Ginseng and Its History

by on Jan.18, 2011, under History Facts

Asian ginseng is a perennial herb with a taproot reminiscent of the human form. It grows in northern China, Korea, and Russia, and a close relative  is cultivated in the United States. Because ginseng must be grown for 3 years before it is harvested, it commands a high price, with top-quality roots easily selling for more than $8,000. Dried, unprocessed ginseng root is called white ginseng, whereas a steamed, heat-dried root is called red ginseng. Each is believed to have its own characteristic effects.

Panax ginseng has long been a major herb in the Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia. As with all Chinese herbs, its traditional indications are embedded in the framework of the Chinese medical system, in which ginseng is said to “replenish the original, tonify the lungs, strengthen the spleen, tonify the stomach, benefit yin, generate fluids, benefit Heart, and calm the spirit.” None of these effects is considered unique to ginseng, and for reasons of cost, traditional Chinese herbalists frequently substitute the inexpensive herb pilosulae in ginseng formulas, believing that it offers essentially identical benefits.

However, Codonopsis has no romance; ginseng has been a cult herb in Asia for millennia. Emperors believed that it would make them live forever, and eager Chinese merchants profited from this mystique in neighboring countries. Families would plant ginseng in hidden portions of the forest as an investment that would be worth enormous sums, provided that no one else dug it up. This mystique continues to the present day.

Russia has been a major focus of research into ginseng since before World War II. The Russian scientist I. I. Brekhman decided that a much less expensive herb, Eleutherococcus, was functionally identical and wrote extensively on its properties. This thorny bush that grows much more rapidly than true ginseng later received the misleading name Siberian ginseng. Its botanical identity and chemical composition are quite different, but outside China it is widely believed to offer similar semimagical benefits.

Brekhman used the term adaptogen to describe ginseng’s medicinal effects. Although the concept of adaptogens has not been adopted in U.S. medical literature, herbal texts and some European medical treatises use the term freely. To qualify as an adaptogen, a substance must by definition help the body adapt to stresses of various kinds, minimizing the damaging effects of heat, cold, exertion, trauma, sleep deprivation, toxic exposure, radiation, infection, and psychological stress. It must also satisfy the following three criteria: (1) It causes few to no side effects or overt physiological changes, (2) it has a nonspecific action that functions in many circumstances, and (3) it has a normalizing action that tends to return an organism toward homeostasis regardless of the direction in which it is out of balance.

Thus, a healthy lifestyle satisfies the criteria of an adaptogen. If a substance could actually accomplish as much, it would be truly valuable. Unfortunately, the available evidence cannot confirm the existence of any herbal adaptogens. Interestingly, the traditional Chinese view of ginseng does not support the third criteria of the adaptogen concept, as ginseng is said to be good for some people but not for others.

Many ginseng products on the U.S. market contain very little Panax ginseng simply because it is too expensive. However, Eleutherococcus is relatively cheap. It is widely used by athletes in the belief that it will enhance physical performance, although this has not been documented. The public also believes that ginseng promotes mental alertness, combats sleepiness, and prevents disease.

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