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Ginger has been the most valuable remedy in the main traditional medicine systems of the world

Ginger

Zingiber officinale Zingiberaceae

Ginger was universally seen as an antidote to the effects of cold, especially as it affects the digestive and respiratory systems.

  • How does it feel?

    Start by dipping your finger into some ground ginger spice and tasting a little. The sharp ‘acrid’ impact is almost immediate (dried ginger was the hottest spice around the world until chilli peppers were exported from America). What you feel is actually some of ginger’s constituents (gingerols and shagaols) stimulating receptors on the pain fibres in the lining of your mouth. The heat comes from the reflex increase in blood flow that results from the stimulation. This increased circulation is both at the site of the stimulation and also throughout the body, so that your core body temperature will rise quite quickly if you take enough of the spice. This is the key benefit of ginger.

    Now move onto tasting the fresh ginger root that you can now buy in the vegetable section of most supermarkets. You will notice this is a much more elaborate spectrum of tastes. The acrid spiciness is still at the fore but now accompanied by a rich range of aromatic flavours. It is these which make fresh ginger almost a separate remedy in traditional Asian medicine.

  • What can I use it for?

    Ginger is firstly stimulating and warming and is the prime choice for any symptom that is made worse by cold and damp or improved by heat (hot drink, hot bath, hot pack). It partners particularly well with cinnamon in these applications.

    It is especially helpful for colds, with congested airways, and is an effective constituent of cough mixtures where the cough brings up phlegm or mucus.

    It is most widely used for upset, weak or deficient digestion, particularly in countering nausea and vomiting (for example in motion sickness, in pregnancy and after some medical procedures).

    Ginger’s impact on digestion extends to a wider range of conditions where there is poor performance; congestive indigestion, colic, bloating and in general when recovering from illness, trauma or other debilitating situations.

    Its heat will relieve muscular aches, pains and spasms throughout the body including the female reproductive system. It encourages a healthy inflammation response and a strong and supportive blood supply, helping to clear congestion and reduce fluid retention in affected areas. When used externally in the form of an oil or ointment, it will also reduce inflammation and pain.

    It is always important to check whether ginger suits you before using it widely. Although it is usually very acceptable, it does not suit everyone and if it does not feel comfortable it is best to hold back on it, rather than persist.

  • Into the heart of Ginger

    Ginger is fantastically warming and pungent. This is the key to its action and formidable reputation. Its constituents shogaols and gingerols stimulate the circulation, particularly the peripheral arterial circulation, making it a primary choice for improving all forms of circulatory inefficiencies and easing congestion throughout the body. It can be thought of as an inspired detox agent, bringing more healing blood into the tissues.

    It provides warming relief from inflamed and painful musculoskeletal conditions. Ginger will improve peripheral circulation during a fever, encouraging diaphoresis and an increased level of perspiration.

    Its heating properties translate into other benefits. In the airways the result is increased blood supply to the mucosa and loosening of mucus congestion. In the digestive system there is also increased mucosal blood supply that leads to improved digestive secretions; with the volatile oil content there is added antispasmodic activity that helps reduce colic as well as the spasm that generates nausea and vomiting.

  • Traditional uses

    In ancient China where the use of ginger originated, there were three versions: sheng jiang, fresh raw rhizome; gan jiang, dried raw rhizome; and pao jiang, dried, quick-fried rhizome. All three were considered warming remedies with particular affinity for the bowel and lungs, although their activity in these regions varied. Sheng jiang was considered the most “dispersing” of the three, meaning it had a broad spectrum of influence but short-lived effects. It was used in instances of toxicity and food poisoning and to induce diaphoresis (sweating) in fevers. Gan jiang, in comparison, had a less intense effect but longer lasting benefits. It was better matched with patterns of lack of muscle tone, congestion, or debility, which might have manifested as cold limbs, pale complexion, or undigested food in the stool. Pao jiang was used in much the same way as gan jiang, although it was considered to be a stronger remedy and was also applied to stop bleeding. Its action was the least dispersing of the three, meaning it did more to conserve energy and was the specific choice for conditions such as recurrent nosebleeds, spitting of blood and mid-cycle uterine bleeding.

    The Sanskrit name for ginger vishwabhesaja, translates as panacea, a universal medicine benefiting everybody and all diseases. As in Chinese medicine, ayurvedic tradition also applied the rhizome in a variety of forms (fresh, dried, peeled, and unpeeled). Again, it was used consistently for digestive complaints, including nausea, diarrhoea, flatulence, dyspepsia (indigestion), and gastrointestinal spasm. It was also valued for chronic rheumatic complaints, venomous bites and for colds and flu. European and early American practitioners adapted both Asian traditions in their use of ginger. They recognised its benefits for digestion and used it as an appetite stimulant and carminative (to reduce bowel gas and cramp). They specifically recommended its use in cases of spasm, pain and flatulence or for apparent sluggish digestion or bowels. General debility, nervous fatigue with exhaustion and inadequate circulation were other Western uses. For colds and flu, ginger was used to increase the flow of mucus and as a diaphoretic, to increase sweating in fevers. Early American physicians also favoured ginger as a remedy for menstrual cramps.

  • What practitioners say

    Ginger may be usefully applied for a range of digestive, bowel and respiratory conditions. The modern practitioner can be guided by traditional wisdom and use ginger particularly when symptoms are made worse by cold and damp conditions and seem to be relieved by heat and dryness.

    Circulation: Ginger clears cold. The fresh plant increases peripheral circulation and causes vasodilation and sweating, traditionally seen to clear toxins (Ayurvedic ama) from the blood. Fresh ginger acts on the small blood vessels, causing vasodilation and sweating. Dry ginger is stronger and more thermogenic. Fresh ginger is more peripherally active while dry ginger is more centrally stimulating and warming to the constitution.

    Digestion: Ginger will warm and stimulate the digestive system, increasing agni (Ayurvedic ‘digestive fire). It is useful in nausea (morning, post-operative and travel sickness), flatulence and griping. Dry ginger, being hotter, is more of a stimulant and used for clearing the symptoms of congestive digestion. Fresh ginger is better for calming an upset or nervous digestion and will act as a laxative in constipation linked to irritable bowel. Ginger’s ability to clear congestion and act as a stimulant make it a perfect choice for a weak, slow or inefficient digestion.

    Metabolic and inflammatory: Ginger is a good component in formulations and regimes to manage the complications of weight gain, including metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetic states.

    Musculoskeletal: Ginger is included in manytraditional Ayurvedic formulas for joint health, such as Triphala guggul and Yograj guggul. Initially it warms and stimulates, but in the long term it encourages a healthy inflammation response as well as supporting blood supply helping to clear congestion and reduce fluid retention in affected areas.

    Respiratory: Ginger clears phlegm and congestion in coughs and colds affecting the lungs and respiratory system.

    Reproductive system: Ginger can help relieve menstrual cramps, particularly in the form of fresh ginger tea. It is most applicable to symptoms that are relieved by hot water bottles. Ginger has a warming, anti-inflammatory action on the female reproductive system and a long-term nourishing effect as a whole. It can increase milk production in lactating mothers.

  • Research

    A review of six double-blind, randomized controlled trials with a total of 675 participants has confirmed that ginger is effective in relieving the severity of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. The review also confirmed the absence of significant side effects or adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes. There are a number of earlier reviews demonstrating benefits for reducing nausea after operations, and in motion sickness. It also activates digestive enzymes to increase digestive performance.

    Both the heat-generating constituents and the volatile oils in ginger are believed to explain why so many people with arthritis experience reductions in their pain levels and improvements in their mobility when they consume ginger regularly. It shows promise in reducing arthritic pain. One study showed ginger was effective in reducing pain and swelling in arthritis, with no adverse effects during the period of ginger consumption which ranged from 3 months to 2.5 years. It has been shown to reduce pain in excess exercise, and its effects in relieving spasm extend to benefits for painful periods.

    It has been shown to reduce many markers of inflammatory activity,  especially those associated with metabolic syndrome, obesity and prediabetic conditions. There is evidence that these effects, possibly mediated by reducing the inflammatory activity of fat cells, can translate into benefits for the control of obesity.

    It may protect against the damage of ionising radiation. When used externally in the form of an oil or ointment, ginger  reduces inflammation and pain.

  • Did you know?

    Ginger is probably the most valuable natural commodity in human history. The dried rhizome, carried long distances from Asia to Europe, was at one time worth more than its weight in gold. So in demand was ginger that it was made extinct in the wild 2,000 years ago. Ever since, it has lost its capacity to seed itself and is grown only from rootstock. This may be the first known case of humans causing a plant extinction!

Additional information

  • Safety

    Ginger has been safely used as a food for many centuries, with few adverse reports in daily cuisine, clinical practice or in clinical trials. Excessive doses may cause symptoms of indigestion, but most effects are likely to be transient exacerbations of gastric upset.

    Based on clinical studies and centuries of safe use as a food by pregnant women, ginger appears to be safe for use during pregnancy when taken in recommended dosages. Similarly, ginger seems to be compatible with breast feeding.

  • Dosage

    0.75-3g (dried root); to reduce nausea and vomiting up to 6g, (or up to 3g in pregnancy). Multiply these quantities by 2-3 times for fresh root

  • Plant parts used

    Root

  • Constituents

    • Acrid principles gingerols (notably (6)-gingerol) and shogaols (notable (6)-shogaol) – the gingerols decompose into the more acrid and powerful shogaols on drying and storage
    • Essential oil (1-3%) including monoterpenes citral a and citral b (geranial and neral)
    • Sesquiterpenes (making up 30-70% of total essential oil) including beta-sesquiphellandrene and alpha-zingiberene (both mainly in the fresh root), beta-bisabolene, and ar-curcumene.
  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) Pungent, sweet.
    • Virya (action) Heating (fresh is warm and dry is hot).
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Sweet.
    • Guna (quality) Fresh – unctuous and heavy; dry – dry, light and penetrating.
    • Dosha effect: strengthens pitta, and reduces excessive vata and kapha
    • Dhatu (tissue) All tissues.
    • Srotas (channels) Digestive, respiratory, circulatory.
  • Recipe

    Forgive Me For I Have Sinned tea

    This help-you-feel-good tea is best to sip slowly after a night of indulgence. It aids digestion, stimulates sluggish circulation and the fresh ginger moves your energy upwards and outwards waking up your whole system. Its sweet-spicy nature diffuses any clouds obscuring your view. Enjoy.

    Ingredients:

    • Fresh peppermint leaves 1 handful (or 1 tbsp dry)
    • Fresh ginger root 3-5 slices
    • Fresh rosemary 2 sprigs (or 1 tsp dry)
    • Turmeric root powder ¼ tsp (or a sprinkle) per cup
    • Angostura bitters a dash per cup
    • Honey 1 tsp per cup

    Perfect for 2-3 cups

    Method:

    • Put the mint, ginger and rosemary in a pot.
    • Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
    • Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
    • Add the turmeric, bitters and honey.
    • Breathe in the aromas while you drink this, they will help you feel better.

    Incredible Immunity tea

    This ‘Incredible Immunity’ tea recipe is perfect when you spot the first sign of a cold. This tasty blend helps your immune system fight bacteria and viruses which are most active at lower body temperatures.

    Ingredients:

    • Yarrow top 3g
    • Peppermint leaf 3g
    • Elderflower 3g
    • Tulsi leaf 3g
    • Fresh ginger root 3g, about 11/2cm/5/8in

    This will serve 2–3 cups of flu-free freedom.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot.
    • Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
    • Leave to steep for 5–10 minutes, then strain.
    • Enjoy while it’s piping hot.

    Joint protector tea

    It’s almost an inevitable human condition that we will suffer from some sort of joint pain as we get older. All that wear-and-tear through our life can catch up with us but we have a herbal tea recipe that will help keep the red-hot inflammation of arthritis and gout at bay.

    Ingredients:

    • Turmeric root powder 3g
    • Boswellia resin 2g
    • Ginger root powder 2g
    • Celery seed 2g
    • Ashwagandha root 1g
    • Licorice root 1g
    • Meadowsweet leaf 1g
    • Honey to taste

    This will serve 2–3 cups of ache-free tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients (except for the meadowsweet leaf and honey) in a saucepan with 600ml (21fl oz) cold filtered water. Cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes.
    • Take off the heat and add the meadowsweet leaf.
    • Leave to steep for 10 minutes, strain and add some honey to taste.

    These recipes are from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole

Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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