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Ginseng plays big part in driving growth of homeopathic medicine.

If one herb symbolizes what's been termed an "herbal renaissance" in the United States, and indeed the world, it's ginseng. In the health food industry it's one of the fastest-moving product groups in the herb category, often commanding its own shelf space next to the hundreds of other herb products. Backed by national radio and print media advertising ginseng products, in the form of dietary supplements, are beginning to enter the chain pharmacy market as well.

Ginseng is hot. If ginseng were an easily defined single product it would make selling and buying easy. But buyers must understand that ginseng is represented by dozens of products, product forms and a number of source plants.

There is Korean ginseng, Asian ginseng and Chinese ginseng -- all from the same source plant Panax ginseng, which is native to eastern Asia. They are essentially the same, simply grown in different countries.

In Chinese pharmacies Asian ginseng is further graded by methods used to process whole roots. White ginseng is the dried root. Red ginseng is the dried root that's been cured by boiling in sugar; the process changes its color and slightly alters its effects.

Then there is American ginseng Panax quinquefoluis, which is indigenous to eastern North America. It's generally supplied in the form crude dry root.

Another plant in the botanical family commonly known as the ginseng family (Araliaceae), is so-called Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), which has similar biological activity, though the bark of the woody stem or the bark of the root are used. It is a shrub in northeastern Asia that grows to 9 feet tall.

The common name "ginseng" refers to the dried root, preparations and products containing either Asian ginseng or American ginseng, supplied as whole cultivated root or whole wild root, and their products.

Ginseng is the transliteration of two Chinese characters that essentially translate to "essence of man in the form of the earth." Harvard University botanist Shiu Ying Hu, who has written extensively on ginseng, notes that the qualifying term "seng" is a word employed by Chinese root gatherers for fleshy roots used as tonics in Chinese medicine.

American ginseng, whether wild or cultivated is generally exported to Asian markets in simple dried form. Cultivated roots tend to be priced four times below wild-harvested roots. The vast majority of the American ginseng crop (an estimated 95% to 97%) is exported, primarily to the Hong Kong market. Roughly 90% of the American ginseng crop is produced in Marathon County, Wis.

Wild harvested ginseng is distinct from cultivated ginseng. The physical differences, while difficult to describe, are easily distinguished by experienced ginseng buyers. Hong Kong ginseng buyers can look at a wild American ginseng root and tell what part of the U.S. or Canada it came from. The higher price and perceived higher quality of the wild harvest material is based on the fact that Oriental markets are willing to pay a much higher price for wild harvested over cultivated ginseng.

According to Rex Dull of the horticultural and tropical products division of the Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service in 1993, some 714,991 kilograms of cultivated American ginseng worth $57.4 million was exported primarily to Hong Kong. In the same year 69,639 kilograms of wild American ginseng worth $21.8 million was exported from the United States.

One reason why Asian markets prefer wild-harvested American ginseng is that the almost mystical wild Chinese root was harvested nearly to the point of extinction at least 200 years ago. Still a few pounds of wild Chinese ginseng are dug in northeastern China each year. An herb buyer in a Beijing pharmacy indicates that from 3 to 30 kilograms of wild Panax ginseng are harvested each year. Single roots have sold for as much as $23,000 per ounce.

While ginseng connoisseurs and Chinese pharmacists may prefer whole root products, Americans have many more product choices. Product forms include extracts, tea, "instant tea" (using fructose as a carrier), tablets, capsules, and other product forms. Capsules are perhaps the most convenient product form.

A number of products offer standardized levels of ginsenosides, which scientists generally agree to be the primary active components. They are a type of saponin, and at least 13 different ginsenosides have been identified from Panax species. Many of the best designed human clinical studies on ginseng products have involved those with standardized levels of ginsenosides. The effects of products standardized to 4% to 7% ginsenosides are more predictable than forms with unknown levels of active constituents.

Ginseng has been used in China since ancient times. The earliest written account is from Shen-Nong Ben Cao Jing, a Chinese herbal formulary compiled in the late Han Dynasty (first century A.D.).

As viewed according to the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, says Shiu Ying Hu, ginseng is a tonic to increase strength, increase blood volume, promote life and appetite, quiet the spirit and give wisdom.

Ginseng is used alone or in prescriptions for general weakness, deficient energy, anemia, lack of appetite, shortness of breath with perspiration, nervous agitation, forgetfulness and impotence.

Some might dismiss such traditional claims as little more than old wives tales, over the past 30 years, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, European and most recently American research has focused on the antiviral and metabolic effects, antioxidant activities, nervous system and reproductive performance, cholesterol and lipid metabolism effects and endocrinological activity of ginseng. The results suggest a scientific basis for using ginseng to increase work efficiency by raising users' capacity for mental and physical performance and allowing for better adaptation to high and low temperatures and darkness -- helping the body adapt to stress.

Other studies have shown that ginseng can enhance short-term memory, stimulate the immune system, reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, minimize cell damage from radiation exposure, increase intestinal absorption of nutrients, and boost anticlotting effect in the bloodstream.

Once ambiguously described as a "tonic," today ginseng is defined as an "adaptogen." That term, coined by a Soviet ginseng researcher in 1947, refers to a substance that must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, possess a nonspecific action (such as the ability of ginseng to help modulate stress) and have a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of a condition.

Ginseng's activity depends on its chemical profile. Ginseng contains a number of active constituents including saponins, amino acids, plus vitamins and minerals.

In a number of countries health claims are allowed to be made for ginseng. For example, in Germany, therapeutic use of oriental ginseng is allowed by the German health authorities. According to the standard German monograph, the root is used as a tonic for invigoration for fatigue, reduced work capacity and concentration and for convalescence. Daily dosage is 1 to 2 grams of root in appropriate formulations.

Research on ginseng is still in its infancy. The large majority of the 2,900 documented citations to ginseng refer to studies on the Asian Panax ginseng. A much smaller number of studies have involved American ginseng. The focus of Asian researchers is largely aimed at how ginseng works, since it's culturally accepted that it does work. On the other hand, Western researchers in North America and Europe focus efforts on determining if it works.

Steven Foster does research on medicinal and aromatic plants. He is the author of six books on medicinal plants and is a natural products consultant.
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Author:Foster, Steven
Publication:Chain Drug Review
Date:Nov 21, 1994
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