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Herbs & Energy

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by Steven Foster © 2009
Herbs & Energy

When I'm traveling the East or West coasts, most people just don't get it when I tell them I live in Arkansas. When Bill and Hillary were omthe White House, at least people had heard of Arkansas, and a few people now know where the state is. Having grown-up in Maine, I was thrilled when my botanical mentor took me to see wild American ginseng growing in one of its four Maine populations. In fact, I came to really love those woods of southern Maine that seemed to have a more interesting array of medicinal plants than the coniferous woods of the state. That's one of the reasons I moved to Arkansas. I found the flora more interesting than New England, especially the medicinal plants. Today, in the third week of March, I spoke with my mother in Maine, who complained about the snow storm they received yesterday. I delighted in telling her that it was a sunny day close to 80 deg. F. here in Arkansas, and that I was going to have to mow the lawn for the first time this year. That's another reason I chose Arkansas as my adult home.

There's one more reason I moved to Arkansas. The people are friendly. You can talk to anyone. The opportunity to learn new things is enormous. And there's a good deal of American ginseng here. I've been in the process of having my office remodeled. Seems that everyone here who is involved in a nine-to-five construction job also does a little hunting and fishing, and at the right time of year digs a little "seng." They all seem to have a little stash. My plumber brought over a little bag of seng roots to share with me while we took an afternoon break. He told me stories of just how he and his friends use topo maps and soil maps to find seng habitat, then they go in and harvest the roots. He is real careful to make sure that he doesn't dig a plant until it produces mature fruits, so he can replant the seed, and how he and his friend take only a little each year. That way they can go to the same spot year after year and dig a little seng. He made $20,000 last year digging Echinacea root and ginseng.

Talking with my local friends, I have learned alot about ginseng, where it grows, how it grows, and how to use it. Some of these fellows have a highly specialized knowledge, recognizing genetic variants that aren't even recorded by scientists. I learned through these conversations that if you are driving long distances at night, you get a little extra energy to help keep you awake by chewing a little ginseng root. I keep a ginseng root on the dash board of the car when traveling long distances. Beats a cup of coffee, too. The effect lasts longer, and keeps you more alert.

Of course, today, here in the midwest, virtually every quick stop convenience store now has ginseng extract available at the countertop. You can even get ginseng at discount department stores. It seems that ginseng has found its way into mainstream American culture. It's about energy. We are all looking for more energy.

As spiritual beings in a physical body, more often than not, we find the concept of energy a mystery, especially in trying to figure out how it effects us directly. Or better yet, how to get more. The American Heritage Dictionary defines energy as vigor or power in action, vitality and intensity of expression, or the capacity for action of accomplishment. The word root is from the Latin energia or Greek, energos, coined by Aristotle, to mean "active at work." To be active at work, we have to be able to adapt to conditions, adapt to stress, adapt to our environment, adapt to the people around us, adapt to the underlying events of our lives that effect us subconsciously.

When it comes to understanding our own energy, we must consider how we can best understand how we program information into our bodies, into our lives. How we adapt is crucial. I strive for an energy level that I remember from childhood. Waking up and stretching every morning with delight, joy and full of energy, ready for what ever the day will bring. As an aging baby-boomer, my body doesn't quite keep up with the memories.

How I adapt depends upon the choices I make. A little stretch, an aerobic walk, quiet meditation, sitting by the pond and watching the dragon flies go about their morning, helps me rediscover my energy reserves. The Chinese call it qi or vital energy. It moves through us, it animates us. In The Webb that has no Weaver, Ted Kaptchuk offers that perhaps the best way to think of Qi is as matter on the verge of becoming energy or energy at the point of materialization. The nature of Qi or a conceptualization of it is beyond the speculation of modern or ancient Chinese texts. Instead, Kaptchuk tells us, the Chinese perceive Qi for what it does.

There are two ways of thinking about herbs as it relates to energy. You can take the pharmacological approach - sledge hammer wake-up call - in the form of central nervous system stimulants. These mostly include herbs that contain stimulant alkaloids such as ephedra, caffeine, nicotine, theobromine and others, all of which are ingredients in the major stimulants used in our society. The other approach is to gain energy by enhancing your ability to adapt to your internal and external circumstances. This is where herbs like ginseng come into play. Historically called tonics, ginseng is now referred to as an adaptogen.

The late, Prof. I. I. Brekhman, M.D., the leading twentieth century researcher on eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) defined an adaptogen based on three inclusive criteria. 1. A substance which "must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism." 2. A substance which "must have a nonspecific action," such as the ability of E. senticosus extracts to modulate stress and improve performance under a wide variety of stressful conditions. 3. A substance which "usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathologic state."

The term ginseng suggests that it helps us by helping to provide energy. Gin is the equivalent of the Chinese word for "man" while seng is very closely translated to "essence." In a traditional context, ginseng means the crystallization of the essence of the earth in the form of a man. According to ginseng botanical specialist Dr. Shiu Ying Hu, "It represents the vital spirit of the earth that dwells in a root. It is the manifestation of the spiritual phase of nature in material form."

My root digger friends in Arkansas refer to ginseng as "seng." Seng is also a slang term used by Chinese root diggers to refer to any fleshy root stock harvested as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine. While there are dozens of "seng" producing plants, there is only one "gin-seng." Of course, in the context of the American herb market, the term ginseng has evolved to a much more ambiguous word. Eleutherococcus senticosus was never referred to historically as "Siberian ginseng" until it was first marketed in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's important to understand what ginseng is and isn't. Just because a plant is in the botanical family known as the ginseng family, does not mean that it can be used as an adaptogen.

Generally speaking, there are three plants that are adaptogens from the ginseng family currently in the American market. These are eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng). Another emerging adaptogen in the herb market, which has no relationship to ginseng, is schisandra.

The vast majority of scientific research, including pharmacological and clinical studies conducted over the past forty years, on ginseng has involved Panax ginseng Chinese ginseng (also called Korean or Asian ginseng) Research has focused on radioprotective, antitumor, antiviral, and metabolic effects; antioxidant activities; nervous system and reproductive performance; effects on cholesterol and lipid metabolism, and endocrinological activity. Research also suggests that ginseng has non-specific immunostimulatory activity similar to that of Echinacea. The active constituents of ginseng are saponins called. According to recent reports, there are at least 18 saponins found in Asian ginseng. American and Asian ginseng both contain different combinations of ginsenosides which can in part explain there different activities as understood by Asian traditional medicine practitioners.

Most reliable clinical studies on Asian ginseng have been conducted in Europe. These studies have generally involved extracts of Asian ginseng standardized to 4 percent and 7 percent of ginsenosides. Results included a shortening of time to react to visual and auditory stimuli, increased respiratory quotient, increased alertness, power of concentration, grasp of abstract concepts, and increases in visual and motor coordination. These are all measures of adaptogenic response.

The German health authorities allow Asian ginseng products to be labeled as a tonic for invigoration to treat fatigue, reduced work capacity and concentration, and as a tonic during convalescence. Daily dosage is 1 to 2 g of root in appropriate formulations is allowed.

There seems to be general agreement in the medicinal plant scientific community about the value of Eleuthero as an adaptogen. Since the 1960s dozens of clinical studies have been conducted on eleuthero which shows its value as an adaptogen. The studies, though criticized for lacking proper controls, were conducted in the former Soviet Union and involved over 6,000 individuals. While the pharmacological explanations of exactly how eleuthero extracts work in humans is not clearly understood, there is extensive animal and human evidence to support the adaptogenic qualities of Eleuthero extract. Studies and experience also confirm its safety. Currently the German government allows eleuthero to be used similarly to Panax ginseng as a tonic for invigoration and fortification during times of fatigue and debility; for declining work capacity and concentration, as well as during convalescence. It is used for up to three months with a repeated course if necessary. The dose given is equivalent to 1 g of the powdered root.

Schisandra fruits, a rising star among adaptogens in the scientific literature, yet still a sleeper in the American herb market, has a bright future. Like Panax ginseng Schisandra is considered to be adaptogenic, somewhat weaker, but also very safe. Laboratory experiments coupled with clinical trials confirm that it helps to improve brain efficiency, increase work capacity, stimulate the central nervous system, improve reflexes, build strength, and increase endurance of healthy individuals. Research suggests a calmative effect on the central nervous and that Schisandra can counteract the stimulatory effect of caffeine. Studies on cardiovascular effects have shown that it helps to normalize blood pressure. It has been shown to have a cough suppressing and expectorant effect in laboratory animals. Schisandra is considered to be strongly antioxidant.

An herb that will increase my energy while having a calmative effect on my nervous system sounds like the perfect adaptogen. Maybe there is no such wonder herb. I will have to continue to get plenty of sleep, eat right, reduce stress in my life, and just take care of myself. As much as anything, having energy is a state of mind.


  1. Foster, S. 1996. American Ginseng, Panax quinquefolius. Second Edition. Botanical Series, No. 308. Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council. 
  2. ---. 1996. Asian Ginseng, Panax ginseng. Second Edition. Botanical Series, No. 303. Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council.
  3. ---. 1996. Siberian Ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus. Second Edition. Botanical Series, No. 302. Austin, Tex.: American Botanical Council.
  4. Foster, S. 1996. Herbs for Health, Loveland, Co: Interweave Press.
  5. Foster, S. and C. X. Yue. 1992. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.
  6. Kaptchuk, T. 1983. The Web that has no Weave - Understanding Chinese Medicine. New York: Congdon & Weed.