Ginseng Can Be Life Threatening If Wrongly Administered

Wild ginseng, also known as 'mountain ginseng,' grows naturally in mountains and is hand-picked by wild ginseng gatherers, while cultivated ginseng, also known as 'garden ginseng,' is planted by humans. (Image:  Flickr  /  CC0 1.0)
Wild ginseng, also known as 'mountain ginseng,' grows naturally in mountains and is hand-picked by wild ginseng gatherers, while cultivated ginseng, also known as 'garden ginseng,' is planted by humans. (Image: Flickr / CC0 1.0)

The health benefits of ginseng root are undeniable; however, according to the following story, ginseng can be harmful or even life-threatening if it is used wrongly.

Many may believe that ginseng is a remedy for all sickness, but it is not so. In accordance with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are certain requirements for administering of ginseng medicinally.

Qing Dynasty doctor Chen Shi Duo, in his Materia Medica, described ginseng as being “slightly sweet in taste, mild in temperature, and slightly cooling, and also having a light smell.”

Ginseng’s medicinal character could be translated as “yin in the yang” while being non-toxic and a great supplement for improving qi.

Everyone’s favorite medicinal herb

Due to its described health benefits and therapeutic properties, many people consider it first every time they have any illness symptoms. However, ginseng is not a remedy for all sicknesses.

Without a proper differentiation of the syndromes according to a TCM diagnosis, one may arrive at an unfavorable effect if randomly consuming medicinal herbs.

Chen Qiyuan, a Qing Dynasty scholar, mentioned in Chapter 11 of his volume Tang Xianzhai Notes that “ginseng can kill people if wrongly taken.” There are many recorded cases of this happening, especially in rich and wealthy families in China.

The doctor who was tempted to prescribe medicine without examining the patient

Qiyuan’s great-grandfather was a doctor in Chongqing, Sichuan, China. One day, the Emperor ordered him to go to Beijing to treat diseases. Many people came to him, seeking treatment. On one busy day, he treated patients all day and night and even into the following day, until 3:00 o’clock in the morning. After the last patient had left, all of a sudden, someone came to his door inviting him to the prince’s residence to treat the prince’s wife.

The doctor was given a choice, that if it was too late and inconvenient to make the trip, he could prescribe the medicine and it would be taken to the prince’s residence while he rested and waited for dawn.

The doctor felt extremely exhausted and that he could not make the trip. At the same time, he knew that he could not simply prescribe medicine without examining the patient.

Red grape seeds. (Image credit: By Philmarin [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons)

Red grape seeds. (Image: By Philmarin [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons)

In that instance, the doctor noticed a packet of grape seed powder that happened to be lying on the table. He handed the grape seed powder to the messenger and added: “Take this medicine for the time being and I will go over to the prince’s residence when the sun rises.”

The doctor concluded that taking grape seed powder would not harm the prince and, at the same time, he could use it as an excuse to wait until dawn before he made the trip to the prince’s residence.

Early in the morning, Qiyuan’s great-grandfather was still in bed when he heard horses galloping outside.

The prince personally came to the door. When he met Qiyuan’s great-grandfather, he expressed his gratitude and said: “Last night, my wife was so bored and vexed as if she was going to die. After she took the miraculous medicine you prescribed, she was immediately refreshed and went to sleep soundly until now. I came personally to invite you to my residence to examine her.”

When Qiyuan’s great-grandfather examined the prince’s wife, he diagnosed that it was only a slight cold aggravated by taking ginseng soup. The grape seed powder actually countered the effect caused by ginseng. This is why his prescription took effect immediately. However, he dared not tell the prince the true circumstances, otherwise, he would be reprimanded by the medical council. A few days later, the prince’s wife fully recovered and he was generously rewarded by the prince. In the latter part of his life, Qiyuan’s great-grandfather often used this as a joke and told many people about it.

When a person is suffering with a cold or flu, they should not take a tonic that includes ginseng because it is a tonic for the lungs and kidneys. If taken, the outcome could be disastrous for the body. In the case of the prince’s wife, it was really a coincidence that grape seed powder happened to be the antidote to counter the effects of ginseng!

The article was originally written in Chinese by Deng Zhengliang, Director of Zide Chinese Medicine Clinic.

Translated by: Chua BC

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