What is ginseng?

In Chinese, ginseng means “man root”. It derives its name from the fact that the root often grows in the shape of a man, and its medicinal qualities are believed to benefit the whole man. Ginseng is a green perennial herb, grown mainly for its root. Its root is similar to a parsnip in texture and color, although smaller and usually more branched. The plant stands about 10 to 20 inches high with two to five clusters of a group of five leaves and a spindle-shaped root.

How is North American Ginseng different from other ‘ginsengs’?
Although there are many so-called ginsengs on the market today, there are only two authentic ginsengs that are recognized around the world:
North American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
The ‘other’ ginsengs do not comply, in botanical terms, with the general characteristics of the ginseng plant. North American and Asian Ginseng differ in their chemical composition and each appears to have distinct biological effects.

Where does North American Ginseng come from?
Ontario is one of the largest producers of North American Ginseng in the world. North American Ginseng is also grown in Wisconsin, USA and in British Columbia. The variety of ginseng grown in Ontario has the active chemical make-up and taste that is highly sought-after by worldwide markets.
Ontario produces four million lbs (1,814,369 kg) of ginseng root annually, 90% of which is exported for commercial use in Asia. Growing ginseng involves very precise farming practices. Ontario producers have set cultivation standards for ginseng that are being copied around the world but have not been matched.

What is the history of ginseng?
Ginseng was discovered more than 5,000 years ago in China and has been used for over 2,000 years to replenish energy, build resistance, reduce susceptibility to illness and promote health and longevity. North American Ginseng was an important medicine for the people of the First Nations. Since the 18th century, North American Ginseng has been primarily exported to Asia where it is highly valued for its perceived superior quality and sweeter taste.

What are the active ingredients in ginseng?
Ginseng contains a number of active ingredients including saponins (also called ginsenosides), sugars, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The ginsenosides are the most active ingredients found in the ginseng plant and over 25 different types have been identified. However, only six or seven of them are thought to have any therapeutic significance. Recent research suggests that the ginsenosides that may appear inactive actually help to make the ‘active’ ginsenosides more soluble, more absorbable and more bio-available to the body.

How long have the medicinal properties of ginseng been studied?
Asian Ginseng has been intensively studied as a medicinal compound for the past 40 years. It has only been in the past 20 years that Western researchers have turned their eye to the medicinal properties of North American Ginseng in an attempt to find the active ingredients that make the root so popular in Asia. For this reason, the vast majority of studies available in support of the health benefits of ginseng involve Asian Ginseng.

In what areas of medicine is North American Ginseng being studied?
Research on North American Ginseng is still in its very early stages. The evidence in support of its use is found mostly for the treatment of diabetes, flu and cold prevention, memory enhancement, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Why are the study results on ginseng often inconsistent and conflicting?
There are many reasons for this such as variations in study designs, variations in the parts of the plant that were used for the study, differences in the methods used to extract and purify the active plant compounds and differences in formulations and dosages of ginseng administered to study subjects, both animal, and human.

Is North American Ginseng approved for use in Canada by health agencies?
North American Ginseng can be sold as a Natural Health Product in Canada. The Canadian Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) has developed a monograph (click here) on North American Ginseng and the products that directly cite this evidence can be brought to market under NHPD’s authority. Other products must have appropriate supporting evidence. More information about NHPD regulations in Canada can be found by clicking here.

How is North American Ginseng sold in Canada?
North American Ginseng is available in a variety of product forms. It is typically taken as:
Dried root
Powdered root (loose or in capsules)
Powdered extracts (in capsules)
Tea/infusion
Products used for cold and flu, memory, and ADHD can also be found under the brand names COLD-FX®, MEMORY-FX®, and AD-FX® respectively.

How much North American Ginseng should I take?
Dosing recommendations for North American Ginseng often vary. The American Botanical Council Clinical Guide to Herbs (2003) includes the following dosages for internal crude preparations of North American Ginseng:
decoction: 2 to 9 g dried root simmered in 720 to 960 mL water for approximately 45 minutes
infusion: 150 to 240 mL boiling water poured over 1 to 2 g cut, dried root and steeped for 20 minutes
dry extract: 330 mg 3 times per day for improving physical endurance during work

Where can I buy North American Ginseng?
Depending on the product form, North American Ginseng can be purchased at health food stores, pharmacies and other retail shops where traditional medicines are sold. Herbalists and Naturopaths also dispense ginseng products and they know the best products available. Always look at the labels carefully. In some cases, retail shops are importing a cheaper Chinese-grown ginseng and selling it as the pure North American variety.

Is North American Ginseng safe?
The American Botanical Council Clinical Guide to Herbs (2003) reports that there are no known adverse effects for North American Ginseng. It notes that insulin levels may need to be monitored in patients with diabetes, due to the blood sugar modulating effects of North American Ginseng. It also indicates that The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Safety Rating for North American Ginseng is Class 1: herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.

Source from Ontario Ginseng Association / www.GinsengOntario.com

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