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A Brief History and Clinical Understanding of the Herbal Enigma: Ginseng

 

Reported by: J.P. Day

September 19, 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Through extensive research of the history of herbal remedies, ginseng is the most misunderstood herbal remedy of the last two millennia.  Holistic medicine practice and commercialism have influenced generations of people from different cultures into trusting this root for far longer than it should have ever been utilized.  But modern medicine has never completely denounced the practice of ingesting ginseng, and until this occurs, it could be used for millennia to come.  Only after understanding the long history of the root may any person choose to believe that this product will help improve health without much evidence to clarify the true medical properties of the ginseng root.

 

Historical Origination

            The first written document of herbal medicine to mention the powerful effects of ginseng was the Shennong Bencao Jing[1], which is also considered one of the first ancient Chinese documents to influence the medical society.  The document was dated back to 100AD, and the description was influential enough to jump start the regular use of ginseng throughout the Chinese culture.  

“Ginseng is sweet and a little cold.  It mainly supplements the five viscera[2].  It quiets the essence spirit, settles the ethereal and corporeal souls, checks fright palpitations, eliminates evil qi[3], brightens the eyes, opens the heart, and sharpens the wits.  Protracted taking may make the body light[4] and prolong life.”  (Dharmanda)

            Within early Chinese medicine terms like sweet and cold were used to describe not only the taste of the herb, but as an indication of when it should be prescribed.  The term sweet describes the taste of freshly picked ginseng which differs to the products of today, where the root is better known for the bitter sensation.  The temperature description directly following the taste is used as a general symptom guideline.  If the patient was feeling feverish, had a thick discharge of had a pain that could be alleviated by cold things they would feel relieved by a cooling or “cold medicine”.  For the same reason if the patient was getting chills, had a thinning discharge or could be relieved by things that were warm, then they would be given medicines described as warming or “hot herbs”.   The most powerful description of ginseng lies with it’s claimed influence to bring the deathly ill back to life again, and this was the considered the optimal reason for most Chinese to rely on the medicine in times of fatal symptoms.

Understandably, the first written effects of the herb caused a movement of commercialization of the ginseng products.  At this point in history, dosage was not considered and the side effects had not been found.  From written testimony, the average dosages of ginseng in this period range from 3-9 grams, with some people ingesting as much as 12 grams a day. (Dharmanda)  The medicine was unstoppably collected and sold at extremely low prices to promote everyday use to ensure the effects of prolonged healthy living. 

 

Guided Misconceptions

There was little medical history of testing until around the end of the Ming Dynasty (1600AD), when higher officials and the best physicians of the time began utilizing the herb within concoctions in order to not only improve the desired effect but to add a degree of selectivity toward the many uses of the medicine.  With the growing demand for the root to mix into a vast array of healing tonics, the Chinese culture first felt the affects of the underlying nature of this plant.  The most useful part of ginseng happens to be the slowest portion of the plant to reach maturity.  It could take from 3-6 years for a plant to mature enough so the roots could be utilized within these ancient medicines. (Herbal Supplements)  This era marked the beginning of the misconceptions surrounding the plant as the next step for the holistic medicine market was to the substitute the rare ginseng for other roots with the same physiological nature.  Some of the utilized vegetation regrettably ranged from poisons to virtually ineffective substitutes.    A larger number of testaments of people using the plant to bring the health to the ill changed the general responses to blaming the root for many deaths during this time period. 

The generations of misuse and dwindling resources also promoted the holistic market to promote the effects of ginseng in even more exaggerated terms.  This hysterical promotion supplied the market with an even higher demand, causing the prices of the herb to skyrocket since the circulating stories of death were mostly ignored due to a society that embraced the need for tradition and trusting the old ways.  Due to price, the medicine became only specially used in the direst cases, including most of the rare ginseng roots becoming only available to the highest official use. 

 

Americanization

Not unlike the Chinese holistic vendors, the American commercialization of ginseng is still able to promise health benefits without the evidence to back it up.  Not many people realize that there currently hundreds of ginseng farms within many of the different states of America.  American ginseng is also known to be lacking in the unique properties of the Chinese ginseng that has been used for thousands of years.  One of the main commercial differences is the use of American ginseng as a stimulant, or a healthy substitute for caffeine, even with no proof that caffeine has produced any of the observed side effects of ginseng.  Although vast experiments have been performed on the different claims of the herb, most studies observing the effects of ginseng have been tainted by copious amounts of unreliable data and biased reviews.

 

Tainted Reviews and Professional Case Study

Most reviews have discovered only trace amounts of ginseng that have yet to be studied within experimentation due to the ineffectively low 100 mg dose amounts within the manufactured pills.  But with the pure dominance of the commercialization of the supplement market, there will always be false studies made with biased results over unsubstantiated claims such as improved energy, weight loss, or from even dosing diabetic patients in order to improve insulin production.  The internet is full of studies and recent news of ginseng properties that have greatly helped patients, but the problem lies within the credibility of the source. 

Most of the relevant data found by the respected medical research institutes have focused on the saponins within the root of the Panax (Chinese) version of the root.  These saponins have been studied for years and the effects range to provide help with a variety of disease and pain such as help with caner treatment, heart disease and immune modulation. (Ferguson) Not only does problem lie with the substances inability to perform as well as less expensive manufactured drugs as well as the high volumes needed as well as the duration of the dosage, but it also has only been found to affect a variety of animals.  Given that rats are the main lab tested subjects, the clinical trials of veterinary medicine proved to work well, but the same was not true for the human case studies that have been carried over the last thirty years.   

Given the history of the plants use and the vast effects of ingestion, it is difficult to find reason to experiment on holistic medicine.  As a dietary supplement, the root has never been reviewed by the FDA as a relative medicine for any of the claimed affects.  The main reasons driving this uneducated use is strictly the commercial integrity as an ancient remedy that is still used among an entire culture to this day.  It is hard to find credible case studies experimenting with the herb outside of China.  One to consider would be the double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial preformed by the American Dietetic Association.  This was a very well done experiment run over an eight week period which states that ginseng has no enhancing psychological effects on healthy young adults.  The procedure called for doses of both the normal quantities of 200mg and even doubling to 400mg of use per day.  Over the entire case study there was no correlation between ginseng and happiness found in any of the 83 people.  Granted these quantities are much less then the doses ingested by the Chinese, but they were also careful to not promote any illness due to ginseng overdose. 

Today the normal dosage of ginseng products has almost disappeared in a large portion of the commercial ginseng related products.  In fact, a lot of research must be done to find the credible ginseng products still available in the United States.  “…60% of the marketed ginseng products do not work and 25% haven’t any ginseng at all” (DerMarderosia, The Review of Natural Products).  The reason most supplements lack a large amount of ginseng can also be attributed to the known side effects of the herb.  Known side effects include: chest pain, palpitations, impotence, insomnia, purities, skin eruptions, epistaxis and GAS (Ginseng Abuse Syndrome) which has a plethora of adverse symptoms due to ginseng overdose.  (Herbal Supplements) 

            Another jaded view of ginseng came from an observation from a hospital in Madrid. (Vazquez) The doctors states that a female patient who had suffered a previous affective took a ginseng supplement that reacted to her antidepressant medication and then caused a manic episode which could only be suppressed by treatment for the ginseng ingestion.  With all of the adverse symptoms caused by ginseng, it is a wonder that it can still be commercially bought around the world.  But without more hard evidence against the medicine it will continue to be used and more often abused by uneducated people trusting holistic medicines. 

 

Conclusions

The conclusions to be taken from the years of misunderstood use can only be described by a medical professional.  “The pharmacological effects reported for ginseng and its extracts are varied and controversial” (Professor E.J. Staba, University of Minnesota, College of Pharmacy).  Until more case studies denounce the adulterated and outdating claims of ginseng use, there seems to be enough of a demand to keep growing the plant for commercial gain.  Personally I could never advocate the use of a supplement which has never had credible medical study, but for this I blame the medical community for not associating more professional studies as well as the commercialism of an ingested product without FDA approval.  Only with a vast amount of clinical study is concentrated on the uses and effects of ginseng will any of our current cultures be influenced to accept or denounce the holistic medicine forever.


References

Cardinal, Bradley J, et al. Ginseng does not enhance psychological well-being in healthy, young adults: Results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Chicago: June 2001. Vol.101, Iss.6; pg.655

 

Dharmanda, Subhuti. The Nature of Ginseng: From Traditional Use to Modern Research.  Institute for Traditional Medicine.  Portland, Oregon.  http://www.itmonline.org/journal/arts/ginsengnature.htm

 

Ferguson, Bruce.  One Herb: A review of a popular herb Panax Ginseng.  Chi Institute: Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. http://www.chi-institute.com/resource/resource_note2.htm

 

Introduction to Herbal Supplements. September 18, 2006. http://www.mcphs.edu/rc/ccap/herbs/ginseng.htm

Pictures: Ginseng Root is from www.hardingsginsengfarm.com

                Ginseng Product if from supple-max.com

 



[1] Classic Herbal of Shennong

[2] 5 systems: Spleen (Digestive Tract), Body, Liver, Heart and Lungs

[3] Refers to the influences within the environment that caused disease

[4] An ancient misconception.  As most people would grow increasingly thin to the overexposure of cinnabar, the culture believed that this was a sign of becoming more heavenly and closer to a wonderful afterlife.

 

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