Imagine coming across an herb so powerful that its very existence is threatened by overuse, pushing it to the edge of extinction. It almost seems unbelievable, but that’s the case for ginseng, often called the “miracle plant.”
I first heard of ginseng many decades ago when most Americans were just beginning to discover herbal medicine. Ginseng was proclaimed to be a potency herb for men — which was enough to get a lot of attention.
Now it’s known that ginseng is far more than that. . .
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This herb has been used in both Native American and Chinese remedies for thousands of years. And despite debate in the medical community over exactly what ginseng does for a person, it continues to be lauded as an herb of many wonders.
People take ginseng for stress, and to quell common colds and nasty flu viruses. It’s also used as a stimulant or energizer, an immune-system booster, a way to ward off infections like HIV/AIDS and dysentery, and a tool for lowering blood sugar. And lately, the plant’s cancer-prevention and related properties are getting noticed.
It’s no surprise that the name of the genus, Panax, means “all-heal” in Greek and is related to the word “panacea.”
Why ginseng is under threat of extinction
There are two main medicinal species of ginseng: American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (P. ginseng). The latter is also sometimes called Chinese or Korean ginseng, so it’s best to buy a brand where the species P. ginseng is identified on the label.
Overall demand for the plants continues to increase across the world, which is why protective measures have been rolled out in an attempt to save these species.
Asian ginseng is found in China, Korea, and eastern Siberia. You’ll find American ginseng, a slow-growing plant with red, jewel-like berries, in deciduous forests of the United States from Maine down through the Midwest.
American ginseng is especially prevalent in the Appalachians and Ozarks. It holds the designation of being a CITES plant species, meaning it’s labeled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is therefore protected against unsustainable trade.
Currently, American ginseng can only be harvested in 19 states (here’s the list from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in case you’re curious). When harvested, the plants must be at least five years old or older. Age is determined based on the number of leaves, or prongs, on the plant, and the number of stem scars on the root neck. Most of the American ginseng that’s harvested is sent to China.
Plenty of domestic cultivation of the plant takes place in the U.S., but some believe that wild ginseng is more effective as a healing remedy. That makes it worth more, which is what has led to extensive illegal harvesting of the plant. The business can be highly profitable. That’s the main reason the wild populations in both Asia and North America are under severe pressure. Logging and development also play a role.
Ginseng has its own class of healing chemicals: “Ginsenosides”
When it comes to cancer, American ginseng is the one to go with as a medicinal supplement. American ginseng is worth our attention here at Cancer Defeated because it shows significant promise as a cancer treatment.
Anti-cancer functions include the activity of “ginsenosides,” which is the name given to a slew of different chemicals found in ginseng. Ginsenosides and their related metabolites work together to curb inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. They play a role in undermining the angiogenesis and metastasis of cancer cells. Ginsenosides also appear to affect insulin levels and lower blood sugar.
On top of all that, ginsenosides affect some of the normal functions of the immune system, which has lately piqued the interest of researchers who think the herb could be used to help cancer patients deal with the exhausting side effects of standard treatment.
One study, for example, found that after eight weeks of using ginseng, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experienced a 20% improvement in fatigue. The mechanism for reducing cancer-treatment-related fatigue isn’t well understood, but many researchers believe it’s the product of ginseng’s ability to reduce inflammation and possibly lower stress-induced cortisol production.
A 20% improvement is eight weeks is underwhelming, but at least the herb helped and — very important — did no harm.
Other studies have reported that ginseng not only relieves fatigue associated with standard cancer treatment, but also improves appetite, sleep ability, and overall quality of life.
There’s not really a downside to ginseng, except that its exact mechanisms for healing aren’t understood. There’s a need for more human studies that home in on the various ailments ginseng is said to help with. Most of the studies we have are on animals or lab cultures. But I will say that every time ginseng is studied in earnest, the results are favorable.
This herb needs your support
Either American or Asian/Korean ginseng was used in the studies I’ve referenced, so again, those are the ones to use if you want to try to replicate the results. Several sources recommend taking 1,000 mg in the morning and then again in the afternoon, but I’d suggest you talk to your herb-smart doctor or pharmacist to get the dosage right.
As far as I can gather, ginseng has no side effects. The only slight disadvantage I’ve ever come across is that high doses of American ginseng may affect sleep. So if you have insomnia, take it with caution.
And, if you have any interest, feel free to look into and support the work of organizations like World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups dedicated to increasing awareness of the rapid decline of wild ginseng. Those groups also do some commendable work conserving vital forests and habitats where ginseng thrives.