Ginseng - A traditional root - But does it live up to expectations?
To find out, we will take a closer look at the ginseng root in this article.
- What is ginseng?:
Ginseng is an herbaceous plant from the group of ivy plants, originally from East Asia. Ginseng means 'remedy'. Its root has a medicinal use for humans and in Chinese and Korean medicine the aralia plant has been used as a remedy for several thousand years, as documented in documents written around 40 BC.
Since the 17th century, ginseng has also been known in Europe and is becoming increasingly popular.
The power root is said to activate body and mind and to promote concentration.
There are two types of ginseng, the red and the white. However, there is only one fundamental difference: after harvesting, the red ginseng is steamed at about 100 °C for 3-5 hours, which gives it its red colour, and then dried; the white ginseng is dried directly.
- Historical facts about ginseng:
Ginseng has been used as an adaptogen for more than 5000 years. Adaptogens are active plant substances that help the organism to adapt to increased emotional and physical stress situations and to compensate for particular stimuli. As early as 40 years B.C., ginseng was considered a remedy for a healthy and long life and was therefore reserved for nobles, kings and emperors. For them the plant had a higher value than silver and gold. Ginseng collectors were only allowed to keep one root themselves, all the others had to be given to the court. The citizens even faced the death penalty if they did not comply.
About 2000 years ago the emperor Shi Huang Ti planned expeditions to Korea to enrich himself with the valuable ginseng plant; because ginseng was supposed to protect the throne from conspiracies and evil.
Although the plant has been known as a remedy for several thousand years, it only found its way to Europe 300-400 years ago. Since then, however, the powerroot has become increasingly popular and its medicinal benefits have been investigated in various studies. You can find more information on this in the chapter "Studies".
- Cultivation, harvest and processing of the ginseng root:
Growing ginseng is very time-consuming. The seed needs two years to germinate and the care of the plant is very intensive. A Korean proverb says, "The ginseng wants to hear the farmer's steps all the time." This should make it clear what effort is behind the cultivation.
After the harvest, the soil needs about ten years of rest before new ginseng can be planted in the ground, because the soil contains too little nutrients before the ten years are over, so that the young plant would die prematurely. Potassium-rich soil at an altitude of 400 - 700 metres is best suited for cultivation.
Temperatures between 20 and 25 °C in summer and between 1 and 14 °C in winter are optimal. Even small amounts of snow cannot harm the plant.
Ginseng is planted in autumn and must be protected from excessive sunlight, because wild ginseng grows only in shady places in the forest. Ginseng farmers often use straw mats for protection. A small amount of sunlight is essential for growth, but too much or no light would kill the plant. The ginseng plant grows up to 80 cm high and has hand-shaped leaves on the stem.
It is also important to ensure that the plant is watered properly, avoiding waterlogging and dry periods.
The plant's red or yellow and white flowers carry the seeds for the next sowing. These seeds are surrounded by fruit flesh, which must be removed before sowing. The cylindrical root forms numerous side branches and the inner root is cream-coloured. Four years after germination the valuable roots can be harvested. In total it takes about six years to harvest; early harvesting can result in a considerable reduction in quality. In the meantime, however, farmers have learned a few tricks to speed up the ripening process and shorten it by two years. First, the seeds are soaked in damp sand before sowing. This makes it easier for the husk to break open and germination takes place earlier. In addition, the soil is replaced to avoid the ten-year dormancy period. Whether the quality of the ginseng root suffers as a result is a matter of controversy.
After the harvest, the roots are cleaned with clear water and prepared for drying. The ginseng root has a water content of more than 70%. Drying in ovens or freeze-dryers therefore prevents the valuable power root from spoiling.
The dried root is then processed into powder or extract, but often simply into cubes or slices.
- Ginseng - pharmaceutical form and use:
The ginseng root has a very high water content, which is why the root spoils quickly after harvesting. It is therefore usually offered in dried form. However, there are completely different forms of administration: Powder, capsules, (chewable) tablets, granules, tea, tonic (liquor) or in its natural form. The most common type is probably ginseng powder and dried root.
Ginseng smells of horseradish, sometimes also of liquorice and tastes bitter at first, but then develops a sweetish taste.
The root can be used in various ways and can be used in the kitchen. Ginseng is particularly suitable as a spice for salads or vegetables. The root is also very popular as a tea. For this purpose you can pour boiling water over the powder or the dried root and let it steep for a few minutes.
- What ingredients are found in ginseng?
The ginseng plant contains many different substances, probably the most important are the ginsenosides. You can read more about this in the following chapter.
In addition to the ginsenosides, minerals and trace elements, essential oils and vitamins have also been found. Also essential fatty and amino acids are not missing and contribute to a real nutrient bomb. Essential' means that the body cannot produce these substances itself, or cannot produce them completely, and we therefore have to supply them with our food. Amino acids are building blocks of proteins and therefore indispensable for the muscles.
Important minerals such as zinc and iron are also vital and are contained in not negligible amounts in ginseng.
- Ginsenosides - The weapons of the ginseng root:
Ginsenosides are saponins from the ginseng root. They are also known as panaxosides and are used by the plant as a passive defence against fungi and feeding insects.
There are three groups of panaxosides:
- Panax diols
- Panax Triole
- Oleanolic acids
Further link to Ginsenosides >>>
The therapeutic potential of ginseng has been intensively investigated. The ginsenosides it contains are the active components of the ginseng root and are believed to be involved in many physiological processes and their optimization. Ginsenosides bind to nerve-typical receptors and since their composition is very similar to the body's own substances, their effect is based on the "key-lock principle". In the meantime, about 30 ginsenosides have been identified. The composition and quality of the ginsenosides is influenced by various factors, such as the age of the plant, the species and the harvest time.
Studies show that ginseng, or ginsenosides, can promote the body's own defence against stress. The immune system is also supposed to be strengthened; this is also said to be due to the ginsenosides.
The human being can therefore use the ginsenosides for his own health. Because not only the stress resistance is promoted, also the blood pressure can be regulated, as well as the metabolism and the immune system.
- Every year again - The Ginseng Festival:
For more than thirty years, the Geumsan Ginseng Festival has been held annually at harvest time in Chungcheongnam-do, a province in South Korea. Here the advantages and healing effects that ginseng has to offer are presented and emphasized.
In Chungcheongnam-do, the majority of ginseng plants from South Korea are cultivated and processed. But the market for other medicinal herbs is also one of the largest in the country.
The Ginseng Festival offers a wide range of programmes on the power root; there are seminars on the healing properties of ginseng, a pavilion where a wide variety of ginseng products are on offer, and several trade fairs for the international ginseng trade. But also traditional folk games, singing and dance performances are events worth seeing. Even a cooking competition and a quiz are offered at the popular festival. And most important of all: the ginseng farmers of the region proudly present their harvest after six years. There is no age limit for this festival, so people of all ages come together and have fun.
- Studies about ginseng:
A large part of the research is done in the field of asthmatic diseases. Although current therapies are effective and help reduce respiratory inflammation, the structural changes in the mucous membrane tissue that cause the disease in the long term do not prevent it.
This study aims to determine the efficacy of ginseng (administered orally) in laboratory mice with chronic asthma. For this purpose, the laboratory mice were given a precisely defined amount of ginseng orally over a certain period of time.
Link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1861130
The mice were divided into four groups: Ginseng, placebo, control group, and dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory agent that suppresses the immune system. For proper evaluation, the pathologically altered lung tissue was examined with light and electron microscopes.
Compared to the placebo group, the mice that were administered ginseng showed a reduction in the structural change in the respiratory tract.
However, this study has not yet been carried out on the human organism, which is why a hundred percent transferability of these results to humans cannot be guaranteed. Nevertheless, this scientific finding is an enormous advance in asthma therapy and encourages further research.
- Ginseng and mental performance:
A study by the Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit of the University of Newcastle was able to prove that even a single intake of ginseng can increase mental performance.
Link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12020739
Twenty students were administered a defined amount of ginseng, gingko, a combination preparation or a placebo over a certain period of time. Memory tests were then carried out. The results showed not only increased memory performance but also mental speed.
Another study by this research institution, in which the thirty subjects were each given 200 mg of ginseng, also showed an improvement in cognitive abilities.
Link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15982990
But also the mental exhaustion was significantly lower, which is explained by the regulation of the blood sugar level.
Researchers investigated this effect in another study and were able to prove that ginseng can lower the glucose level in the blood and thus also have a positive effect on diabetes.
Link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25265315
But ginseng is also said to be a miracle cure for stress. Stress is caused by the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin, as well as the release of cortisol. Normally this body reaction is regulated, but if this regulatory capacity is disturbed, the body is permanently in a stress reaction, which can ultimately lead to chronic stress. Here, ginseng provides the necessary balance and helps the human organism to better adapt to damaging stimuli and influences (noxae).
Further link >>>>
- Take-home massage:
The studies presented here support and reinforce each other's results. In summary, it can be said that ginseng can possibly promote concentration and make us more resistant to stress. The second point in particular is very important and is therefore the focus of further research, because chronic stress makes people ill. Nowadays it is unfortunately completely normal that stress accompanies us all day long. Most of the time, we rush through rush hour traffic before work and arrive at work already annoyed by slow-moving traffic and traffic jams. Here too, people are often stressed out, because constant pressure to perform and competitiveness often demand more than we can afford. After a stressful day at work, we are again stuck in rush hour traffic, but still can't switch off and finally arrive at home it is often too late to allow the body sufficient rest and relaxation phases.
Enjoying a ginseng tea can help us, even if only to a small extent, to react more calmly to all these influences and reduce stress.