Ginseng: Facts and Folklore

The Chinese have used ginseng for thousands of years, believing that it ­enhances sexual performance, increases energy, and eases stress. Many Americans are skeptical, demanding scientific validation. Here are Eastern and Western perspectives on the herb that is purported to cure all.

| March/April 1997

  • Panax ginseng is available in many forms, several of which are shown at left. Counterclockwise, from the center: whole red ginseng root, with its humanlike shape; sliced red ginseng; ginseng tablets containing spirulina, a type of algae; a ginseng jar used to cook and soften the whole or sliced root; and small pieces of red ginseng root.
  • Compounds contained in white ginseng root, above, are extracted in a grain-­alcohol solution; other herbs are ­included to complement the active ­substances found in ginseng. Ginseng root courtesy of Dragon’s Light Herb Company, Denver, Colorado.
  • Ginseng may be taken as a tea or chewable slices.

Walk into an American convenience store these days, and you might find ginseng on the shelf—dark little vials of extract with bright labels selling for 99 cents a bottle. Whether the bottles contain more sugar than ginseng is a decision for the discriminating consumer to make, but ginseng’s presence on a quick-stop shelf is a sign of its growing popularity in the United States: sales of ginseng products totaled $10.8 million in this country in 1992, the latest year for which figures are available.

In China, where ginseng has been considered one of life’s necessities for millennia, millions of Chinese reach for the herb daily, believing that it will slow aging, enhance sexual prowess, and prevent disease. The strength of Chinese cultural belief in ginseng, however, is matched by the strength of Western skepticism. Different cultural perspectives and a relative scarcity of good, repeatable controlled studies of ginseng’s effects on the human body make it difficult for some Westerners to believe in its therapeutic value. So, who’s right?

The answer isn’t simple, but a summary of what is known about the herb, its history, and its performance in scientific studies may help you decide whether to reach for ginseng every day, use it only on occasion, or opt for something else.

The True Ginsengs

Ginsengs have been classified into two groups: true ginsengs and, for lack of a better term, the others. The others, including Eleutherococcus senticosus, are outside the scope of this article.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), true ginsengs are considered the most valuable and potent for lengthening life and promoting vitality. Botanists and herbalists know them as members of the genus Panax in the ginseng family (Araliaceae).

The generic name Panax is derived from the Greek pan, “all”, and akos, “cure”; however, the Chinese rarely use the herb alone to “cure” anything. Instead, it is an ingredient of hundreds of therapeutic herbal formulas. TCM practitioners use it to restore deficient qi (vital energy) and regulate body systems. In TCM, that makes ginseng a superior medicine because it is thought that the primary purpose of the healing arts is to restore balance and strength so that the body can heal itself.

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