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Asian ginseng Panax ginseng

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by Steven Foster © 2009

Ginseng

Asian ginseng Panax ginseng

American ginseng Panax quinquefolius

What is it?

Ginseng is the root of two different herbs from opposite sides of the world, American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng). American ginseng is wild-harvested and grown in eastern North America. Asian ginseng, which includes both Korean and Chinese ginseng, is cultivated in China, Korea and Japan. "Ginseng," "jen-seng," "schin-seng," or "ren-shen" are all different transliterations of the same Chinese ideograms found in Western references. It means “essence of the earth in the form of a man.” According to Harvard botanist. Dr. Shiu Ying Hu, sêng is a term used by Chinese medicinal root gatherers to described fleshy roots used as tonics. The word sêng is preceded by modifiers which help describe the source plant, the region in which it was harvested or medicinal uses. She notes that all species of Panax do not product sêng and all sêng -producing plants are not members of the genus Panax. Dr Hu uses this metaphor: "A horse is a mammal, but not all mammals are horses. Likewise, ginseng is a Seng but not all sengs in Chinese medicine are ginseng.” Dr. Hu has documented over 60 species of “seng-producing” plants, in at least 20 plant families. But, the is only one “gin-seng.”

Historical Considerations

If you could dig a hole to China from the Appalachians or the Ozarks you just might end up in a forest that looks very similar to the one where you started. For more than 200 years plant geographers have recognized a phenomena known as the “disjunct eastern Asiatic — eastern North American range.” There are about 100 genera of plants that only occur in eastern Asia and eastern North America, which includes well-known plants groups such as sassafras, witch hazels, hickories, blue cohosh (Caulophyllum), and the most famous example, ginseng (Panax spp.). These patterns of plant “disjunctions,” where plant populations are separated by dozens,or even thousands of miles, are believed to be remnants of an ancient forest that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere about 70 million years ago. Surviving plants in these groups have survived in much of eastern Asia, as well as eastern North America, especially in the Appalachians and the Ozarks.

In 1709, Petrus Jartoux (1668-1720), a Jesuit missionary, was on a mapping expedition for the Emperor Kangxi in north China, near the Korean border. Four roots of the Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng ) were brought to him in a basket. He recorded its uses, and tried the root himself, observing its effects on his pulse and general energy. Jartoux’s observations became the first authentic account of Ginseng by a Westerner. In 1713 his comments were published in English in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. "As to the place where this root grows,” Jartoux wrote, “it is in general between the 39th and 47th deg. of north latitude and between the 10th and 20th deg. of east longitude from the meridian of Pekin [Beijing]. There is a long tract of mountains, which the thick forests, that cover and encompass them, render almost impassable. On the declevities of these mountains, in thick forests, on the banks of torrents, or about the roots of trees, and amidst a thousand different sorts of plants, the ginseng is found. It is not to be met with in plains, valleys, marshes, the bottoms of rivulets, or in places too much exposed and open. If the forest take fire and be consumed, this plant does not appear till 2 or 3 years after; it also lies hid from the sun as much as possible; which shows us that heat is an enemy to it. All which makes me believe, that it is to be found in any other country in the world, it may be particular in Canada, where the forest and mountains, according to the relation of those that have lived there, very much resemble these here.”

In 1715 Joseph Francois Lafitau (1681-1746), a Jesuit missionary who worked above Montreal in Canada from 1711-1717, read Jartoux’s words, then began a search for ginseng in Canada. In 1716 Lafitau, strolling in the woods near his cabin, found the red-berried plant. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was discovered. That year he apparently sent specimens to the french botanist, Michel S. Sarrazin (1659-1734), who described American ginseng and its discovery. Lafitau sent samples of the root to Jartoux, who showed them to Chinese merchants and arranged to have the roots imported to China.

Traditional Use

According to the Harvard University botanist Shiu Ying Hu, the earliest mention of ginseng is in the 2,000-year-old herbal of Shen Nong: It is used for repairing the five viscera, quieting the spirit, curbing the emotion, stopping agitation, removing noxious influence, brightening the eyes, enlightening the mind and increasing wisdom. Continuous use leads one to longevity with light weight. Ginseng's perceived use has changed little in 2,000 years.

Prior to its discovery in the early seventeenth century, American ginseng had been used by American Indians, for purposes quite similar to the use of Asian ginseng by the Chinese. It was among the five most important medicinal plants of the Seneca Indians, and was primarily given to the elderly. According to Crow legend, the wife of Gray Bull learned in a dream that the leaf or root tea would aid in childbirth without suffering. The Penobscots, who referred to it as “man root,” prescribed the root tea to increase female fertility. Ginseng was regarded as a “universal remedy” for children and adults by the Meskwaki (Fox ) Indians of Wisconsin. It was combined with other medicinal plants to render them more powerful. The Menominee considered the root to be a tonic and strengthener of mental prowess. American ginseng never became an important medicinal plant in American medicine, though the root was official in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1842-1882. It was regarded as a mild stimulant, and soothing to an upset stomach. Its first mention in a Chinese work was in Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi (Omissions from Ben Cao Gang Mu) by Zhao Xue-min, published in 1765 during the Qing dynasty.

The first Western description of Asian giseng was that of Père Jartoux, whose 1709 observations were first published in 1711. Attesting to the past and present potential of the herb, Jartoux wrote: “Nobody can imagine that the Chinese and Tartars would set so high a value on this root, if it did not constantly produce a good effect. Those that are in health often make use of it, to render themselves more vigorous and strong; and I am persuaded that it would prove an excellent medicine in the hands of any European who understands pharmacy, if he had but a sufficient quantity of it to make such trials as are necessary, to examine the nature of it chemically, and to apply it in a proper quantity, according to the nature of the disease for which it may be beneficial.”

Current Status

In the last thirty years, Asian ginseng and increaslingly, American ginseng, have been extensively studied. Like eleuthero, ginseng is an adaptogen. At least seven European clinical studies showed that standardized extracts decreased reaction time to visual and auditory stimuli; increased respiratory performance, alertness, power of concentration, and grasp of abstract concepts; and improved visual and motor coordination. Sometimes conflicting results indicate the need for further clinical studies, especially on products with well defined levels of active compounds. A study conducted by French researchers evaluated complaints of patients suffering from “functional fatigue,” such as being worn out, tired, empty feeling, etc. The double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved 232 patients between ages 25 and 60 years. Patients were allowed to chose five items of a list of 20 suggestions which best described how they felt, and their response to either the test substance or placebo. Using a scale to score the conditions, patients were evaluated 21 and 42 days following treatment. At the end of the study, those who took a ginseng-containing product showed significant improvement in the scoring system, when compared to patients who received the placebo. Improvement included parameters related to fatigue, anxiety/nervousness, as well as poor concentration. Recent studies have focused on antiviral and metabolic effects, antioxidant activity, and effects on nervous and reproductive systems. Ginseng is also a nonspecific immunostimulant similar to echinacea. There are more than eighteen active chemicals called ginsenosides in Asian ginseng. American and Asian ginsengs contain some of the same as well as some different ginsenosides which explains their different actions as expressed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Mild American ginseng helps to reduce the heat of the respiratory and digestive systems, whereas the stronger Asian ginseng is a heat-raising tonic for the blood and circulatory systems. In Germany, Asian ginseng products may be labeled as tonics to treat fatigue, reduced work capacity, lack of concentration, and convalescence.

Preparations:

Asian ginseng is available as whole root, powder, and in various forms including “white” and “red” ginseng. White ginseng is simply the dried root; translucent, rust-colored “red” ginseng is made by steaming the roots for three hours, then drying them; it is considered stronger than white ginseng. Product forms include tinctures, capsules, tablets, teas, and extracts. Asian ginseng products standardized to contain 4-7 percent ginsenosides are widely sold and may produce more reliable effects than other forms. American ginseng is generally available as the whole or powdered root. Dose: The German Commission E monograph on ginseng recommends a daily dosage of 1-2 g of Asian ginseng root, divided into three portions. TCM prescribes 1-9 g of Asian ginseng or 2-9 g of American ginseng. Higher dosages may be prescribed by health care practitioners as needed. For standardized products, 100 mg one or two times a day is the usual recommended dose. For commercial products, please follow manufacturer’s label instructions.

Cautions

Use at normal dosage levels is generally not associated with side effects; however, some persons have experienced over stimulation or gastrointestinal upset and some women have reported breast tenderness or menstrual problems with long-term use. If you have high blood pressure, use ginseng with caution. Avoid ginseng during pregnancy.

References:

Foster, S. “Asian Ginseng, Panax ginseng.” 2nd ed.Botanical Series, no. 303. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1996.

———. American Ginseng, Panax quinquefolius.”2nd. ed. Botanical Series, no. 308. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1996.

Hu, S. Y. “The Genus Panax (Ginseng) in Chinese Medicine.” Economic Botany 30 (1976): 11-28. ———. “A Contribution to Our Knowledge of Ginseng.” American Journal of Chinese Medicine 5 (1977): 1-23.

Le Gal, M., P. Cathebras and K. Strüby. “Pharmaton Capsules in the Treatment of Functional Fatigue: A Double-blind Study Versus Placebo Evaluated by a New Methodology.” Phytotherapy Research, 10(1)(1996)49-53.

Ng, T. B., and H. W. Yeung. “Scientific Basis of the Therapeutic Effects of Ginseng.” In Folk Medicine, The Art and the Science Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1986: 139-151.

Shibata, S., O. Tanaka, J. Shoji, and H. Saito. “Chemistry and Pharmacology of Panax.” In Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, vol. 1. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1985: 218-284.

 
       
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