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Ginseng - A Guide for Consumers

By Brian Benjamin Carter

Ginseng is the best known and most popular Chinese herb. It is known as the "King" of Chinese herbs. With Ginseng, you get what you pay for. Some roots cost thousands of dollars. Most consumers will not be seeking out the highest quality Ginseng. The more affordable Codonopsis Root (Dang Shen) may be substituted in most situations.

All ginseng is not created equal. There are three major types of ginseng, compared in the table below.

American Ginseng (Xi Yang Shen) Panax Ginseng (Ren Shen)
Korean Ginseng (Gao Li Shen)
Least effect on qi of the three. Stronger effect on qi than Am. Ginseng. Strongest effect on qi of the three.
COLD Warm HOT (red in color)
Nourishes the yin (its best use) Generates fluids, stops thirst Very bad to use when yin deficient.
Good for fever/coughing up blood Calming action May cause headache/anger/etc.

The average consumer who walks down the herb aisle in the drug store may be unaware of the consequences of their choices. The popular conception that ginseng equals energy, much like coffee equals energy is not necessarily so.

If you are looking for energy, first of all, you need to be sure that you really need it. Many people would never feel that they have enough energy. Some people may actually be Yin Deficient with Heat signs. In this case, the appearance of energy (which may be scattered and manic) is really heat and, underneath, the person is deficient. This is analogous to spending money on a credit card when you're already in debt. You appear to be rich, but your finances are actually in very bad shape. You can spend what you do not have but you will pay the price. The price may be your sanity, or other health problems down the road. These peoplewould do better to nurture their yin, which is deficient, and spend less energy. Look at American Ginseng; it nourishes the yin and benefits the qi. The heat of yin deficiency sometimes manifests as excess energy in the head: headaches, and tempers flaring. Anyone with heat signs like this would actually be harmed by Panax or Korean Ginseng. It is liable to make your headaches and temper worse.

American Ginseng is considered an endangered species due to excess harvesting. If you plan on using it, the ethical thing would be to grow it yourself, or at least be knowledgeable of the source of your Ginseng.

If you really need energy, you might not even take Panax Ginseng (Ren Shen). Traditionally, it is used for the elderly, or in extreme health situations. The more common, and more affordable, choice is Codonopsis Root (Dang Shen).

The following table shows that moderate situations call for codonopsis root, while serious situations, or extreme age call for panax ginseng.

Codonopsis Root (Dang Shen) Panax Ginseng (Ren Shen)



"supports the normal"

"fosters wisdom"

Used For:

Used for:

Spleen qi deficiency Lung Qi deficiency Abandoned Syndrome Collapse of Qi
Lack of appetite, fatigue, weak limbs, diarrhea, prolapse Cough, shortness of breath, reluctance to speak Heavy sweating, cold hands and feet, sagging jaw, closed eyes, incontinence Shock, loss of consciousness

When NOT to take Ginseng: If you have headaches, palpitations, insomnia, pregnant, hysteric, manic or schizophrenic do not take ginseng. If you have very high blood pressure (systolic >180mmHg), and/or are hypertensive, do not take panax ginseng.


Panax and Korean Ginseng Codonopsis Root American Ginseng
headaches, anger, palpitations, insomnia, pregnant, hysteric, manic or schizophrenic, very high blood pressure (systolic >180mmHg), hypertension, yin deficiency No contraindications Stomach problems (damp-cold of Stomach)

It is important to know what the things you are putting in your body are going to do for you, and to you. After all, if you just want to dig a hole in your garden, it is better to use a shovel than a stick of dynamite!

Brian Benjamin Carter is the Editor of The Pulse of Oriental Medicine, a writer for Being Well (a monthly e-newsletter), and an Intern at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Brian lives in beautiful San Diego, California and is shamelessly addicted to double espressos.

Copyright 2001, The Pulse of Oriental Medicine


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