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Chinese Herbs: Ginseng, The “Man Root”

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Ginseng is probably the most famous, most commonly used, and possibly one of the most powerful herbs in the history of Chinese Herbal medicine. The Chinese pinyin name for ginseng is Ren Shen which translates to “man root”. One of the oldest principals of Chinese herbal medicine is that the shape, texture or color of a plant or natural substance may mimic certain parts of the body or attributes of certain diseases and therefore suggest a therapeutic correspondence.

In the case of ginseng root, Chinese farmers noticed centuries ago that it is shaped like a human body with head, arms and legs and therefore they deducted that it would strengthen the Qi, or energy, of the whole body. Years of experience using this herb have proven this to be true. Ren Shen, therefore has been catalogued in Chinese herbal medicine as a Qi tonic.

Good quality ginseng is quite expensive and requires special preparation. It is usually decocted separately from other herbs in small amounts of water and at relatively low temperatures to completely extract all of its active ingredients. Ginseng contains many amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

Ginseng strongly tonifies the source Qi of the whole body, tonifying all of the body's internal organs as it increases blood supply and oxygen to the brain. In China it is used in emergency situations for patients who have actually gone into shock from excessive loss of fluids, excessive loss of blood or chronic illness.

Ginseng especially tonifies both the Spleen and the Lung. When there are signs of Spleen qi deficiency, such as fatigue, nausea and vomiting, listlessness, diarrhea, or stomach and rectal prolapse, formulas are given which include ginseng. Some of the more famous formulas for Spleen Qi deficiency symptoms are Si Jun Zi Tang, Shen Ling Bai Zhu San and Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang. When there are signs of Lung qi deficiency such as shortness of breath, chronic cough, or spontaneous sweating, formulas are given which include ginseng. Ren Shen Ge Jie San is a famous formula for wheezing and shortness of breath due to Lung and Kidney qi deficiency.

Ginseng has been shown to have cardiovascular benefits and to improve mental function. In China, patients are actually given intravenous infusions of ginseng to treat cardiac ishcemia. Ginseng has been shown to have an effect on blood glucose to benefit those with diabetes. Other areas of promising research show benefits to cancer patients with leukopenia caused by chemotherapy. Ginseng treats impotence and increases sperm count and motility. Ginseng lowers blood cholesterol and significantly lowers triglycerides. Ginseng has a protective effect on the liver and may have beneficial effects on the symptoms of acute hepatitis. Ginseng treats hypertension and atherosclerosis.

So, with the amazing benefits of ginseng, you would think that everyone should be taking it and the more the better, right? Not so. Ginseng has a very low toxicity, but it is possible to overdose and have side effects. Some people can have an allergic reaction. And even more importantly, ginseng is contraindicated in certain people who are suffering what Chinese medical diagnosis would call excess conditions. Only a practitioner who has had years of training in Chinese medicine diagnosis can properly determine the signs and symptoms of an excess condition.

The good news is, in an era of baby boomers approaching the age where all of these health issues predominate, there is an herb that could help us live many more healthy years. We can only hope that the research and knowledge of the best way to use this herb will continue in this country as it has in China for centuries.

About the Author: Joyce Marley is a licensed acupuncturist who provides acupuncture therapy in New Hartford, NY. She writes Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) health articles about acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

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