb throughout the centuries.

Early practitioners of Chinese medicine probably tried ginseng initially because the roots resemble a small man. This unusual appearance would have made them think that ginseng would benefit the human body as a whole, in the same way they thought walnuts were good for the mind because they looked like a brain. As crazy as that sounds in today's world, this was a common practice in ancient times and even has a name: the Doctrine of Signatures. In the case of ginseng, the doctrine was spot on.

Before long, all of China had heard of ginseng's reputation as a virtual fountain of youth. As a result, the Chinese government and lords sought to control the regions where ginseng grew wild in those times, and it soon became worth its weight in gold. Wars were fought, lives were lost, fortunes were made, and today, natural wild ginseng in Asia is very rare and incredibly expensive due to overharvesting.

American ginseng is now one of America's biggest exports to China. Some is cultivated using either traditional or simulated wild conditions, but wild ginseng hunting also attracts many people in need of money in the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains. Hunters scour the mountainsides, often trespassing on private lands in search of small green plants with red berries and roots that can sell for enough money to carry them through the coming year.

Some will replant seeds as they collect mature roots, but others dig up anything they can find with no regard for future generations. As a result, strict regulations have been created to control who can hunt for ginseng, as well as when and where they can harvest.

Today, ginseng is still widely consumed and an important part of Chinese medicine. You'll find it in capsule form at health food stores, pharmacies, and online at a variety of price points.

IS GINSENG SAFE?

IS GINSENG SAFE?

Unless you're allergic or sensitive to ginseng's active ingredients, it's considered safe to use for short periods of time. After about 4–6 weeks of use, you can take a break and safely resume use for another short period.

Ginseng is not addictive, and it can help some people get through withdrawal symptoms if they decide to stop taking other drugs that are addictive.

However, ginseng may not be safe for use by all people. It can act as a 5-HT2A agonist, so it should not be taken along with SSRI antidepressants, and it can cause hypomania for some people with bipolar disorder. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, you should not take ginseng, and you should not give it to children.

Ginseng is legal to use no matter where you live, but laws pertaining to purity, labelling, harvesting, poaching, and exportation abound.

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