You know ginseng as a notorious cure-all, but have you heard the legend about it making you immortal? Sounds okay only if you can afford domestic help. Think about all the laundry you'd have to do over an eternity.
But before you dabble with eternal life, you need to know your tonics. One of the most famous, Siberian ginseng, isn't actually ginseng at all, but a distant relative with like properties. Then there's North American, Chinese and Korean types. And while they all have different effects, benefits touted include cures for depression, fatigue, sexual dysfunction and infertility.
Like everything else under the sun that isn't accused of causing cancer, some claim it can reduce the risk of cancer. And a 2000 study at the University of Toronto revealed that taking American ginseng before a meal reduced blood sugar levels, which could have an impact on diabetes.
With all the different types out there, you should really consult someone who knows what he or she is doing and can tell you which ginseng is best for you, especially since some can have harmful effects.
And if you're pregnant, you know the drill: stay away or talk to a doctor first.
What the experts say
"Ginseng tonifies your source chi, the chi that all the other chi in your body comes from. In Western medicine they call it an adaptogen. It can do opposite things depending on what your body needs, and bring things back to regular functioning. Panax, or Chinese ginseng, is more yang, hotter, than Canadian or American. Panax might make your hangover worse, for example, or be bad for high blood pressure. It can also lead to headaches, palpitations or insomnia if you tend that way or if you use too much of it. The Canadian and American roots do not have those qualities. Canadian is [generally] safer. Ginseng is not an aphrodisiac. It gives you more energy, so you have more to use for sex. The same goes for fertility, specifically women's fertility."
Kaleb Montgomery , Chinese medicine practitioner, Toronto
"In hospitals in China they use ginseng in feeding tubes to pick people up who are out cold. It can even stop heavy bleeding. Siberian ginseng (in Chinese medicine we refer to it as a ginseng) is acrid, slightly bitter and a bit warmer. It tonifies the digestive tract, kidneys and heart. It has a calming effect and opens up blood circulation. Canadian (North American) ginseng, instead of being warm, is a bit cool, so it tonifies chi and yin and has a cooling effect to bring hyperactivity down. Canadian ginseng is most commonly prescribed because most people have a deficiency in yin that makes them hyper. Long-term use of red ginseng could lead to diabetes."
Robert McDonald , traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, Toronto
"We use ginseng in preparations called rasayanas. Rasa' means the nectar, the taste of life, and ginseng is bitter, hot and pungent. It's wonderful to increase vitality, and we add it to hair- and skin-care prepartions as a preservative, but mostly to entice the senses, to increase blood flow and preserve the body. In Ayurveda it's used in potent sexual elixirs and also for certain aches and pains. We use it in much the same way we use ginger root. It's part of the blend for the secret to immortality with which we help stop the aging process."
Andrea Olivera , Ayurvedic practitioner specializing in skin care, Toronto
"I haven't seen any proven evidence of ginseng causing an improvement in sperm quality. A lot of people say, "Yes, it worked well for me," but in terms of proven effects there is nothing. They keep on putting it into male fertility concoctions. I've looked at ginseng and have not been very impressed. On the other hand, people come in all the time who are on it. They say they feel better on it or take it because someone else told them it worked."
Keith Jarvi , director, male infertility program, U of T, staff urologist, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto
"[One of the legends about ginseng says that] many years ago on Phoenix Mountain in China, ginseng plants grew without medicinal powers. One large ginseng plant grew larger and larger until it suddenly transformed itself into a young maiden. One day she scurried into the forest to protect her new woodland friends from the torrential rains. She found that they had all become sick from the wetness. The sun then appeared and told the ginseng maiden that there was a very old wise man who lived a long distance from her and could help with special medicines made from herbs.... Once back in her forest, she administered the elixir he made to her friends, and they immediately recovered. She had a small amount left and sprinkled it on a ginseng plant that was suffering from the long dry summer. Once the ginseng plant absorbed the elixir, it acquired strong medicinal powers, and from that day on ginseng became an effective medicinal herb."
Scott Harris , ginseng historian, president, Empire State Ginseng Growers Association, Cooperstown, New York