Ginseng means "essence in the earth in the form of man". In Chinese "gin" is man and "seng" is a fleshy root used as a tonic (Keville, 1996). There are several different species all bearing the common name ginseng. These include: Chinese or Korean (P.ginseng), American (P.quinquefolius), and Siberian (E.senticosus)(Castlemaine, 1991). It i often called "the King of the Herbs" because it is an adaptogen that improves general health and is indicated especially, in the treatment of the cardiovascular system, as it will be discussed further.
Ginseng is native to northeastern China, eastern Russia and north Korea but is now extremely rate in the wild. It is propagated from seed in spring and requires rich moist but well drained soil; therefore, it grows well in shaded hardwood forests. The plant takes at least four to six years to mature which is when the active constituents are more concentrated. The root is normally harvested in autumn (Chevallier, 1996).
Ginseng is erect perennial, growing 8-15 inches high, usually bearing three leaves at its summit, each consisting of five thin stalked ovate leaflets. These have long points at the tip, are narrow or rounded at the bottom with toothed margins and the three upper leaflets are the largest. From six to ten small greenish yellow flowers appearing during summer, followed later in the season by shiny bright crimson berries (Angier, 1993).
Ginseng has a thick, spindle shaped root at least two or three inches long and half to one inch thick, the outside being prominently marked with crinkles or circles. After the second year it usually becomes forked and it is the branched root that resembles the human form (Angier, 1993).
The root has pale yellowish white or brownish white bark and is fleshy and flexible. It has a slight aromatic odor, the taste is sweetish and mucilaginous (Angier, 1993). It is available in red and white forms. White ginseng is the peeled and dried root. When slowly steamed, then dried, ginseng root turns red and is considered more stimulating than the white form (Hobbs, 1997).
Although the leaves, stems and flowers may be used in treatment, it is the root that possesses the main active constituents and actions that the herb brings to us today. Ginseng root contains the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, and selenium, germanium and maltol, and minerals calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus and iron. It also has traces of B1, B2, B12, pantothenic acid, niacin, folic acid, copper, iodine and zinc. These nutrients have several functions, including fortifying the body, fighting infection, and strengthening the nervous system. In addition, ginseng contains simple sugars, peptides and betasitosterol, which lowers cholesterol level and reduces tumors (Keville, 1996).
Ginseng root also has a number of active constituents including Triterpenoid saponins and panaxans. Panaxans include; panaxin that act as stimulants for the midbrain, heart and vessels, panax acid that stimulates the heart and metabolism and panaquilin that stimulates internal secretions (Chevallier, 1996)
However, it is the Triterpenoid saponins called ginsenoids that account for the herbs main action. At least twenty five ginsenoids have been identified and these are divided into two classes; the protopanaxtriol class consisting of the Rg1 group and the protopanaxadiol class consisting mainly of the Rb1 group (Bone & Mills, 2000).
The Rb1 and Rg1 groups have contradictory properties which accounts for ginseng's tonic or "agaptogenic" properties. The main pharmacological effects of Rb1 are related to promoting metabolic activities. The corresponding effects of Rg1 group are related to promoting anabolic activity (Refer to appendix, Table A). Their action tends towards homeostasis and adaptation of the body to stress improving general physical, mental and emotional health. The body takes what it need from the plant ignoring anything else. All the multitudinous body effects attributed to the use of ginseng are believed to be directly attributable to its effect on the three principle hormone regulators of the body; The Thyroid, Hypothalamus and the Pituitary systems which work together to maintain the body in balance (Refer to appendix, Table A & B). Ginseng taps into these gland and gains influence over the entire body (Hall, 1994).
So, it is via the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that ginseng also affects the cardiovascular system. It keeps the heart at a healthy low rate, while increasing the blood flow to it. the more forceful the contraction of the heart, the more the blood it pumps, the slower the heart needs to work. It is interesting to note too, that ginseng's action continue long after one stops taking the herb, with the heart rate remaining low and improved lung action continues for months. Good heart performance and circulation are vital for physical, mental and emotional fitness and prevention of hear disease (Keville, 1996).
The ginsenosides are also excellent calcium channel blockers, which help to correct high blood pressure, angina pectoris and irregular heartbeat. Therefore, it can also be given to patients after open heart surgery to decrease the chance of heart damage from lack of oxygen, and the patients recover sooner (Keville, 1996).
Furthermore, the ginsenosides also increase aerobic capacity by assisting the tiny blood vessels in the lungs to uptake oxygen and also increase oxygen absorption and utilization of the cells of the body (Keville, 1996).
The ginsenosides are also helpful in keeping down cholesterol. They increase the HDL levels that remove cholesterol from the blood and therefore decrease the chance of developing hardening of the arteries (Keville, 1996).
In addition, the use of ginseng is indicated in the control of blood pressure. Sometimes ginseng lowers and other times it raises blood pressure. It does this by increasing or decreasing the lumen size of the arteries (Keville, 1996).
Ginseng can be taken as a tea decoction: 3-10g in 500mls of water taken 2-3 times per day. It can also be taken as a tincture: 1/2 a teaspoon in warm water 2-3 times a day for 1-2 months then stopping for a week (Hobbs, 1997).
Ginseng can also be taken in powder form as a tablet or capsule standardized to at least 4-5% ginosides (Hobbs, 1997). As a general tonic, 500mg-4g doses are recommended. (Ody, 1993). 500mg doses are also recommended for nervous exhaustion (Chevallier, 1996). asthma and chronic coughs and weak lungs (Ody, 1993). Externally, as a powder, 1-2g can be applied on bleeding wounds or when combined with slippery elm can be taken internally for the pain of Gastric ulcers (Ody, 1993).
Some literature suggests that it is best to take it for one month in autumn to strengthen the body for winter. In China the dried root is chewed or added to soup to provide an energy boost (Chevallier, 1996).
Ginseng presents a number of contradictions. It should not be take by people with hypertension, emotional or psychological imbalances, headaches, palpitations, insomnia, acute asthma, inflammation, acute infections associated with high fever, pregnant women, infants or young children (Hobbs, 1997). It should also be avoided in excessive menstruation or nose bleeds (Bone et al, 2000).
Dorothy Hall states that it should be avoided for overactive thyroid and overactive pituitary gland, due to the direct pharmacological effects on these two glands by the ginsenosides.
High doses and excessive doses have been shown to cause insomnia, hypertension, nervousness, euphoria, skin eruptions, and morning diarrhea. these symptoms are known collectively as GAS-Ginseng Abuse Syndrome (Bone et al, 2000). A recent article also reported that when taken in excess, ginseng showed an association with cerebral arteritis-severe headaches (Modern phytotherapist, 1997).
In addition ginseng has been contraindicated in combination with two drugs. In a recent study, ginseng appeared to reduce the effect of warfarin which is potentially serious, since it exposed the patient to the risk of thrombosis. It is believed that ginseng may contain vitamin K which augments clotting factor production or may affect pharmacokinetics of warfarin. Since there was only one case this can be questionable although caution must be taken (Modern phytotherapist, 1997).
Furthermore, it was found that Siberian ginseng affects serum levels of Digoxin, (that is taken for artrial fibrillation). As there was no sign of Digoxin poisoning, the only conclusion given by the author of the review was that doctors should be aware that Siberian ginseng may elevate serum Digoxin levels. Again there was only one case reported, so it is questionable until further studies are conducted (McRae, 1996).
In conclusion, although there are a number of contradictions and cautions that should be taken when using ginseng, we can see why it is seen as na amazing tonic herb and regarded as "cure all" for centuries. It promises the benefits that we all strive for: increased mental and physical vitality and emotional balance and has therefore has been indicated in a number of health issues including the cardiovascular system.
TABLE A (Mowrey, 1990)
The main pharmacological effects of Rb1 are related to promoting metabolic activities. These include;
- CNS depressant, anticonvulsant, analgesic, tranquilizing
- Weak anti-inflammatory response
- Facilitates small intestinal motility
- Increases synthesis of cholesterol in the liver
- Increases RNA synthesis in the liver
The corresponding effects of Rg1 group are related to promoting anabolic activity.These include;
- Slight CNS stimulant
- Enhanced mental acuity, intellectual performance
The other factors of Triterpenoid saponins also have various properties. These include;
- Immune stimulant
- Impedes hypertrophy and atrophy of adrenals
- Reduces blood sugar levels when they are high
- Raises blood sugar levels when they are low
- Lowers white blood cell count when it is high
- Raises white blood cell count when it is low
- Has similar effects on Red blood cells as white
- Anti-diuretic effect
- Heals deformities of the cornea
- Exerts anti-tumor effect
- Has a positive effect on male sterility
- Enhances estrogenic hormonal activity
- Has aphrodisiac properties (Mowrey, 1990)
TABLE B (Mowrey, 1990)
Based on physiological properties listed above ginseng can be used to;
- To increase learning and memory capacity
- To increase work performance
- To increase life span and counteract the natural aging process
- To enhance the body's natural immunity
- To increase sexual appetite and vitality
- To accelerate convalescence
Ginseng can be used for the following conditions:
- Radiation sickness
- Cardiac arrythmia
- Menstrual disorders
- Heart disease
Karina Francois Naturopath
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