Ginseng is considered a tonic herb, and is incredibly popular all over Asia. A tonic herb is one that “Tonifies the Qi,” which put simply means that it boosts the body’s function, therefore appropriate when there is under functioning, but not over-functioning.
In Asia, ginseng is so prevalent on the market that the layers of quality resemble cigars or wine. People will pay hundreds of dollars for seven year old, wild roots, with the cheapest being ones cultured in a lab and sold as instant drink mix. That is not to say that the instant drink mixes have no value, but to call attention to the vast world that exists behind the name.
There are different species of ginseng, which vary slightly in their action. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng/ Ren Shen) is the kind that you’ll commonly find in powdered teas and ginseng shots. It’s originally native to the mountain forests of China, Russia and Korea, but is now grown on farms throughout the world. Some of this is prepared by steaming, some of it is not. Asian ginseng is very warming, and also moistening.
There is also American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius/ Xi Yang Shen), which is native to Tennessee and other states. American ginseng is much less warming than Asian ginseng, and more appropriate for people with hot constitutions (think sweaty, red-faced, sleep-with-no covers, easily angered kind of people). It is very similar in its ability to build qi/ energy, and is also used to moisten dryness.
Both ginsengs are best for people who are cold, dry and deficient. They might have many or all of these symptoms: Fatigue, dark circles under the eyes, shortness of breath (not due to phlegm), pale/dry skin, fatigue, feeling of cold, small, pale tongue, dry cough, or dry eyes. Both ginsengs are considered a great geriatric tonics (good for old people), as we get colder and drier as we age.
On the other hand, ginseng is inappropriate for people with excess heat or phlegm. It can exacerbate those conditions.
Ginseng is best used over a period of time, taken every day or several times a week in small doses. Some people take it for energy instead of coffee and find it effective, but I would argue that this is not where ginseng shines. It’s ability to build energy makes it unique, and given time and space to do that, it can perform wonderfully for the right person. If you do take it for a while and notice nothing, just remember that nothing is a cure all, and there’s probably a different herb out there for you!
There are several other plants that are related to the ginsengs, including California spikenard (Aralia californica), devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum), and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). These all have qi building and warming properties to varying degrees, each with their own unique twist.
At Rainbow, we carry the tincture of American ginseng and Asian ginseng from HerbPharm. We also carry Red Asian Ginseng in capsules from Paradise Herbs, which is combined with a few Chinese herbs to increase effectiveness. If you’re a Maca fan, we have a Maca/ Ginseng blend from Natural Factors. And don’t forget about our ginseng chews and ginseng shots at the register!