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Relieves stress, improves stamina, regulates blood pressure, enhances immunity

In 1711, a Jesuit missionary stationed in China gave the West its first glimpse of ginseng. "Nobody can imagine that the Chinese and Tartars would set so high a value on this root, if it did not constantly produce a good effect," he wrote. Surely it was only a matter of time, he said, before European pharmacists figured out how to use this age-old remedy. Almost 300 years later, ginseng, perhaps the most researched herb on earth, remains a mystery. Some claim it's a panacea, others insist it's worthless-and medical researchers suggest that the power of ginseng, if any, may lie in its complexity.

Name that herb

Ginseng refers to at least three different plants. The mother of all ginseng is the Asian variety, Panax ginseng, prescribed in 2,000-year-old Chinese texts to "quiet the spirit and increase wisdom." A close cousin is American ginseng (P. quinquefolius). Just to confuse matters, a distantly related plant called Eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng, has recently become popular as a cheap substitute for "real" ginseng.

All three types of ginseng are traditionally used as tonics — to strengthen and regulate body functions and thus treat a host of ailments. Some of the fleshy roots look vaguely like a human figure, which possibly explains their reputation as a body-wide cure-all. Is there anything to this tradition? Many scientists have tried to test the powers of ginseng, with results as frustrating as a Chinese puzzle. "I'm sure ginseng does something, but there's so much conflicting information that it's impossible to say just what this herb does in human beings," says Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Experts agree that ginseng contains a variety of compounds called ginsenosides. And various ginsenosides have been shown in test-tube and animal studies to have contradictory effects. Some of these chemicals appear to raise blood pressure; others seem to lower it. Some act as sedatives, others as stimulants.

Some herbalists argue that the complex nature of ginseng is exactly what makes it a good tonic — that is, a remedy that helps the body achieve balance, warding off damage from disease and other stresses. A more scientific term for a tonic is adaptogen — something that helps the body adapt (for example, by regulating temperature or blood pressure up or down toward normal).

Studies have shown that substances found in Asian and American ginseng may indeed bolster the immune system and have a positive effect on conditions ranging from diabetes to high blood pressure.

As for Siberian ginseng, it is widely used by Russians, including cosmonauts and athletes, to improve stamina and resist stress. And Russian research offers evidence that some of these effects may be real.

Despite all the research that's been done on ginseng, it will still take some large, well-done studies on humans to confirm its benefits, says Dr. Farnsworth.

Putting the herb to work

Many American products are simply labeled "ginseng," but Chinese medicine differentiates between the three types. For example, Asian ginseng has "warming" properties, and should be used "to reinvigorate the body, as after a long illness," says Albert Leung, Ph.D., a pharmacognosist and author of Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs. But American ginseng is "cooling," he says, and should be used by people who are "overheated and excited."

Unfortunately, debating such fine points may sometimes be moot, because there's no guarantee that a ginseng product contains any ginseng at all! Since ginseng is so costly, packagers are tempted to dilute or substitute cheaper ingredients. One 1978 study analyzed 54 ginseng products and found that 25 percent contained no ginseng whatsoever. Your best bet is to buy ginseng products only from a reputable source. Ginseng consumption seems to have few reported side effects. As with any herb, however, possible risk increases with higher intake over longer periods. If you decide to take any ginseng product, start low and go slow.

Dried ginseng root may be powdered and taken in capsule form or brewed as a tea. Extracts are also available in various formulations for use internally and externally, and these should include instructions for proper dosage. As with any herb, experts advise against taking ginseng if you are pregnant or nursing, unless you're under the care of a medical specialist.

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