Korean Ginseng and Some Advice About Weight Loss Herbs
Answered by: Robert Newman, L.Ac.
Question from: Melanie
Posted on: March 21, 2004

I would like to know about this herb [Korean ginseng]. Can you give me advice on any weight loss herbs that I can take? I am female, 33 years, and 200 pounds.

In order to discuss and understand Korean Ginseng, I think it’s important that I present some information about Ginseng, generally and specifically. There are several types of Ginsengs, derived from either different species of plants or from the same species being processed and prepared in different ways. There is American Ginseng (from Panax quinquefolius), and White Chinese, Red Chinese, Korean and Japanese Ginseng (all of these last four come from one species, Panax ginseng). There has also been a species of Panax discovered to be a potentially excellent tonic herb in Vietnam. And there is also the well-known Siberian Ginseng, but that is not really a true Ginseng(Panax species) -- it is in the same family (Araliaceae), but of a different genus: Eleutherococcus senticosus. So as I just stated, the Korean Ginseng is a type of Panax ginseng, known in Chinese as "Ren Shen" ("wren shen," meaning "person/man root": a good root was said to look somewhat like the shape of a person’s body; this follows the belief that form and function are linked, so it is felt that a root that looks like a person’s body is more likely to improve the health of the body).

Generally speaking, Panax ginseng is said to have the following properties, functions and indications:

-- it is said to be sweet, sl. bitter, sl. warming; it affects the Lungs and Spleen "Qi" (this is not the western physiological "Spleen," but rather it is the Chinese concept of this organ -- it’s fairly similar to the the idea of the western pancreas: strongly responsible for the digestive and assimilative functions; but additionally, it is said to help hold up the organs and tissues to prevent prolapse, hold the blood in the blood vessels to prevent bleeding from weakness, and to be important for distributing nutrients throughout the body to maintain one’s energy and weight);

-- it is believed to strongly strengthen the source "Qi" (this is the root, foundational vitality of the body, said to be stored in the Kidneys and provide our bodies with the "Qi" for all of our functions); so it treats the symptoms of weak Kidneys and weak root/source "Qi" -- symptoms such as impotence and "Yang Qi" collapse (this collapse involves the symptoms of shock, as when one has been injured and has lost blood)

-- it strengthens the function of the "Spleen" and Lungs; for the weak "Spleen," it can treat symptoms such as fatigue, poor appetite, vomiting and loose stools or diarrhea (this is diarrhea which may have undigested food in it, no feeling of heat present and little or no odor to it); for the weak Lungs, it can treat symptoms such as shortness of breath, asthma, chronic cough, dyspnea and spontaneous sweats (sweats for no clear reason except from being weak)

-- it generates fluids and stops sweating from deficiency; it treats spontaneous sweats, night sweats and fluid loss symptoms such as thirst and dry mouth;

-- it calms the spirit; so it treats symptoms of the blood being too weak to nourish the Heart and keep the mind and spirit calm, such as agitation, insomnia, palpitations, poor memory and excess dreams;

-- it strengthens the intellect; it treats symptoms of poor concentration, unclear/foggy mental function;

-- it strengthens the righteous "Qi" (this is the "Qi" which is responsible for one’s overall immune system function and resistance to infections) and disperses acute pathogenic factors when there’s deficient "Qi" (i.e., treat acute colds or flus when the patient has an underlying weak system) ;

In his book on Pao Zhi (the processing of Chinese herbs), Philippe Sionneau states that the quality and the above-listed functions of Panax ginseng vary depending on where the Ginseng is grown, how it is grown, its age and how it is processed. Based on where it is grown, there are basically 3 types, including Ji Lin Ginseng, from Ji Lin ("gee lin") Province in northeastern China: if this is processed into a red Ginseng root, it is moderately warming and fairly balanced in strengthening the "Qi," fluids and blood to a moderate degree. If it is processed into a white Ginseng root, it is closer to neutral in its temperature and is better at building the fluids and mildly strengthening the "Qi." There is also Gao Li ("goww lee") or Chao Xian ("chow shee-en") Ginseng, which is Korean Ginseng from North Korea: this is also one of the red Ginsengs and it is VERY heating and is very strong for strengthening the "Qi" and the "Yang" (this is more for people who are very cold, whose above-mentioned Lung and "Spleen" symptoms are worse with cold; and it is also better for treating the "Yang Qi collapse" and impotence -- when someone is clearly internally COLD -- mentioned above). Dong Yang Shen ("dohng yawng shen") is grown in Japan and it has minor to moderate strength in building the "Spleen Qi and is very weak in strengthening the "Yang" and the fluids -- this material is always cultivated, not from the wild.

I won’t go into detail here, but I will say that American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is cooling to the body, is only mild for strengthening the "Qi" and is stronger for tonifying the fluids and "Yin" ("Yin" is the fluid and material aspect of the body, the substance; "Yang" is the warming, active, energetic, functional aspect of the body -- both are needed in equal and sufficient quantities in order for one’s health to be good; also, both "Yin" and "Yang" are dependent on each other’s presence in the body to maintain their ongoing sufficient presence).

Wild Ginseng, as opposed to cultivated material, has traditionally been considered the best quality, the most potent material, and yet also very balanced in strengthening all the above-mentioned aspects rather equally (a very desirable quality). But there is no naturally-occurring wild Ginseng (Panax ginseng) in Asia. I have heard some reports that there may actually have been some found in Siberia that is still present, but if that is so, it probably won’t last very long. Naturally-occuring wild Ginseng in China was over-collected to extinction quite a long time ago. However, there may be some efforts being made now to plant Ginseng seeds directly into the wild mountainsides in China/Asia, similar to what has been done for some time with American Ginseng in the U.S. The next most powerful are half-wild, half-cultivated roots, where the plant has been started in cultivation and then transplanted into the wild a little later on. Simple cultivated roots are considered the least potent and they are the least expensive. Additionally, fungicides are often used on these cultivated plants since they have a tendency to rot from a fungus -- interestingly, the cultivated plants are weak in their ability to survive and this is reflected in their weaker benefits as tonic roots.

There are generally 4 categories of processing for Asian Ginseng. Uncooked Ginseng which has been washed and sun-dried (Sheng Shai Shen: "shung shy shen") is considered the best, the most powerful Ginseng, and it is also felt to be mildly warming and very balanced in all of the above-mentioned tonifying functions -- especially if the material is from wild roots. It is usually processed with the smaller rootlets intact. There are also red Ginsengs -- mentioned above -- made red because they are processed by steaming and drying. The red Ginsengs, Hong Shen ("hohng shen"), are generally considered a little weaker than the Sheng Shai Shen, but are usually moderately or very warming and fairly tonifying to the "Qi" and "Yang." White Ginseng, Bai Ren Shen ("buy wren shen") is made by treating lightly cooked roots with some sugar: it is neutral in temperature, very weak at tonifying the "Yang" and only a mild "Qi" tonic, but it is stronger for tonifying the fluids and blood. The last one of this group are the small Ginseng rootlets which are attached to the larger main roots and which are removed and collected after processing the cooked red and white Ginsengs. They are a very gentle tonic for just the fluids and blood, and to an even lesser degree, the "Qi": they are used sometimes to start strengthening a very deficient patient in a gradual and gentle manner -- this is done to avoid overwhelming someone’s system when it’s very weak.

The older the Ginseng root, the better, more potent it is considered to be. Roots that are five to seven years old or older are considered to be of very good quality and medicinal effect. Wild Ginseng was generally felt to be good if it was at least 10 years old. The most precious ones were over 100 years old.

To get the most out of the Ginseng roots you buy, it is best to cook them in a double-boiler for 2-3 hours, until only shreds of solid material are left. Typical dosages are 5-12 grams of whole or sliced roots; 1-3 grams as powder. There are cautions and contraindications for Ginseng -- especially for the stronger tonifying types such as Korean Ginseng. The warmer the Ginseng, the more one has to be careful in using it when signs of heat and/or inflammation are present. So Korean Ginseng is especially inappropriate for someone who has more signs of heat or inflammation. Also, one has to be careful with using the Ginsengs which are warmer and more tonifying to the "Yang" when one has high blood pressure. If someone who is strong and has good resistance has an acute illness (such as a cold or flu), it’s better not to use Ginseng until after the person is over the cold. If the person is weak, easily catches colds, is fatigued and has currently caught a cold, the milder Ginsengs are ok to use in combination with other herbs to treat the cold.

The reason I presented so much specific information above about several of the Ginsengs used for medicine is that I have observed that most of the public is unaware about the important differences between them and it is the awareness and understanding -- or at least recognition -- that these differences exist and need to be considered when these herbs are to be taken by an individual that is critical for the appropriate and truly wholistic use of them. It IS possible to use these herbs and create imbalances and problems -- it only requires using them inappropriately (using generally too high of a dosage, using too high of a dosage for a particular person at a particular time, using an herb which is too heating or cooling for a particular person, etc.). Granted, the undesirable effects from inappropriate use of herbs is usually much milder than that from conventional western drugs, but it is still not wise to do that and it is not always a mild result. Acting in a thoughtful and careful manner with any medicinal substance is always wiser.

Richters sells seeds of all 3 of the herbs I’ve mentioned above -- the Chinese Ginseng, American Ginseng and the Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian Ginseng).

For weight loss, I will mention some things here which you have probably heard before and some things which you may not yet have heard. Naturally, certain lifestyle issues are important to address. For one thing, maintaining a good diet is critical -- this should be a diet that’s so healthy that you can live on it for the rest of your life and stay healthy, rather than something which is extreme and imbalancing and therefore useful only for a very short time. Also, one’s routine is important as well: not eating anything late at night (best to stop after 7 or 8 pm) and eating your meals such that you are only 3/4 full, not completely full or overly full. Getting regular, moderate cardiovascular exercise, such as fast walking, bicycling or swimming is always useful. And maybe counseling or a support group would be very helpful if there are emotional issues present. It might also be good to have your doctor check for thyroid problems. Also, in a wholistic medicine approach, we have observed that having a chronic infection can even be a factor in causing excessive weight (the idea here is that an infection can cause the body to put on additional fat, seen as a type of "dampness," according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) -- the body will sometimes do this as a way to dampen or cool down the heat from a chronic inflammatory state. It is seen as an attempt by the body to try to restore some balance to the system in response to the infection: this can sometimes be seen with chronic low-grade infections caused by fungal, viral, bacterial or other pathogenic organisms).

Excess weight, or fat, as I just mentioned above, is seen in TCM as being excess dampness -- it is one form of dampness that can be present in the body. And the "Spleen" (which is the digestive system and its activity) is the primary organ responsible for the effective digestion and processing of fluids and fats. If it is weak in its function and actions, excessive dampness can be formed and can be stored in the organs and tissues. So herbs to strengthen the digestive system and its function can be useful: herbs such as Panax ginseng (as mentioned above), Astragalus membranaceus root (Chinese Milkvetch Root, Huang Qi, "hwahng chee"), Atractylodes macrocephala root (Bai Zhu, "buy joo"), Codonopsis pilosula root (Asiabell Vine Root, Dang Shen "dawng shen") and Dioscorea opposita (Chinese Yam Root, Shan Yao, "shawn yoww"). Also, herbs that are useful for treating the stagnation of accumulated food in the G.I. tract from overeating (these herbs are said to reduce food stasis and help digestion) can be employed: Crataegus pinnatifida fruit (Hawthorn Berry Fruit, Shan Zha "shawn jaw"), Gigerae Gallus gizzard (Chicken Gizzard Lining, Ji Nei Jin "gee nay gin"), Oryza sativus sprout (Rice Grain Sprout, Gu Ya, "goo yah"), Hordeum vulgare sprout (Barley Grain Sprout, Mai Ya, "my yah"), Massa Fermentata (Fermentated Herb Mixture, Shen Qu, "shen choo"), and Raphanus sativus seed (Daikon Radish Seed, Lai Fu Zi, "lie foo zih"), etc. And herbs that can reduce dampness and strengthen the "Spleen" are also of benefit: Coix lachryma-jobi seeds (Job’s Tears, Yi Yi Ren, "ee ee wren"), and Poria cocos sclerotium (Tuckahoe or Indian Bread Fungus, Fu Ling, "foo ling") (one should be a little careful with these last two since they are diuretic and can reduce electrolytes over time if they are used in very high doses for too long); Lastly, herbs to transform phlegm and resolve dampness or treat stagnation of Qi movement are also utilized in TCM (these will help break apart any congealed damp and help fluids to move): Pinellia ternata rhizome (Pinellia Tuber, Ban Xia, "bawn shee-ah"), Citrus reticulata fruit peel (Dried Tangerine Peel, Chen Pi, "chen pee"), Citrus reticulata immature fruit peel (Qing Pi, "ching pee"), Amomum tsao-ko fruit (Cao Guo, "tsoww gwoh") (this herb also helps digestion of meat), Amomum villosum fruit (Sha Ren, "shah wren"), and Atractylodes lancea root (Lance-leaf Atractylodes Root, Cang Zhu, "tsawng joo").

The above-mentioned herbs are generally used in some combination in a formula, chosen based on the specific constitution and situation of a particular person at a particular time.

Richters sells seeds of some of the above-listed herbs, including:

Astragalus membranaceus (Milkvetch, Chinese; and they also carry the dried roots and fluid extract)

Atractylodes macrocephala (Bai Zhu)

Codonopsis pilosula

Crataegus (Hawthorn; and they also carry the fruits and a fluid extract)

Raphanus sativus (Daikon)

Coix lachryma-jobi var. ma-yuen (Job’s Tears, Chinese)

Pinellia ternata (they sell plants of this rather than seeds; this is somewhat toxic and should be processed and cooked in a very specific manner before it is used--best left to be prepared by professional pharmacies and prescribed by licensed practitioners).

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