AMERICAN GINSENG - ONCE EXPORTED TO CHINA: HISTORY AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF AMERICAN GINSENG
American ginseng has an interesting history of use. It is a relative of the true ginseng, Panax ginseng, and both are members of the ivy or Araliaceae family. However although the two plants contain ginsenosides, which are believed to be responsible for their healing properties, American ginseng is more relaxing to take than is Asian ginseng which is a stimulant.
Neither of these true Panax ginsengs are closely related to Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng. American ginseng grows to around one and a half feet tall and has green-yellow or green-white flowers which are a little fragrant, but which only bloom for a short period of time, from June to July. The shrub isn’t evergreen and has gnarled roots which were thought to resemble the human body, in the same way as mandrake was thought to. This is how it gets the name ‘ginseng’ which is a corruption of a word in one of the Chinese languages which means ‘image of man’.
In the 1700s American ginseng was exported from
Canada, and then from the northern states of America, as it would seem that although the Chinese had their own ginseng, they wanted that of North America too. The trade reached its peak in 1862 when more than 282 tonnes were exported to China. After that the figures fell until trade in American ginseng stopped in 1939.
It is debatable as to whether the Native Americans knew of the health-giving properties of American ginseng or whether they discovered them from their contact with the Chinese traders. They used the roots for headaches, insomnia, indigestion, fevers and fertility. The leaves of the shrub are expectorant and emetic, so unless you want to purge yourself, don’t be tempted to chew on them.
Today, American ginseng is endangered in some US states and threatened in some others, and is on the CITES list, (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and there are limits for the trade in whole roots or sliced ones. Now American ginseng is being farmed commercially in the States, and in
China. However the roots are harvested in autumn and are best when the plant has reached six years of age.
Like Eleuthero, American ginseng is an adaptogen, which means that it relieves mental, physical and emotional stress, although this has yet to be scientifically proven. It is also said to help with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder especially when combined with Gingko biloba, although this has not been scientifically proven either.
American ginseng may have an inhibitory effect on colorectal cancer, according to one study, and may be able to boost the immune system, thereby making people who take it less likely to have colds and flu. It may also have some effect on the memory of the elderly as this 2010 study indicates - the quotation is from the conclusion:
“This preliminary study has identified robust working memory enhancement following administration of American ginseng. These effects are distinct from those of Asian ginseng and suggest that psychopharmacological properties depend critically on ginsenoside profiles. These results have ramifications for the psychopharmacology of herbal extracts and merit further study using different dosing regimens and in populations where cognition is fragile.” (“Effects of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) on neurocognitive function: an acute, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study.” Scholey A et al., Psychopharmacology, October 2010, Vol. 212 (3) pp.545-546.)
Yet another earlier study showed that an intake of American ginseng before a meal could stop blood sugar levels spiking after it in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. However it was suggested that people without diabetes should take the ginseng with their meal. (Archives of Internal Medicine
April 10th 2000, Vol.160 (7) pp 1009-13. “American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.) reduces postprandial glycemia in non-diabetic subjects and subjects with type2 diabetes mellitus” Vuksam V et al.
You should not take American ginseng over a prolonged period, not more than six weeks, and children should not be given it. It should only be taken under the supervision of a physician.