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Ginseng, the Miracle Healer
Cindy Chan

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Ginseng is among the many natural health products that more people are using to manage and improve their health. There are several species of ginseng, all belonging to the Panax genus. The two main species with medicinal qualities are "Panax ginseng," which refers to Korean ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng or Chinese ginseng, mainly found in China and Korea; and "Panax quinquefolius," which refers to American ginseng, native to North America.

Siberian ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus, a plant indigenous to China, Japan, Korea and Siberia is a different plant.

Ginseng is a deciduous, slow-growing perennial herb that has a light-colored fleshy root and a single stalk with dark green, oval-shaped leaves. The root is the only portion of the plant used in medicinal preparations, which are available in various forms, such as powder, cut and dried roots, tea and liquid extracts.

Written records of the medical use of ginseng first appeared about 2,000 years ago. The word "panax" comes from the Greek "panakeia," meaning "all healing" or "universal remedy," indicating the wide belief that ginseng is effective in combating ailments of all kinds.

The name "ginseng" is derived from the Chinese name for the plant, "renshen," meaning "man-root," because the long and slender ginseng root is thought to resemble the shape of the human body.

A number of stories have been passed down from ancient times about the medicinal effects and mystical shape of the ginseng root. A Chinese story tells of a deity named Wei who ate only a soup made of ginseng and poria, a Chinese herb, but always managed to stay 30 steps ahead of a man riding a horse and was able to climb very fast up a steep mountain.

A Korean folktale tells of the high regard that the Korean people have for ginseng as an elixir of life and a miraculous medicinal plant. In one variation of the story, the Mountain Spirit tested a man's filial piety to his terminally ill father by disguising himself as a monk and telling the man that the only way to cure his father was to make a broth from boiling his own young son in water. Satisfied that the man's devotion was genuine, the Mountain Spirit sent him a 1,000-year-old wild ginseng disguised as the boy. By the time the real boy arrived home the next day, his grandfather had completely recovered from his illness after drinking the medicine made from the ginseng boy.

There is also an account that describes one method by which traditional Chinese medicine tests the effectiveness and potency of ginseng. Two people are asked to walk a long distance, one with ginseng in his mouth and the other without. After the walk, the one with ginseng is still breathing normally while the one without ginseng feels exhausted and out of breath.

A great deal of traditional usage and anecdotal reports, along with some research in Asia and North America, support the effectiveness of ginseng and its long history of safe use. Among the many benefits, ginseng is said to protect the digestive system, alleviate stress and fatigue, improve blood circulation, enhance brain activity, strengthen the organs and improve the overall disease-fighting systems of the body.

Along with this knowledge, consumers would also be wise to ensure that they are purchasing authentic ginseng products. Moreover, they should be aware that wide variations in quality exist among different brands.

Physicians should closely monitor patients on warfarin who are also taking dietary supplements that contain ginseng. Ginseng should not be taken when one has a fever, and those who develop side effects such as redness in the eyes, rashes or diarrhea should stop taking it.

To minimize adverse effects, it is particularly advisable for seniors, pregnant or breastfeeding women, patients scheduled for surgery or those diagnosed with a serious disease or significant medical condition to consult their healthcare provider before taking ginseng.

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