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Ginseng for Energy and Longevity

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Whenever I hear the word "ginseng," it evokes images of strength, vitality, dynamism and manhood. We relate ginseng to physical resistance and energy, and especially to wellness and longevity.

Whenever I hear the word "ginseng," it evokes images of strength, vitality, dynamism and manhood. We relate ginseng to physical resistance and energy, and especially to wellness and longevity.

For thousands of years the Chinese and Koreans have had absolute confidence in the healing power of ginseng, as it is able to restore harmony between body and mind in a gentle way. In the old days, this miraculous root was reserved for emperors and kings who believed it to be a source of youth. The Chinese name yenshen translates into "root of man," as often the root looks like a human figure. The added Latin botanical description panax means "panacea" or "cure-all." Indeed, today panax ginseng has the reputation of reducing fatigue, stress, mental anguish and nervousness caused by modern life's aggressions. It soothes the soul.

Panax ginseng is indigenous to Asia, where it grows in the mountainous woods of northeast China, Manchuria, Japan and the Korean peninsula. In 900 BC, Arabian sailors brought this root to Asia Minor. The biblical record tells us in Ezekiel 27:17 that pannag, or "all-healing ginseng," was known in Israel and traded in the market places of Judah. Marco Polo, the 13th-century adventurer, rendered a detailed description of ginseng as a quasi-universal remedy in his written observations on the people and geography of the Far East and Asia.

I have not found a reference anywhere to the arrival of panax ginseng in North America. Maybe immigrants from the Orient brought it along. However, America has its own species: Panax quinquefolium, L. In 1679, Father Jartoux, after noticing Native Americans from the Ozarks and Blue Ridge country using ginseng as a medication, started exporting it to England.

China has always been a good market for ginseng, the highest prices being paid for old roots. It takes from five to seven years before the root is considered useable. In the Far East, plants have reached the age of 100, 200 and even 400 years. The rings of the roots determine the age. In Hong Kong I have visited herbal shops where old ginseng roots were displayed in large jars and sold for as much as $500 an ounce.

Today ginseng is grown everywhere, as long as the climate and soil is favourable. Wild ginseng controls ideal growing conditions by itself and finds good soil and shade where seeds will germinate.

In our travels through the British Columbia Interior, my wife Christel and I discovered huge ginseng plantations hidden in the side valleys of the Thompson Canyon. We were attracted by the acres and acres of black plastic shade netting, which we had never seen before and wanted to explore.

As we approached, we noticed the fields were chain-link-fenced with barbed wire and guarded with video cameras and guard dogs. The manager, a talkative and friendly man, informed us that ginseng is a very valuable, highly priced crop that has become big business in the last decades, with increasing demand worldwide. As a commodity, it is traded on the stock market. "I guess everybody wants to stay healthy," he said, and went on to explain the cultivation process we inquired about. "It is fairly difficult to grow ginseng and takes at least five to six years, sometimes longer. It requires a shaded but warm area, which the black netting provides. The seeds need one or two years to germinate. Three years later, the plant blooms for the first time. Roots weighing five to 10 grams grow after three to five years. Older plants of six to eight years produce roots that weigh 40 to 100 grams, ready to harvest."

Until now, the scientific community has not known exactly how ginseng works, confirming only that it influences the immune system positively. However, its most active complex of ingredients have recently been isolated as "ginsenocides." A notable fact is that the chemical structure of ginsenocides resembles human hormones. Apparently, ginsenocides control hormone activity and the regulating mechanism of nerves. They influence blood pressure and insulin production, and increase metabolism. This is probably the reason for improved cerebral activities, alertness and memory, which has been noticed in people who take ginseng regularly. Clinical work has demonstrated that ginseng affects human performance and ability to react in a positive way, though the effects do not take place immediately.

It has become an accepted rule to judge the quality of ginseng products by their quantity of ginsenocides. American ginseng is more potent than Korean, while Siberian ginseng has the lowest level of ginsenocides. Most products sold in Canadian health food stores, whether tablets, capsules, powders or tonics, show on the label the percentage of ginsenocides. It should be at least 1.5 per cent, but most often it's more and, of course, up goes the price. Some manufacturers use standardized extracts, meaning if one batch of roots is more potent than another, the end product will always have the same potency (most often five to six per cent). The most expensive is Korean red ginseng. It has been cured and with a special extraction method so the ginsenocide content can be as high as 15 percent. Knowing this will help you justify the price differences when shopping for a good ginseng product. Nutritional advisors in health food stores are able to guide you.

Without any toxicity, ginseng is harmless and can be absorbed without any inconvenience. It is perfectly tolerated by all, and doesn't cause any side-effects. No interactions are known, so ginseng may therefore be consumed with any other food or herb.

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