needing a pick-up at the end of a
dreary day, I swing by the local Chinese herb store and randomly select a tiny pack of dried Korean ginseng from the shelf.
At home, I drop a few of the red slivers into my kettle and wait for it to boil. The water turns a hazy yellowish colour and an earthy smell fills the kitchen. Being a ginseng virgin, I'm not quite sure what I should feel, and hope that this smoky-tasting drink will give me a coffee-like jolt. I hold my breath, down the root juice and wait. And wait. Alas, no power surge. The ginseng process is obviously more complicated than I thought.
Reported to be the cure-all for stress-related symptoms, ginseng has been in use for centuries in both the East and West as a tonic for fatigue, unclear thinking, memory loss, PMS, impotence and diminished sex drive.
But with dozens of ginseng-labelled products on the market, finding the one that suits your needs can be challenging. Just know that different types of ginseng have different effects.
There are 13 identifiable types of ginseng, generally falling into two major categories. Asian ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) acts as a more intense stimulant than its North American counterpart (Panax ginseng). Because of its higher yang composition, Asian ginseng is often reserved for men and older people who are seriously lacking in energy.
It has a "heating' effect on the body, and should generally be avoided by pregnant women -- some say all women, because of its hormonal effects -- and people with high blood pressure. Side effects may include insomnia and irritability.
North American ginseng has a more "cooling effect," building the body's general resistance to stress. It generally takes a few weeks to notice a difference. Continuous use is the key.
Ginseng is on the market in its natural root form, in tinctures, as tea and in capsules. "Ginsenoside' is often considered one of the root's more active components, though there is little research to support this claim.
Ginsenoside comes in 30 different types, varying from plant to plant. Higher ginsenoside concentrations are found in the North American root (about 5 per cent). It's best consumed directly from the root, or through 100- per-cent-pure ginseng capsules.
It's not the only active ingredient, though. Asian ginseng contains only 1 or 2 per cent ginsenoside but is recognized as more potent.
"Don't take it when you're sick, because it will also strengthen the sickness. If you're going to take ginseng as a preventative measure, I recommend either American or Canadian. But no matter what, consult a specialist before taking anything in the long term. If the ginseng needs to be easily absorbed, I recommend taking the roots and making tea. If you're going to buy capsules, make sure the powder in them was made after the root was cooked -- it's more concentrated that way."
MARY WONG, doctor of traditional Chinese medicine
"Generally, ginseng increases the body's ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Research in the university's physiology department suggests a correlation between athletic performance and intake of North American ginseng."
GARY KAKIS, former professor at U of T, department of nutritional sciences
"It could be very dangerous to generalize (about ginseng's properties and effects). My research shows that Type 2 diabetics see improvement in blood sugar levels when taking 1,000-milligram Ontario ginseng capsules before meals. But other types of ginseng may increase blood sugar levels.'
Dr. VLAD VUKSAN, St. Michael's Hospital's Risk Factor Modification Centre
"If you want the original ginseng form, taking the root is safer. Sometimes the purity is lost in the production process. To prepare tea from the root, never use a metal pot. Put the root in a glass pot and add cold water. When it starts to boil, turn down the heat just enough to let it boil for about an hour. Drink the tea and then eat the root."
JAMES WEN, doctor of Chinese medicine
"Most people say ginseng tastes like a mixture of cardboard and dirt, so it's often more pleasant to take the capsules. The problem is that you're never sure what you're buying."
MICHAEL ATKINS, ginseng farmer