Panax Panacea: How to Eat More Ginseng
If you dip so much as a pinky into the Chinatown of any major city, you’re going to come across ginseng. You might find the whole desiccated roots loose in a somewhat magical-looking, albeit unlabeled bin.
You might find a row of single-serving glass vials with ginseng energy elixir in them, ready to be broken open and consumed, promising to maximize your human vigour. Heck, you might even find ginseng gum. I’ve tried it! If you want your mouth to taste mysterious, slightly addictive, and not entirely unpleasant, you should try it too.
In traditional medicine, ginseng is known as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogenic herbs are plants that are restorative in nature, helping to bring balance to all systems of the body. Adaptogenic herbs are particularly useful during times of stress – be it mental, emotional, physical, athletic, and/or environmental stress – and help us become more resilient and less vulnerable to illness.
The use of ginseng can be traced back thousands of years to the Han Dynasty in China, where ginseng was prized as an almost magical health tonic, and was reserved for use strictly by the royal family. Ancient medical texts refer to ginseng as a panacea that “calms the mind, brings harmony to the soul, eliminates fears, and drives away evil spirits… If taken long enough, it strengthens the body and extends life.”
There are several common species of ginseng that you might find on the market. The most popular varieties are: Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng, true ginseng, or Korean red ginseng, which is Panax ginseng that has been steamed and dried before processing), Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng), and Eleutherococcus senticocus (Siberian ginseng). In both Asian ginseng and North American ginseng, the primary active compounds are the ginsenosides. In Siberian ginseng, they are the eleutherosides.
For the purpose of this article, I will be referring to Asian ginseng and North American ginseng, and just as an FYI, most of the research that has been done has used the Asian variety. While Siberian ginseng is a wonderful herb with similar benefits to its Panax cousins, it contains fairly different actives and is therefore really a whole different can of herbal worms.
So now that you know a bit about ginseng lore and its use in traditional medicine, let’s check out what the research says:
Blood Sugar Regulation
Taking ginseng before a meal seems to lower post-meal blood sugar spikes. Chronically elevated blood sugar can lead to metabolic damage and insulin insensitivity, so ginseng may be protective against this effect. This effect has been supported both in healthy individuals , as well as those with established impaired glucose tolerance .
Several studies have shown that ginseng can enhance mental performance and working memory, possibly by decreasing mental fatigue [3, 4]. In addition to finding mental performance improved, one of these studies also showed a blood sugar lowering effect .
In men with erectile dysfunction, ginseng supplementation was shown to increase erection quality [6, 7]. In menopausal women, a favourable effect on libido was also found .
Ginseng stimulates the immune system, both by regulating the endocrine system and by reducing oxidative stress .
Ginseng has a bitter, slightly starchy and grassy flavour. It’s not the easiest ingredient to work with in the kitchen, but in small amounts, it can be disguised fairly easily, and adds a certain complexity of flavour to a dish.
On to the recipes!
*The ginseng powder used in these recipes was Mary Ginseng House 100% Pure Ginseng Powder (which is sourced from a panax quinquefolius crop in Ontario)
Available in our dispensary
Alex Picot-Annand, BA (Psych), Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Certified Life Coach