The ancient Chinese called the plant "man root", Jen Shen, which became "ginseng", the most expensive medicinal herb in the world and can even command much more than its own weight in gold. Ginseng comes in three different categories. Chinese or Korean (Panax Ginseng), Asian, American (Panax quinquefolius) and Siberian (eleutherquinquefolius Senticosus). The word Panax comes from the Greek word Panakos, a panacea (cure-all). The Siberian plant is not true ginseng, but it contains similar effects. As a result, all three are grouped together as "ginseng" and used interchangeably in the west. Asiatic ginseng is a native of the mountainous forests of Northern China.
The Chinese have held ginseng root in almost religious esteem as a panacea for all ailments for thousands of years, those roots resembling a human being in shape being the most highly prized. It is considered especially valuable for feverish and inflammatory illnesses, for hemorrhage, and for blood disease. Women take it for normalizing menstruation and easing childbirth. In a general way, it is said to promote both mental and physical vigor and it is a reputed aphrodisiac.
The Chinese recommend ginseng as a tonic stimulant that promotes vitality and longevity, for colds, coughs, depression, respiratory problems and liver protection. It also enhances immune function, while reducing blood cholesterol and sugar (glucose) and minimizing the ravages of stress, aging, radiation, alcohol and narcotics.
Chinese researchers claim to have extended the lives of stomach cancer sufferers by as many as 4 years using ginseng. Soviet scientists say the herb shrinks some animal tumors. The Russians are also doing scientific work on the ginseng, and they claim that it is effective for insomnia, neurasthenia and general debility, as well as for diabetes and anemia.
The American Indians used ginseng to combat fatigue, stimulate appetite, and aid digestion. Some tribes mixed it into love potions. America's 19th century eclectics called ginseng a stimulant for "mental exhaustion from over work" and prescribed it for loss of appetite, indigestion, asthma, laryngitis, bronchitis, and tuberculosis. It was also claimed to invigorate the virile powers.
Ginseng, a special plant
Problems with ginseng are rare, but the medical journals do contain a few dozen reports. Ginseng may cause nervousness, insomnia, breast soreness, allergy symptoms, asthma attacks, increased blood pressure, and disturbances in the heart rhythm (cardiac arrhythmia). People with insomnia, hay fever, and fibrocystic breasts should use it only with caution. Anyone with fever, asthma, emphysema, high blood pressure, or cardiac arrhythmia should not use it.
In addition, ginseng's anticlotting action should place it off limits for those with clotting problems. In Asia, ginseng is considered an herb for the elderly. Children, or pregnant women should not take it. The Food and Drug Administration includes ginseng in its list of herbs generally regarded as safe. Ginseng should be used in medicinal amounts only in consultation with your doctor.