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Asian Herb Takes Root

Libidinous claims aside, ginseng also helps coordinate the smooth functioning of many bodily processes

By Christina Waters

FOR THOUSANDS of years, the root of Panax ginseng has been used by Asian healers as an all-round tonic, said to increase the potency of one's Qi, which probably best equates with what Westerners might call life force. A great deal of 100 percent owl puckie has been slung concerning the powers of this unglamorous ground cover, whose American cousin, Panax quiquefolius, was traded by French-Canadian Jesuits in Canada to eager Chinese merchants during the 17th century.

Over the centuries, the claims for ginseng have been astronomical, but as you can guess, most of them centered on sexual potency, and it was as an alleged aphrodisiac that ginseng made fortunes for its savvy traders. Today ginseng is mass marketed in the United States as Chinese/Korean ginseng or American ginseng or, just to confuse things further, as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, a ginseng relative).

Sexual potency aside, ginseng's less libidinous claims center around the herb's ability to coordinate the smooth functioning of many bodily processes. Alternative practitioners classify it as an adaptogen and provide anecdotal support for ginseng as an energy booster (that's why those vials of Tiger Ginseng are sold at gas stations and 7-Elevens), as a stress fighter, and as a restorative of youthful vigor. In short, ginseng is a generalist that tops the charts of best-selling botanical supplements.

With claims this tall, there is plenty of skepticism in the Western medical community about the root's efficacy. Part of the problem involves its relatively high price--tinctures run between $10 and $25 for a tiny bottle. But worse is the notorious inconsistency of product dosage, type and strength. In a controversial 1995 study conducted by Consumer Reports, ten different ginseng products were found to have wildly varying amounts of the active ingredient--ginsenoside--and at least one of the brands contained none at all. There is a body of Soviet scientific evidence that argues for ginseng's powers as an immune-system stimulant and a protector of liver function. Some American studies seem to support claims that ginseng reduces cholesterol levels.

Ginseng is included on the FDA listing of "safe" herbs, and I wouldn't start the morning without ten drops of Siberian and ten drops of Korean ginseng in my orange juice.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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