Flashback Friday: Dr. Andrew Weil on Ginseng

In the October, 1980 issue of High Times, noted expert Dr. Andrew Weil stripped away the veil of misinformation surrounding ginseng.
Flashback Friday: Dr. Andrew Weil on Ginseng
High Times/ Sharon Brickman

For this week’s edition of Flashback Friday, we’re bringing you a valuable primer on the effects of ginseng by none other than Dr. Andrew Weil, originally printed in the October, 1980 edition of High Times magazine.

The root of life. It was said to restore sexual potency and cure syphilis. It could bring the still-warm corpse back to life. Always expensive and difficult to obtain, its rarity fed the myths of its supernatural powers and the myths fed the demand. In turn-of-the-century China, the market value of ginseng topped the price of gold.

Although it has not kept pace with the price of gold, ginseng is still one of the world’s more costly botanicals, and trade in it has become very big business in North America, the Soviet Union and the Far East. One estimate places the number of regular users in the United States alone at more than five million, many of them drawn by claims that it is a supertonic, promoting health and longevity, not to mention sexual vigor. But misinformation and outright deception have characterized the ginseng market, with some plants sold under the name that have no relation to the real thing.

True ginseng is the root of two species of Panax in the ginseng family (Araliaceoe): Oriental ginseng, or Panax ginseng, grows in the mountainous forests of East Asia; American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolium, is native to North America, growing from Quebec and Ontario as far south as Georgia. A few minor species of Panax are also sources of supply; for example, a valuable root called Tienchi ginseng in China comes from a variety of Panax japonicum.

Ginseng is a slow-growing plant, taking up to five years to produce a mature root. The slow rate of growth combined with drastic overharvesting almost caused the extinction of ginseng in North America. It still grows wild in many areas, but the bulk of market demand is now met by cultivated roots, grown on a wide scale in the United States and the Orient. Although cultivated roots are larger than wild ones and can be good, connoisseurs maintain that wild roots are always better.

The magical properties ascribed to ginseng were not entirely out of proportion to its medical use. The name Panax is related to panacea, our word for a cure-all, an indication of ginseng’s reputation as a powerful medicine. Among Native Americans and in the Far East, ginseng has been used as traditional medicine for centuries. In China it is used as a tonic in well-to-do homes and both Chinese and Korean doctors prescribe it in clinical practice. In the last century it was used in American medicine as a tonic for the digestive system, as a mild stimulant and as a treatment for nervous disorders. But with the rise of the modern pharmaceutical industry, ginseng was relegated to the scrap heap of old-fashioned, superstitious remedies and forgotten by doctors. Very few American physicians know much about it and fewer use it. One reason for its neglect is that ginseng doesn’t produce immediate dramatic effects: It is not a “magic bullet” of the sort doctors like to use today.

Thousands of ordinary folks, however, have discovered that ginseng, taken regularly or in special ways, does have real and interesting effects. It seems to improve health and resistance to disease, protect against stress and make people feel more energetic. That is just what a tonic is supposed to do. Ginseng won’t get you high, but some people say they experience a low level of stimulation from it. Or that ginseng improves skin and muscle tone, or cures hangovers or livens up their sex lives. When former New York Times writer Raymond A. Sokolov sampled some for an article, he proclaimed in that paper’s venerable pages, “All that day I was randy as a teenage mink.” Nevertheless, Chinese doctors protest that claims for ginseng as a sexual stimulant have no basis in fact.

We do not know just how ginseng works. Experiments with animals tend to yield encouraging results, but there have been no in-depth studies of effects in humans. Chemical analysis reveals that both Oriental and American ginseng contain large numbers of triterpenoid glycosides—unusual compounds derived from sugars. Those that seem to be responsible for the effects have been dubbed ginsenosides (also called panaxosides). I.I. Brekhman, a Soviet scientist, has found indications in experiments with animals that Panax ginseng is effective as an adaptogen—a substance that increases general resistance and helps the body adapt to stress.

The main problem that confronts you if you want to get into ginseng is to find products that really deliver doses of these ginsenosides. For, in addition to being sold as whole roots, ginseng is packaged in the form of extracts, capsules and tablets. Many of these products have little or no ginsenoside content: Recent studies pointing to the need for standards for commercial ginseng preparations found that one-fourth to one-third of the samples tested had no activity whatsoever. Ara Der Marderosian of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, who conducted one such study, suggests that one way to ensure that you get the ginsenosides is to choose preparations that look like they contain root, such as thick, tarry extracts. He pointed out, though, that a clear extract could be just as useful if it were obtained through a process that preserved the inherent properties of the root.

Most of the ginseng preparations in discount stores and supermarkets are worthless, as are many Chinese and Korean preparations and such novelty products as instant ginseng, ginseng chewing gum, ginseng toothpaste and ginseng cheddar cheese. Even if you invest in a whole root, you have no way of knowing its potency: Roots may be one to seven years old, and the relationship between the age of the root and its ginsenoside content has not been studied. All ginseng roots are creamy or yellowish white in their natural state. Steaming turns them red, but this change in appearance does not alter their tonic properties, so that whether ginseng is red or white does not mean much.

Chinese Tienchi ginseng (cultivated in Yunnan Province from a minor species of Panax) is high in ginsenosides, as is much American ginseng. In fact, American ginseng tests out better than most of the Oriental varieties. It seems to be lower in or lacking the ginsenoside that is a stimulant but higher in many of the others. Whether you buy American or Oriental ginseng, buy only from reputable dealers and know what you are getting for your money.

Some things sold as ginseng are not ginseng at all. For example, there are products made from an unrelated plant of the American West, Rumex hymenosepalus, an edible green known as wild rhubarb or dock. Its root is sometimes passed off as “red desert ginseng” or “American wild red ginseng,” but it has no measurable activity.

Another herb on the market is Eleutherococcus senticosus. Although its importation and sale are officially barred by the FDA, eleutherococcus is widely available here, labeled “Siberian ginseng.” Eleutherococcus is native to the USSR and has no history of use in folk medicine. It was discovered by Soviet researchers looking for a substitute for ginseng in the face of dwindling supplies and increasing demand for the real stuff. Although it is a member of the ginseng family, it has none of the ginsenosides of Panax nor its stimulant effect. Yet it does contain other glycosides and may be a good adaptogen in its own right: Brekhman’s studies show that eleutherococcus is more effective than ginseng in some cases. Some Western scientists think the Russian research is mostly hype designed to give the Soviets a bigger cut of the booming ginseng market. But others say there is definitely something to it. Millions of Russians are said to take it daily.

Until recently the USSR controlled the world supply of this material and let very little come to the West. Fake and adulterated eleutherococcus has appeared in U.S. health food stores. Now more is coming in from other Asian sources and good products are available.

Ginseng is not necessarily beneficial for everyone. Whether it is for you or not you will have to find out by experimenting. Read up on it if you are curious: The best book on the subject is Joseph Hou’s The Myth and Truth about Ginseng (Cranbury N.J.: A.S. Barnes). Then buy good ginseng from a reliable source, give it a reasonable trial and see whether you can notice for yourself the effects that have caused so many people to seek out this root.

Using Ginseng

If you are lucky enough to obtain good, whole roots, try sucking on them or chewing small pieces slowly. Ginseng has a characteristic bittersweet taste with a somewhat licoricelike flavor that becomes very likable. (However, the chemicals responsible for the taste are not those that make ginseng work.)

Chinese people sometimes drink decoctions of whole roots: Boil a root slowly in two quarts of water in a nonmetal pot with cover for eight hours, adding water as necessary to maintain the level. Strain, and sip slowly throughout the day, preferably after fasting for two days. You can also take capsules or extracts of ginseng as a daily supplement. Some people say they only notice effects after several weeks or even months of regular use.

You should not take ginseng with other stimulants or if you are hypertensive (have high blood pressure). Panax ginseng is considered a hypertonic or heating herb in Chinese medicine, and Chinese doctors prescribe it for low blood pressure. (Tienchi ginseng is not considered effective in treating hypotension.) Recent Western studies seem to confirm the hypertensive effect of ginseng. Take moderate doses if you decide to consume ginseng on a regular basis. Megadoses have been linked to nervousness, insomnia and diarrhea.

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