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Ginger Root, A Panacea for Good Health

ginger root

If there were a panacea in good health, I believe it would have to be the humble ginger root. Ginger is called Vishabhesaj in Ayurveda, which Ayurvedic physician Dr. Lad translates as "universal medicine." That is both because of its wide applicability, its common use in medicine and kitchen, and its value for promotion of health.

One of the basic rules for promoting longevity and wellness in both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine is to promote good digestion. In fact, this is a tenant of health promotion in just about every traditional Asian culture. 

Ginger is so valuable for promoting health and wellness because it is so valuable in promoting digestion. Digestion is seen in both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine as a process of warm transformation of gross material into fine essence. It is this fine essence of foods that is extracted in our blood streams after having been first masticated by the teeth; warmed and broken down a bit by our saliva; dissolved by our pancreatic enzymes, bile, and hydrochloric acid; and then filtered by the liver.

Ginger root, in both its fresh form, Sheng Jiang, and its dried form, Gan Jiang, stimulates our digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid, a process that is part of stimulating the Agni/digestive fire in Ayurveda, and that is referred to as improving the hun hua or transformation and transportation of the solids and fluids, in Chinese Medicine. So it is not just that ginger stimulates digestion, but that it aids in assimilation of nutrients, and with its warm, pungent nature helps to unclog the shrotas or channels in Ayurveda that correspond to what we call the "triple burner" and ministerial fire in Chinese Medicine. 

When the triple heater physiology is impaired in Chinese Medicine, a process akin to the development of Ama or toxins in Ayurveda, then it is easy for disease to form. It is like having an engine whose oil has turned to sludge, or a garden whose soil has become water logged and has too much clay. We see this kind of condition in people with foul-smelling, greasy-looking bodies, foul breath and thick greasy coatings on the tongue, and lots of unpleasant belching and flatulence. It is also a condition that lends itself to the development of more serious disease. Especially if there is belching without sour fluid eructation, along with indigestion and abdominal pain of a mild type, ginger will be very helpful cooked in with the food, or taken in either tablet or tea form. 

If you have weak digestion, and you are a cold damp type, without acidic type indigestion with burning sensations, then you might try the famous Ayurvedic remedy Trikatu, which is found in tablet form and is a mixture of dry ginger with black pepper and long pepper. In fact, you can easily make this yourself with fresh ginger by grinding your black pepper and long pepper in the spice grinder. (I use a coffee grinder.) Then grind your fresh ginger in a food processor and mix in an equal part of the dried spices. This can then be mixed with a little bit of raw honey and eaten with a spoon after meals.

Trikatu stimulates digestive enzymes and promotes rapid absorption of nutrients, while improving the metabolic function. Trikatu's pungent hot qualities clear excess mucus from the body, which aids digestion and supports respiratory function. This is why it is used for children with weak digestion that get sick all the time with wet cold conditions of mucus and phlegm, like wet type bronchitis and ear infection. 

Dry Ginger is Hot and Warms the Lungs and Dries Cold Phlegm

Ginger is so valuable in Ayurveda for promoting digestion that it is often added to difficult-to-digest bitter cold medicinals. In Chinese Medicine dried ginger (Gan Jiang) is an important herb in prescriptions for profuse cold phlegm in the lungs associated with certain kinds of wheezing, cough, and asthmatic conditions, because dried ginger is hotter than fresh ginger and is said to warm the lungs. This is why we find dry ginger more often than fresh in the various Masala Chai spiced tea drinks found in India during the cold season. The further north one goes in India the colder the winter and the more ginger and black pepper found in the Masala Chai. Chai simply means tea in Hindi and other languages like Farsi. (A masala is any kind of spice mixture.) Curry powder could be called a curry masala. Garam Masala is a popular North Indian spice mix for vegetables.

Masala Chai is the name given to any combination of Ginger, Cardamon, Clove, Cinnamon, Fennel, Black Pepper, Long Pepper, Nutmeg and Mace, that is boiled in water to which tea and milk are then added. This spice combination helps protect your lungs from the cold damp air of winter, and if you do have a cold can help with expectoration, especially when your tea is sweetened with honey. 

Fresh Ginger Warms the Stomach and Promotes Digestion

Fresh ginger (Sheng Jiang), on the other hand, is considered by Chinese Medicine to warm the stomach more than the lungs. It is not as hot as dry ginger. That is why it is used so much in cooking in all the East, Southeast, and South Asian countries from Sri Lanka to Korea and from Pakistan to Korea.

Whether it is in Korean Kimchee, Japanese pickled ginger, Vietnamese tapioca deserts, Laotian and Thai soups, Chinese rice porridge, pork bone broth, curries (Indian, Burmese, Sri Lankan or Pakistani), ginger serves one and the same purpose--to promote digestion of foods that are otherwise heavy with animal fat, coconut milk, or cloying with sweet or bland tasting things. All grains are sweet, raw fish is sweet, flesh foods are sweet and heavy, coconut milk is sweet and cooling; so ginger and other spices serve to promote digestion, and when digestion is good your body is able to extract the nutrients that act as fuel and medicine. Good appetite, good digestion, good prognosis. When someone has been sick you can tell they are feeling better when their appetite returns. 

Fish Poisoning

In Chinese Medicine fresh ginger root is also considered an antidote for fish poisoning. That is why Chinese people steam their fish with ginger root and green onion. It is why Japanese eat pickled ginger and horseradish/wasabi with sushi, also because raw fish has such cold energy, it needs balance by warming.

Nausea and Vomiting

Because fresh ginger root is pungent and warming, and because it helps direct the stomach Qi in its correct direction, which is downward, it is a popular kitchen medicine in the east for nausea and vomiting. However for nausea in pregnancy, dry ginger is more effective, but must be drunk in rather large quantities to be effective on its own. Normally for pregnancy nausea we use an herbal prescription with ginger and other herbs like Ban Xia/Rx.Pinellia called Er Chen Tang.

Cold, Colds, and Coughs

Because fresh ginger root in tea promotes sweating (diaphoresis), and "expels pathogens" from the surface of the body, it is a great tea to drink when coming in out of the cold in winter, or if you have caught a chill from excessive wind or cold, such as when hiking in cold weather or surfing in the ocean. I always bring a thermos with some kind of ginger tea to drink after hiking in the San Diego mountains from Autumn to Spring, because by the time I finish it is dark and the weather has cooled. Ginger itself is stimulating and acts as a pick-me-up for the long drive home, especially with green or black tea.

Because ginger acts as an expectorant, it is also good for any kind of productive cough. However, do not use it for a hot, dry, unproductive cough, as it may cause it to worsen.  Perhaps the most popular use of fresh ginger as a home remedy is for colds, productive cough, and cold type allergies. It is so simple. 

Here are some simple ginger recipes.

Basic Fresh Ginger Root Tea for Coming in from the Cold

  1. Place a tablespoon or so of fresh ginger slices or diced fresh ginger into 12 ounces of water.
  2. Bring to a boil.
  3. Steep till cool enough to drink.
  4. If desired, sweeten with honey.

Masala Chai Recipe for Early Spring or Any Wet, Cold Weather

  1. Place the following in 12 ounces of water:
      • 1 tsp fresh ginger root
      • ½ tsp ginger powder
      • ½ tsp cardomon powder, more to taste
      • 2 to 3 cloves
      • A few small chunks of cinnamon bark, broken off of round twig
      • 3 tellichery black pepper corns
    • Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. 
    • Add Indian or African tea leaves. (I like half Kenyan and half Assam.)
    • Add milk to taste, start with 4 oz.
    • Simmer for 5 minutes.
    • Sweeten if desired with honey or raw sugar.

The one reason not to eat or drink ginger is if you have elevated Pitta dosha in Ayurveda. In fact, if you cannot eat ginger without burning in your stomach. If ginger does not agree with you, that in and of itself tells the Ayurvedic physician that you have elevated Pitta dosha.

However, if you are a Pitta predominate type and not unbalanced, then you can probably use ginger in moderation without any problems, especially fresh ginger root.

In India, since many people are lacto-vegetarian, it is very popular to begin the day with hot milk tea. Adding a slice of ginger root helps break down the fat and protein in the milk, which is heavy and cooling and pacifies Pitta, so that amount of ginger should work fine. If it does not, that tells you where you are at, in terms of elevated Pitta in the gut. 

Ginger in Churnas

Churnas in Ayurvedic medicine are spice mixtures to promote digestion and to pacify the doshas. One of the classic churnas for Vatta elevation, with symptoms of excessive gas or susceptibility to gas, is a churna made of equal parts hing/asofoetida, ginger, and cumin. One might add a smaller portion of long pepper to this formula. Long pepper is delicious, and is like black pepper, but more fragrant. If not available, use black pepper. Simply combine equal parts of these three spices in powder form, and an amount of pepper half of any of the other ingredients. Place a small amount of this mixture onto your tongue after meals, mix with hot water and drink, or mix with a little honey. If you have a combined Vatta Pitta imbalance, do not add the pepper. Instead mix the powder with a small bit of ghee and take it after meals. Of course you can also cook your food with such a churna. 

A more developed Churna to pacify Vatta that can be used in cooking consists of the following:

Vatta Spice Churna

  1. Grind together equal parts of the following:
    • Cardamon Seed
    • Cumin Seed
    • Fennel Seed
    • Add 1/5 parts of Hing/Asafoetida, Ginger, and Turmeric
  2. When cooking meats, marinate first in this churna with some sesame or olive oil. When cooking vegetables, sautee them in this churna with onion and your favorite cooking oil. 

More Ginger in Ayurveda

Traditionally in India mothers and fathers knew how to use spices and herbs as medicine. Kitchen medicine was a major part of disease prevention. My first Indian cookbook, Samaithu Paar, Cook and See by Thirumathi Meenakshi Ammal, had a whole section called "invalid diets," which meant dishes for people recovering from all the normal childhood and adult illnesses, like colds, flu, and diarrhea. There was no Imodium, but there was rice water soup (congee in Hindi or shi fan in Chinese) with ginger. There was no Nyquil, but there was coriander and ginger tea with honey. 

In the old days homes in India came stocked with ginger pills. They took four parts fresh ginger root and crushed these in a stone mortar with one part ginger powder and crushed this until they could be mixed into little pellets, what are called pien in Chinese, and left to dry in the shade. For prevention two pellets were taken three times per day now and again at the change of the seasons, when traveling, during the rainy season, or when health or digestion with not right. For family members with elevated Kapha, this mixture was taken with honey, which is warming and astringent. For elevated Pitta it was taken with purified raw sugar, or kalkandu, and for elevated Vatta it was taken with a little rock salt.

For regular use for Vatta dominant types, fresh ginger is the best because it is less stimulating than dry ginger, has a certain sweetness, and also enters the gut. The large intestine is the seat of Vatta. However, for Kapha elevation, especially with weakened Agni, another words for wet clay or sludge, dry ginger is better. It strongly stimulates Agni and acts as an expectorant to rid the body of mucus. 

Ginger for Pain

Ginger is also excellent in tea for menstrual cramps. Ginger, fenugreek, and fennel pair together very well as a strongly brewed herbal tea for cramps, drunk with honey. Have some of that with your dark chocalate and red meat the week before your period begins.
Ginger is also used for arthritis. It has really come into vogue for that now. It is used both as kitchen medicine, and also finds itself mixed with Boswellia and Triphala in Ayurvedic remedies, and is also in many of the Chinese formulas we use for arthritis.

Ginger Poultice for Sprain, Strain, and Arthritic Pains

Another way we use ginger for pain is in poultices. 

To make a ginger poultice:

  1. Grate a whole bunch of fresh ginger.
  2. Mix it with ground frankincense, myrrh, and Chinese rhubarb. If not available, use ginger alone or add some Zheng Gu Shui liquid to the ginger.
  3. Place a large mound of ginger root right on your skin, wrap with gauze and tape to keep it on.
  4. Now cover with plastic so as to be water tight, and immerse your limb in hot water.
  5. Keep in hot water for 20 minutes. If hot water is not possible use a moist heating pad.

With the change in the seasons, ginger is more important than ever to help us stay healthy. So stock up today and never be without this powerful root.

Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac., has been in private practice in San Diego since 1992. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of UCSD, he began his study of Yoga in 1972 with Kriya Yogi S. A. Ramaiah. The next 12 years involved intensive Yogic practice, including three years in India and Sri Lanka, where he also began his study of Ayurveda. Eyton became licensed in the practice of Chinese Medicine in 1992, and has been the owner of the BodyMind Wellness Center in San Diego since 1997. Eyton offers individual and group instruction in both meditation and progressive relaxation. He can be reached at email or 619.296.7591.

Also, be sure to visit his website and blog and read his past articles.

© Eyton Shalom, San Diego, CA.

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