Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
When thinking about herbs for mental health, one of the first herbs that comes to mind is ginseng. In this article I will explore the benefits of working with the ginsengs for those looking to improve their mental health.
Ginseng is really shorthand for three different types of herbs. The first is the classic Asian, or Chinese ginseng, (from the Araliaceae family) which is the most popular form of ginseng. Asian Ginseng has been used since ancient times and has long been revered as an herb that promotes good health, mental and emotional wellbeing, and longevity.
Today, it is known as one of the premier “adaptogens”, which essentially means an herb that helps improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress and has global strengthening properties, especially to the immune and nervous system. Asian Ginseng is known as a “qi tonic” meaning it improves energy and stamina and reduces fatigue. It tends to have a tonic effect on the libido for men and has been used to improve physical performance for athletes.
In terms of mental health, Asian ginseng can be helpful for those who appear depressed, introverted, nervous, fatigued and isolative. They tend to want to shy away from confrontation and activating socially. There is a general lethargy and sadness along with feelings of lack of self-esteem and well being. Often there are issues with libido as well.
Asian Ginseng is strongly warming and should be avoided by people who already tend to run hot, appear ruddy, loud and strong willed. It is a better tonic for people who are cool in nature and tend towards getting colds and feeling run down. It is often most helpful for older men.
In strong doses, Asian ginseng can make a person feel nervous, wound up, angry, tight, restless and can induce insomnia. It should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breast feeding. In general I would avoid this herb when taking psychiatric medications and when trying to taper off meds because of its strong activating properties. It also reacts poorly when taken with many pharmaceutical drugs, and because of that I think of it as most helpful for those folks who aren’t taking pharma meds.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
The next type of herb that is commonly known as ginseng is American Ginseng, an herb that is also part of the Araliaceae family. This is an herb that has become heavily prized by millions of people and because of that the wild herb in its native terrain has been excessively harvested to the point where it has become rare and endangered. The wild strains can fetch up to hundreds of dollars for a single ounce. Because of this I only recommend taking cultivated American ginseng. This herb is native to the Eastern seaboard of the U.S and Canada and inland as far as Oklahoma and Alabama. It was revered by the Native Americans as a tonic root that helped heal stomach and lung complaints.
Today it is seen as a premier adaptogenic herb that helps strengthen the nervous system, immune functioning, digestive strength and overall vigor. It differs from Asian Ginseng in that it it is more cooling and moistening by nature. It has been noted to be helpful for reducing high blood pressure, reducing fatigue, lowering blood sugar levels for those who are diabetic, improving menopausal symptoms and helping with respiratory infections.
In terms of mental health, it is a wonderful herb to use for those who are exhausted from overwork, appear dry and “used up”, stressed by all their obligations and either appearing frenetic or deeply depressed and fatigued from excessive activity. It is helpful for those who appear loud, irritable, nervous and angry, who are in need of deep sustenance. It has been tested and proven helpful for those labeled with the diagnosis ADHD. Often it can help people who have poor digestion and they are not assimilating food properly. These folks are in need of deep rest, long baths and large cups of tea with American Ginseng added to it.
In general this is a much more subtle herb and less likely to cause complications in terms of contraindications with pharmaceutical drugs. However, it should be avoided with blood thinners such as coumadin and some say to avoid it with diabetic medications because of its potential to lower blood sugar. In terms of psychiatric drugs, I would use it cautiously, trying it in tea or tincture form in low doses and monitor for any side effects.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
This is an herb known as ginseng but it is not in the same genus (Panax) as the other two “true” ginsengs. It is also commonly known as “Eleuthero”. This is another wonderful tonic adaptogenic herb that is helpful for building strength and vigor, warding off sickness and improving sleep, digestion and reducing anxiety and depression.
This is a wonderful herb for those who feel weak, fatigued, feeble and often prone to sickness and immune problems. Originally found in northeastern Asia in arts of Eastern Russia, China and Korea, it carries the energy of a hardy, cold loving root herb. Traditionally it was used by the native tribes of those regions and then became popular in China as part of their herbal pharmacopeia.
It seems to specifically assist the adrenal glands, improving and regulating the release of adrenaline when under stress. By modulating the adrenal gland, it helps to reduce the sympathetic “fight or flight” response to stress and reduces “burn out” in those under heavy stress.
In terms of mental health, this is a good herb to take for those who tend to be anxious, depressed, prone to fatigue with a poor immune system, prone to colds and illnesses. It has been shown to be helpful for those with low libido, chronic fatigue syndrome and those labeled with fibromyalgia and ADHD. In general it will boost mood, improve energy levels, lower anxiety and depression and increase feelings of well being.
It is less stimulating than Asian Ginseng so it can be used more frequently and more globally than that herb. It still does have stimulating properties, however, and is not appropriate for those who tend to be excessively nervous, manic or prone to insomnia. It should be avoided for those who tend towards high blood pressure (taking blood pressure meds) and those who are pregnant or breast feeding.
In terms of contraindications, it has a very small potential to interact with a number of medications and its potential for side effects is less than Asian Ginseng. Even though this is the case, some medical practitioners will caution taking this herb when taking most pharmaceutical drugs.
How to take:
There are many ways to take the ginsengs and many people like to take herbs in capsule form as it is easy and simple. Generally, the dosage for these herbs is to take 2 “00” capsules twice a day. an “00″ capsule contains 500 mg of herb so 4 of these capsules would be the equivalent of taking 2 grams of the herb a day.
In general I like to promote taking herbs in tea form as the taste, energetics, flavor and effect can often be more noticeable. In general it is easier to take a larger dose of an herb in tea form if that is desired as well. At the same time, I honor that the ginseng herbs are not the tastiest to drink as tea and that capsules lets you avoid that problem.
In tea form I generally would suggest placing 6 grams of the herb in 16 ounces of hot water and then boiling and simmering the water for a half hour. This method is known as “decoction.”
In tincture form, I would recommend taking 1-2 ml (one to two droppers full) of the herb twice a day.
These time honored herbs are a few of the most amazing roots for strengthening our mental and emotional wellbeing. They help us to feel stronger, more vital, more able to manage stress as well as fight off colds and infections. They should not be seen as a replacement for a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and proper lifestyle. But they can be immensely helpful in returning us to a state of balance and good health when we have been depleted by the challenges of modern living. To your health!
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