Adapt and Overcome
The Health Benefits of Ginseng
By Joel Thuna
Ginseng, which has been cultivated for over 1000 years, is one of the oldest, most well-known and researched herbs and is not actually a single herb but actually a family of similar (but not identical) acting herbs. They are all classified as adaptogens; supplements that help your body handle and overcome physical and emotional stress. Much like the US Marines’ slogan, Ginseng helps you adapt and overcome.
True ginsengs are ones that are part of the genus Panax. These include Asian ginsengs (Panax ginseng and Panax notoginseng) and North American ginseng (Panax quinqefolius). You may see these ginsengs offered in both red and white varieties. Red and white are both grown from the same white roots. The difference between the varieties lies in the processing of the root. With white ginseng, the roots are air dried while for red ginseng, the roots are steamed and then dried. The steaming converts some of its compounds from inactive to active. Red ginsengs are significantly stronger than their white counterparts. There are other adaptogens that are not from the genus Panax, but are also called ginseng. These include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococus senticosus), Indian Ginseng (Aswaghanda or Withania somnifera), and Brazilian Ginseng (Suma or Pfaffia paniculata).
The most well known of the ginsengs is Asian, also known as Imperial, Ginseng. It has been used as both food and medicine for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, it is found in Asia, with sub species based on where it is grown (China or Korea). The components thought to be most important are called ginsenosides. Imperial ginseng has been clinically studied for multiple health conditions. Health Canada has approved its use for Blood glucose control, to improve cognitive function, to reduce mental stress and fatigue, to enhance physical performance, to increase energy, to increase resistance to stress, as well as its traditional Chinese use to “reinforce qi, benefit the spleen and lung, and relieve symptoms of thirst due to impairment of body fluids and internal heat”. Most people use Imperial ginseng as an energizer, stress tonic, immune enhancer, sexual performance enhancer, and for blood sugar control. Imperial ginseng is considered a warm (Yang) ginseng.
Somewhat lesser known is North American Ginseng. It has been used as both food and medicinal tonic since the early 18th century. It grows throughout the cooler parts of both the southern parts of Eastern and Western Canada and the northern United States. The vast majority of North American Ginseng is exported to Asia where it is highly valued for its cooling (Yin) properties. North American ginseng has also been clinically studied for multiple health conditions. Health Canada has approved its use for blood glucose control, to help relieve restlessness, nervousness, nervous indigestion, as an adaptogen, to maintain a healthy immune system in addition to its traditional Chinese uses. Most people use American Ginseng to boost the immune system, as a stimulant and for infections of the airways such as colds and flu, as well as for diabetes.
Siberian ginseng grows abundantly throughout Northern China, Korea, Japan and Russia. It has been used for over 2000 years in traditional Chinese medicine but was relatively unknown until the 1940’s when Imperial ginseng became scarce and expensive due to overharvesting. At that time, Russian scientists began screening other plants in the same family for related compounds and similar actions. They found Siberian ginseng had similar medicinal properties and they used it as a plentiful local substitute. Russian scientists and officials were so enamoured with its clinical results that they included Siberian ginseng in the Soviet Pharmacopoeia (their official drug bible for doctors) and required for Russian athletes in preparation for the Olympic Games in the 1970s and 1980s as well as for Russian cosmonauts. Health Canada has approved Siberian ginseng as a tonic for weakness and fatigue and to aid during recovery, to improve mental performance and physical performance (particularly after exertion). Most people use Siberian ginseng for diabetes, athletic performance, cognition, stress, reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and to reduce viral infections including the common cold.
Indian ginseng (more commonly referred to as Ashwagandha) is one of the most important herbs of Ayurveda (the traditional system of medicine in India). It has been used throughout India for millennia as a Rasayana with a wide range of health benefits. Rasayana herbs are botanical preparations that promote a youthful state of physical and mental health and expand happiness. It is given to small children as a tonic, and also taken by the middle-aged and elderly to increase longevity. Health Canada has approved Ashwagandha for relieving general debility, especially during convalescence or old age, to help increase energy and resistance to stress, as a Rasayana, for memory enhancement, and as a sleep aid.
The least known ginseng is Brazilian ginseng. Indigenous to the Amazon basin, it is better known as Suma. It is a large, shrubby ground vine with deep, and extensive root systems. It is an important folk remedy for many Amazonian tribes. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon region have used suma root for generations for a wide variety of health purposes, including as a general tonic; as an energy, rejuvenating, and sexual tonic; and as a general cure-all for many types of illnesses. Throughout the Amazon, Suma is called “para toda” which loosely translates to “for all things”. Health Canada has approved Suma for the symptomatic relief of fatigue and for the relief of menstrual symptoms. Suma is most often used as an adaptogen, for cancer, diabetes, and male sexual performance problems. There are not many products containing Suma licensed for sale in Canada, so it is unlikely you would have come across it already.
So which is right for you? If you are looking for a general adaptogen, the first one I would suggest trying is Siberian Ginseng. It is generally well tolerated and quite effective. For a performance or energy boost, I would suggest Imperial Ginseng as users report great results. For an immune boost or for frayed nerves, I would suggest trying North American Ginseng. Please remember with any of these to choose Certified Organic capsules to ensure that you have pure clean supplements. Talk to your practitioner before you begin taking them.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience.