All About Ginseng

Ginseng is perhaps the most well-known Chinese herb, and yet it can be difficult to make sense of all the different types and products available. It has such an impressive reputation that it’s name is used for hundreds of other beneficial herbs that have nothing to do with the ginseng plant. For example, Dang Gui is often called Female Ginseng, Codonopsis is called the Poor Man’s Ginseng, Maca Root is known as Peruvian Ginseng. The calming Eleuthero root is called Siberian Ginseng, whereas Ashwagandha is called Indian Ginseng. With all these “ginsengs” it can be confusing to know how to recognize the real ginseng plant and understand all it’s benefits on the body. Let’s take a look. 

What’s in a Name?
While the name “ginseng” might not mean much to a native English speaker, the Chinese and Latin names speak volumes on the root’s potent healing abilities. In Chinese ren shen (人参) literally translates as “human root” because the plant has a strange resemblance to the human figure. Because of that, it has often been said that ginseng is not focused on one particular effect, but strengthens the qi of the entire body. The latin name, panax ginseng or panax quinquefolius, literally means “cure-all for any ailment” and is where we get the word panacea. 

Harvest and Preparation
To achieve highest potency, ginseng must be harvested when it is at least 5 years old. Shortly thereafter, the small roots, leaves, and stems are removed before being prepared in a variety of ways. “White ginseng” is simply washed and dried whereas “red ginseng” is steamed at high temperature before being dried to increase the warming effect of the root on the body. In addition, the terroir or location of cultivation, will have an impact on the effects of the root. This is why, for example, you can find Ginsengs grown in American, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese soils each tauting varying levels of potency.

Diverse Varieties
While there is no shortage of plants bearing the name ginseng, there are only three primary variations on this renowned theme: American, Asian, and Korean.  The primary differences are in the temperature of the three varieties. For example, American Ginseng runs cool and so acts as a better yin tonic. Chinese Ginseng is warm, aids to generate fluids, and has the effect of giving a calm endurance, like a tree steadily growing without fatigue. Korean Ginseng is red in color like some Chinese Ginsengs, but is hot in temperature. This third variety is best used for the elderly and prolonged may be damaging to someone young and overactive due to its hot nature. 

Healing Powerhouse
While American, Chinese, and Korean ginsengs differ in how they fortify the body’s energy, all three carry the same strengthening effects.  In general, ginseng drastically tonifies qi of the spleen, lungs, and heart, promotes the production of fluids to strengthen blood circulation, digestion, andsexual function, and improves focus and tranquility. In the Western terms, ginseng has been used build immunity, regulate blood sugar, improve focusand mood, and boost endurance. It may also be helpful in treating cancer, heart disease, erectile dysfunction, and menopausal symptoms.

When to AVOID Ginseng
While ginseng is an incredible herb; there are still times when you should avoid it. If you have persistent headaches, heart palpitations, tightness in the chest or difficulty breathing, insomnia, or severe mental illness do not take ginseng. You should also avoid ginseng when pregnant or if you have high blood pressure.

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