Ginseng is a highly prized herb in Chinese
medicine. This is because it has unique properties to boost the whole
body's energy at its root. Many herbs have the ability to boost the
function of particular organs, but few tonify at a level as deep and
undifferentiated level as ginseng. Perhaps, this is what accounts for
its name ren shen, which translates into "Human Body" and why
it is considered a longevity herb. A conscientious consumer interested
in boosting energy, or perhaps going for the elusive goal of
immortality, may find herself in a quandary when she sets into a health
food or herb shop to see all the different types of ginseng available.
Primarily, there are two types of ginseng: Chinese (so-called Asian) and American (there are others but these are the to major types). The properties of these two ginsengs are distinctly different. Chinese herbalism classifies Chinese ginseng and its variants as warm and American ginseng as cool. The temperature of an herb affects its function. Warm
herbs tend to quicken the blood, raise the body temperature and blood
pressure, and power metabolism. Cool tonifying herbs tend to nourish
vital substances, helping lubricate and quench that which has dried
Individuals who are chronically cold, have
poor digestion characterized by weak diarrhea and formless stool, and
chronically low blood pressure would respond well to Chinese ginseng or
Korean red ginseng, which is the same as white ginseng but which has been
processed to enhance its warming properties. Since
ginseng with warm properties has the ability to raise blood pressure, it is
a favorite among men seeking to boost sexual performance. The risks here should be self-evident. Clearly, just because an herb is natural does NOT mean that it cannot be dangerous when misused. Individuals with heart or blood pressure issues need to take Chinese ginseng under the guidance of a health professional.
Individuals who run hot, tend toward constipation, irritability, and low energy would benefit best from American ginseng. It is extremely effective in treating conditions like menopause, migraines and diabetes. It is also ideal for many modern conditions like adrenal fatigue. American
ginseng is as prized, if not more so, than its Chinese counterpart,
because many modern conditions are the result of lifestyles that tend
to exhaust the body’s vital nutrients. American ginseng can keep the body from overheating.
Chinese or American, rare is the case in Chinese herbal medicine where only one herb is prescribed. Classical
formulas, which did not know of American ginseng, normally prescribe
doses of ginseng at three grams, which is then combined with other
herbs to approach the big picture that shapes a person’s condition. Ginseng is an herb that effects the body on a deep level and in serious cases may be prescribed over a period of a year or more. Ostensibly, individuals who take ginseng for its longevity promoting properties take it forever. It is critical that an individual not profligately take ginseng, especially Chinese. I
am aware of at least one case where a master herbalist keen on taking
wild Chinese ginseng (which is much stronger and much, much more
expensive) either caused or exacerbated pancreatitis.
American and Chinese ginseng are both in the ginseng family but possess opposing properties, cold and warm respectively. Effective use of ginseng depends upon the underlying factors that shape one’s physical state. Some
conditions that match their appropriate use have been shared in this
post, but remember classical Chinese herbalism rarely prescribes a
single herb to shift an overall condition. This would be akin to painting a portrait with only one hue.
Yang-chu Higgins, Licensed Acupuncturist
Los Angeles, CA