Ginseng is probably the most well known herb in the Chinese Herbal medical system. It is very popular because everyone wants a little more energy in their day. Ginseng has long been understood to be the strongest herbal medicine at tonifying energy. As a result a herb that was once reserved for difficult or severe cases due to its cost, is now readily available in many stores and in soft drinks.
There are several forms of Ginseng. Panax Ginseng is the asian variety and is the strongest and it tonifies or strengthens the core energy of the body. American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolium) is milder and is tonifying to the strength of fluids in the body as well as the core energy. This makes it milder and causes fewer side effects than its asian cousin. Siberian Ginseng and Psuedoginseng, are not real ginseng and generally are not seen as substitutes for the other two.
Both American and Asian Ginseng fall into a broad class of herbs that strengthen energy in the body. Traditionally a herbalist would determine what type of energy deficiency you had and develop a treatment including diet and lifestyle changes and herbal medicines that would help change the way your body functions. This would alter the way a patient feels so that the herbal medicine could eventually be withdrawn. Traditionally Ginseng was expensive and other herbs were used in its place. There are many herbs that in the hands of a trained herbalist could do a better job than ginseng, not because of strength, but because they were more specific to the needs of the patient. Often Ginseng was used when a patient was very weak. This was because when a patient is too weak, it may be hard for that patient to fully utilize the herbs that will help change and correct the dynamics that caused the weakness. Ginseng provided a "crutch", it helped strengthen the patient enough to allow the patient to change. By itself ginseng just provides an energy boost with little long lasting effect on how the body operates.
The difficulty is in the "determining the type of energy deficiency" part of herbalism. Traditional Chinese Herbal medicine has very strict definitions of energy deficiency. There are many cases where a person may feel sluggish, or weak, that is actually from an excess of energy, or quite often an inability to regulate and manage energy effectively. It is in these cases, where there is no actual deficiency, that adding Ginseng can cause problems. Adding a quick hit of energy from ginseng to a person under these circumstances can result in an overload of energy. The result is side effects such as insomnia, high blood pressure, headaches, and irritability. The unfortunate thing is that teens and young adults who are least likely to have a true energy deficiency are the ones who are most likely to consume "energy drinks" containing ginseng. As an occasional thing these drinks do little real harm unless the person is already prone to the types of side effects that can result. The greater problem is the person who regularly uses these drinks and becomes dependent upon them. The energy rush can become a hard habit to break and can in time lead to side effects which may become more of a problem than the original low energy.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066