You find ginseng popping up everywhere, in all sorts of forms, as a cure for a multitude of health ailments. They all typically contain the ground-up root or an extract of one or more types of ginseng root and are said to be good for boosting energy, lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reducing stress, promoting relaxation, treating diabetes, and managing, um….sexual dysfunction in men.
Is ginseng a natural product?
In total, 13 species of ginseng are classified under the name ‘Panax’, which comes from the Greek word ‘panakeia’, which means ‘all healing’. You might also hear of ‘Asian’ ginseng – which refers to all the ginsengs originating from Asia (Panax ginseng, Panax japonicus, Panax notoginseng and Panax sinensis) - or Siberian ginseng, which is derived from the roots of Eleutherococcus senticosus, a woody shrub, but as it doesn’t contain the Panax-type ginsenosides, it isn’t considered a true ginseng. It was traditionally used to prevent colds and flu and to increase energy, longevity and vitality. It is widely used in Russia as an ‘adaptogen’ – a substance that is supposed to help the body better cope with either mental or physical stress.
Ginseng was discovered over 5000 years ago in the mountains of Manchuria, China, and references to ginseng are found in books dating back more than two millennia. It is revered by the Chinese people as it is considered helpful for curing a wide range of diseases, and was used exclusively by Chinese Emperors in the past, who at the time, were the only ones who could afford it. Made famous, ginseng eventually brought a flourishing international trade.
What does ginseng look like in the raw?
To be honest, none are very impressive-looking roots to have such high expectations, being a light-coloured, gnarled root that reminds me of a parsnip, with stringy shoots that look like arms and legs. It is often considered one of the most expensive herbs in the world, and with the harvest of wild ginseng being illegal, the high price opened up a black market for the plant. The plant is protected because it has been poached from the wild enough that the wild populations are at risk. Ginseng typically takes over 10 years to reach maturity in the wild, but under artificial environments can be grown in as little as four.
Both Asian and American ginseng contain ginsenosides, which are the substances thought to give ginseng its medicinal properties, but they contain different types in different amounts.
How should you eat it?
Ginseng can either be eaten raw, lightly steamed, or brewed into tea. It can also be taken as an extract, powder, or pill, which is where you will find it in most health food shops. But what a lot of people don’t know is that ginseng should not be used for long periods. Apparently, Asian ginseng should not be used for more than 3 months at a time, and Siberian ginseng should not be used for more than 2 months at a time. American ginseng has been used for up to 1 month, although certain extract products have been used for up to 4 months.
Western scientists and health professionals have questioned the medicinal properties of ginseng, and there is no conclusive evidence about its true effectiveness. It is believed that ginsenosides, the chemical components found in ginseng, are responsible for any clinical effects of the herb. Ginsenosides in ginseng seem to regulate inflammation, provide antioxidant protection, and maintain the health of cells, which could help decrease the risk of certain kinds of cancer. Nevertheless, more research is needed.
Ginseng products can vary in their quality and potential medicinal properties. You should check the ingredients of any ginseng product before purchase, as some products may contain a small or negligible amount of ginseng, and some could contain other substances.
Is it safe to use?
Generally, it is considered safe enough for short-term use, but follow the instructions on the bottle or packet. Questions have been raised about its long-term safety, with some experts recommending against its use by infants, children, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.