The entire class of tonics in Chinese medicine is defined as herbs that “make things normal.” They are regarded as food grade, meaning they can be taken regularly as part of a super food diet, with or without food, and are remarkably low in adverse side effects.
There is no question that the king of all tonic herbs is Panax ginseng. Its American counterpart, Panax quinquefolia, is milder, more bitter than acrid, and is regarded as more of a Yin and Blood tonic. It is potent, but in terms of energy you can really feel, there is nothing like Chinese Panax ginseng.
The most potent specimen, wild Chinese ginseng, is only available at the cost of thousands of dollars for a single root. The next best option is wild, 10-to-18-year-old, woods-grown ginseng. Most of the commercial supply of ginseng in the world is grown in South Korea where the soil seems to be ideal for cultivating this valuable herb.
As Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, we are taught that ginseng is the best herb for Qi deficiency, which in common parlance is low energy. Considering the amount of coffee consumed daily by millions of people seeking that extra boost to get on with the affairs of life, it is no secret that we live in a society that knows what it means to run out of energy. Coffee and all caffeinated drinks provide empty, short-lived “energy.” These substances use up our hormonal energy reserves and actually deplete us more in the long run. On the other hand, ginseng helps the body create more real energy (i.e. cellular ATP).
Don’t be deceived by the so-called ginseng advertised in sodas and other beverages. If you don’t feel anything from those drinks its because there’s little to no ginseng in the product (or what there is, is of the crappiest quality).
With ginseng, you get what you pay for. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a single wild ginseng root, but you may need to part with $150 for some high quality long-grown forest mountain ginseng.
Quality is based on where, how, and how long the ginseng is grown, and how it is dried afterwards. In China this is left to experienced cultivators. When you buy high quality Chang Bai Shan forest mountain ginseng, you will notice that the fine root tails and the crown are attached. The Chinese believe that the fine tails impart the most energy effects. I like to include those in the ginseng I take.
The crown has several notches where the leaves spring forth each year. Each notch is a year in the life of the root, and the age of your ginseng is a very important quality indicator. Ginsenosides, one of the active markers for quality ginseng, begin to develop after seven to nine years of growth. This is the reason why good quality ginseng is so expensive. Force grown, hollow, large roots are virtually worthless even compared to a gnarled 10-to-12-year-old forest grown ginseng.
Imagine how much can happen in 10 years and that is where the power of ginseng comes from. When you are taking long-grown ginseng you are ingesting the accumulated power of that root to withstand a variety of naturally occurring stressors on its life process translated into innumerable biochemical constituents.
I’m sure if there were a proper study of ginseng, it would be found that ginseng enables our body’s natural production of energy via the Krebs cycle and production of cellular ATP. Again, this only happens when constituents are allowed to develop in the plant over a minimum of at least nine years of growth.
Allow me to tell you a couple stories about individuals who I know who have used ginseng.
I met Nathan Podhurst in the late 1960s when I first began my exploration of herbal medicine. At the time, Nathan was the sole proprietor and pharmacist of the last surviving herbal pharmacy in the United States located on Ellis Street in San Francisco.
At age 95, he appeared vigorous and continued to work long hours at his herb pharmacy along with his assistant, Emma. He said his secret to longevity was that each day he would consume about three to four ounces of red meat and take a little ginseng. I presume it was Panax ginseng and imagine that he got it from one of the merchants in nearby San Francisco Chinatown.
My first Chinese herb teacher, Foon, operated a Chinese knickknack curio shop on a side street off from Golden Gate Park. He taught both me and my close friend, world-renowned Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist Efrem Korngold each week for “one dolla an herb!” It was all we could do to scrape our hippie quarters together to each come up with the requisite $10 to have him simply read aloud and translate from a Chinese herb book.
Foon had what he said was high quality ginseng for sale. His ginseng ranged from $300 to $2,000 a root. He had a scrapbook containing photographs and letters from famous people from all over the country who would come to him each year for their ginseng “fix.” So far as I could tell, this was the only or primary herbal treatment he prescribed. I suppose today we would call it a Chinese herbal “wellness approach.”
First, he put people on a strict diet for a week: no sugar, no dairy, no cold, raw foods, low fat, no fruit or fruit juice and no green leafy vegetables (in other words, no Yin foods, which would weaken the effect of the ginseng when it is finally taken at the end of seven days). Along with this, he prescribed a special tea of Rehmannia Six (Liu Wei Di Huang Tang) of which two cups would be taken twice daily. Finally, on the last day, depending on what the individual could afford, Foon would have them take the entire pre-selected high quality ginseng root specially decocted in a ceramic Chinese double boiler.
Foon said that, depending on the quality of root they selected, the energy they got from this special ginseng would last anywhere from three months to a year. This was attested to by various clients of his. One, who was in his early 30s, said that after taking Foon’s ginseng treatment, he was able to drive non-stop for the West to the East coast without sleep!
To increase energy, the therapeutic dose of ginseng should consist of 3 to 9 grams of the root daily. For maintenance, a smaller daily dose can be taken.
I believe that at least every man and woman past the age of 50 should make it a regular practice to take a small amount of high quality ginseng daily, perhaps not the full 3 to 9 grams but a reasonable daily dose.
Here’s how I like to take my ginseng:
- Purchase a supply of high quality Chang Bai Forest Mountain ginseng.
- Remove the notched crown (which is a sedative and can be taken as a tea to counteract the effect of too much ginseng; Yes, there is such a thing as taking too much ginseng!).
- Crush and grind the remaining root in a small coffee mill.
- Put the ground root powder in an appropriate wide-mouthed jar and cover it with a half-quart or so of the finest vodka (I prefer Stoli).
- I am not a regular boozer by any means but each morning after breakfast I will stir up the grinds settled at the bottom and take a teaspoon to a dessertspoon.
Those with chronic low energy issues might want to repeat this two or three times daily until there energy is at a more acceptable level.
My daily ginseng regimen has resulted in remarkable endurance, stamina, need for less sleep, and awakening refreshed with a wonderful sense of joy at the new day, less feeling of tiredness and stress, and of course more natural libido which is just another one of those indicators of life-affirming vibrant energy.
Side effects of too much ginseng include feeling more happy aggressive energy (your friends will tell you), perhaps more physical tightness, and a possible increase in blood pressure. If you have hypertension, ginseng may not be for you.
This is why Foon insisted on his week-long protocol — to prepare the body to better receive and circulate the energy received from ginseng. Nourish Yin first with the Liu Wei formula; with good quality Yin, the Yang Qi from ginseng is better utilized. It is a little known ancient Chinese secret for those who use ginseng.
I recommend that after a week or so of taking ginseng each day, one might stop for a few days and see if the benefits persist. If not, resume the course of treatment. Sometimes, all the body needs is just a jump-start to get things moving again. Good quality ginseng can do that better than any other herb I know.
I recommend that you check out Ron Teeguarden’s book on Chinese tonics called Chinese Tonic Herbs and The Ancient Wisdom of Chinese Tonic Herbs. Visit Ron’s website for a wealth of information on the Chinese herb tonics and their many applications and uses.