"What is ginseng?" This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked these days, and although I always feel slightly astonished that the questioner has never heard of ginseng before, I recall my own amazement of about fifteen years ago.
I was standing at the counter of Kiehl's, one of New York's old fashioned herb emporiums, when I heard a very distinguished looking man next to me order $100 worth of ginseng. That was a lot of ginseng and a lot of money, so I turned to watch him, and I finally dared to ask, "What do you do with all that ginseng?".
He explained, "I'm a professor at a midwestern university, and I do a lot of public speaking around the country. My wife is a well known pianist. Right before each lecture engagement I take a capsule of the ginseng in hot water. My wife takes two capsules before each concert. We find that the ginseng sharpens our memory and enhances our delivery. We also use it whenever we are feeling run down. And it's great for getting rid of coughs!".
I whistled with astonishment. Was ginseng (Panax schinseng) really a panacea as its name implied? On his say so and on the assurance from the reputable Kiehl men that ginseng wasn't at all addictive, I purchased an ounce. We've had ginseng in the house ever since.
Our experience with ginseng is that it is a terrific tonic and pick me up. It does indeed sharpen the memory for very special occasions, is a specific for coughs, and a help (along with vitamin C and other herbs) in warding off a cold.
It appears to be a mild stimulant for the central nervous system, and although in the Far East it seems to be used for children, too, when they need it, like all stimulants it should always be used in great moderation.
There is no doubt that the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Japanese, indeed most of the peoples of the Far East, consider this white man shaped root a medicinal panacea. They use it for all kinds of respiratory and inflammatory conditions and for many blood diseases. It is considered an effective normalizing medicine and a great help to someone who is very ill. For that reason, even a poor Asian will sell a family treasure to buy some ginseng for a beloved one who is extremely sick. The ginseng is then cooked with chicken, and the soup used again and again as a restorative broth. It is one of the two herbs most frequently used in the traditional herbal medicine of the Far East.
The wealthy and ambitious, however, often use ginseng every day. Some chew roots; some use the powder in hot tea; others use the extract. In Korea and Japan the "red" ginseng is considered the most valuable and the most effective. In all cases, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese men seem to think that in using ginseng they will preserve and enhance their sexual prowess. My theory is that the root works as a body toner. And when you feel good, everything looks rosy everything you do is effective.
One of the greatest travel adventures of my life occurred recently when I received an invitation to attend the First International Ginseng Conference in Seoul. Very formal papers by top scientists from America, Germany, the Bahamas, Sweden, Korea, and Japan were presented. The other two invited American guests had become ill at the last minute, so I was the only American writer there.
The entire conference, held at the elegant and continental Chosun Hotel in Seoul, was conducted in English, with simultaneous translations into Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and, I suppose, several other languages of the Orient, since most of the delegates were from the Far East.
Cultivation Ginseng, I discovered, takes six years to mature and must be carefully cultivated under precise forest conditions. The composition of the soil (and during the conference I heard many, many reports on this yakto, or soil, for medicinal plants), the planting of the mysterious and unique seeds, and a year later, the transplanting of the strongest seedlings are crucial. The nurturing and protection given to the plants (the plants are consistently shielded from the sun by angled awnings of straw), the ritual of the harvest, the excitement of selecting the roots, the routine of the precise sorting were carefully explained and then brilliantly depicted in a fine film (in English) and in field trips.
Experiments There were two interesting reports from the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Tokyo, one by Dr. Professor S. Shibata, another by Dr. Professor K. Takagi.
Later, in Tokyo, at the pharmacy labs where the experiments took place, I interviewed Professor Takagi as well as Dr. H. Saito, his assistant. They showed me how they worked and how the laboratory mice were aided in recovery and retention of information when given ginseng fraction (Ginsenocide, a chemical part of the root). "There was significant antifatigue reaction with the mice," Dr. Professor Takagi summed up. He also said that Korean ginseng was more of a stimulant than Japanese ginseng. "Also we learned in our experiments that ginseng aids in the acceleration and acquisition of learning."
Another important report presented, one which was enthusiastically received by all the journalists, was from Dr. Finn Sandberg, Faculty of Pharmacy and Faculty of Medicine, Uppsala University, Sweden. In the Sandberg double blind test, conducted with healthy Swedish college students over a period of thirty three consecutive days, two ginseng preparations were tested together with a placebo (an inert pill which looks like the test pill). Two tests were given to three groups of student volunteers, ten to a group, five male, five female. These were divided into random groups and were given one capsule morning and evening of either of the ginseng preparations and/or placebo.
The tests consisted of a spiral maze test and a letter crossover test. The spiral maze method, developed in Britain, requires moving a pen along a spiral without touching fifty-four smallrings in the maze. The elbows of the student had to be elevated at all times.
Body Regulator Early in Chinese herb pharmacy, ginseng was used as a body regulator. One modern physician, Park Seung Ku, M.D., trained in both Western and "traditional" medicine, explained to me, "The function of herb drugs is principally to coordinate various functions of the human body. Health exists when K1 (energy) and Hyol (blood), or yin (negative) and yang (positive), maintain their proper balance. Disease occurs when there is a loss of balance. In treating disease with herb drugs, the theory is to bring the energy and blood level into balance again." A little bit goes a long way, I have found.
Energy and Ginseng
There are many ways to achieve energy when you are fatigued: external baths, certain self and formal massage points, pressure points, vitamins, minerals, and mental relaxation methods. Among the many natural substances that can be used to advantage is ginseng. Take a pinch of the powder in a cup of hot water and drink it. Or use one of the prepared tea extracts, or less than an eighth of a teaspoon of the extract, or a capsule of the powdered root, or chew a piece of the raw root.
You do not need large doses of ginseng to help you restore flagging energy. Less is more: tiny doses are best.
Ginseng is presently available in dried root form, tincture, powder, and extract.