Ginseng’s reputation is largely based in its historical use, which dates back to at least 100AD. Historical reputation can be a mixture of empirical results and unverified claims; we might conclude that centuries of use and good health have proved a certain herb is beneficial, or we might suspect that the climate the herb grows has something else that is beneficial to us. Modern research into Ginseng generally tries to verify historical claims, though it is possible that the results may contrast with our expectations.
Ginseng originated in China. Chinese medicine underwent an important phase with the writing of Shennong Bencao Jing (Classic herbs of Shennong) in about 100AD, which appears to be the first written mention of Ginseng. The Shennong figure was considered mythological, giving divine knowledge, and Chinese medicine approached his writing accordingly. There was no reason for innovation with Ginseng; the idea was for scholars to grasp the true, original understanding in the mythological text.
The Shennong Bencao Jing claims Ginseng is sweet and a little cold, making it suitable for treating hot maladies like fevers. It quietened the ethereal and corporeal souls, opened the heart and eyes and sharpened the wits. Long term use was said to make the body light and prolong life.
It seems a little odd that Shennong describes the herb as sweet, as it is actually quite bitter. But the idea of ‘sweet’ refers to its medicinal properties, not its taste; ‘sweet’ mean it nourishes the spleen and other bodily organs. Latter Chinese texts mention the bitter taste in the mouth, and that it tastes better when freshly picked. This factor should not undermine the validity of the historical writings.
The matters of Ginseng making the body lighter and prolonging life, of settling the corporeal and ethereal spirits, are not really something we can verify scientifically. But in the culture of the day these phrases mean growing closer to the spiritual world, shedding the earthly body for a spiritual one. It was not meant to suggest that Ginseng was taken as a weight loss supplement or extended one life, though these might have been a side effect. Oddly, these ‘side effects’ might have some truth to them, even if it is mild.
Western research in the 1960’s supported the idea that ginseng increased endurance, at least to some degree. It ability to reduce fatigue under stressful conditions, like cold, heat, low oxygen, bodily infections …etc. led it to be labelled as an adaptogen. Eastern researchers over the next few decades showed that Ginseng could lower blood cholesterol, blood sugar and lipids, all significant factors in cardiovascular disease. It has also been shown to improve immune function (as an adaptogen should) and work as a reasonable antioxidant. Ginseng appears to be of benefit in preventing cancer and inhibiting tumour growth, thought the amounts of herb needed for this is several grams per day! The cardiovascular and immune system benefits of ginseng only required 25- 500 milligram does by comparison.
The biggest contrast between modern and historical ideas about Ginseng revolve around energy. Ancients thought Ginseng made one calm, and that this reduced stress gave one greater endurance. Modern exponents claim Ginseng is an energy booster, that it stimulates a little bit like caffeine. There might be some confusion here with different types of Ginseng causing different reactions, southern and northern varieties are considered different to at least some degree; but research suggests that Ginseng is about endurance and not stimulation. Ginseng makes us healthier and this helps us last longer; thinking of it as a quick energy boost is a misconception.
Regular daily doses of ginseng do appear to benefit the immune system and cardiovascular health. There is also strong evidence that ginseng increases endurance, which is one form of energy boost. This endurance benefit may require regular consumption rather than occasion ‘emergency’ fixes. Regarding ginseng as an energy stimulant like caffeine is misleading, though regular use may do away with the need for these stimulants, which is probably a good reason to use it.
Online ginseng can vary greatly in quality and potency. Red Korean Ginseng is considered the highest rated performer, and is available at online shops.