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Ginger: Food and Medicine

It is said that Hippocrates, a famous Greek physician from 400 BC who is traditionally recognized as the "Father of Medicine" once said, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food”. 

Although my research indicates it is debatable as to whether he truly spoke those words, it is unarguably (at least in my opinion) a powerful and accurate phrase that we would be wise to heed. 

Lucky for us there exists herbal allies in the world that blur the lines between food and medicine because they are not only dang delicious, but also happen to be incredibly beneficial to our health.

It's herbs like ginger that make it easier to attempt living up to Hippocrates' famous saying. I mean, who doesn't like ginger in one way or another? If you happen to be a fan of ginger, you’ll want to read on to learn more about this historical herb!

Family: Zingiberaceae

Latin Name: Zingiber officinale Roscoe

Common Names: Ginger, Common Ginger, Cooking Ginger, Canton, Stem Ginger, Canton Ginger

Parts Used: Rhizome (commonly called a root)

Energy & Flavours: Ginger is a warm to hot herb with a tendency towards "dryness." Fresh ginger is considered to be "warm" while dried ginger is considered to be "hot." A warm or hot herb, for example, means that if you sip a hot tea featuring that herb, you’ll feel the heat from the tea warm up your core and perhaps even radiate heat out towards your limbs. Ginger is considered drying because it stimulates fluid loss through various body secretions such as sweat or mucus. 

Biochemical Constituents: rich in volatile oil which includes zingiberene, zingiberole, phellandrene, borneol, cineole, citral; starch; mucilage; resin

Medicinal Actions: 

  • Carminative (relieves flatulence)
  • Rubefacient (a substance that when applied topically causes redness of the skin)
  • Anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation)
  • Antimicrobial (kills or slows the spread of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoans, or fungi)
  • Stimulating Diaphoretic (inducing perspiration)
  • Stimulating Expectorant (expels mucous)
  • Anodyne (pain-killing)
  • Diffusive (moves stagnant energy)
  • Anti-emetic (antinauseous; preventing vomiting)
  • Aromatic (emitting a pleasant and distinctive smell; containing aromatic compounds)
  • Counterirritant (an agent applied locally to produce superficial inflammation with the object of reducing inflammation in deeper adjacent structures)
  • Digestive tonic (aids digestion).

Medicinal Preparations: Ginger is used in numerous forms including fresh, dried, pickled, preserved, juiced, crystallized, candied, and powdered or ground.

Commonly used as a flavouring for food or as tea/infusion, ginger has many other therapeutic applications including creations like hydrosol, essential oil, syrup, baths/foot baths, capsules, pills, powders, poultices, topical salves/creams, steams, fomentations, liquid and dried extracts.

Habitat & Growing Conditions: Native to humid, partly-shaded habitats in moist tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia. Each ginger plant can grow up to three feet high and can produce 2-5 sections, or “hands,” of thick, knobby rhizomes (often mistakenly called “roots”) that can be harvested throughout the year. 

Common ginger (Zingiber officinale) is hardy in USDA zones 9-12, but a few other varieties of ginger are hardy down to zone 7. It takes about 8-10 months from planting to harvest the crop. It can be grown in containers and moved indoors for the winter in colder climates where the season is too short for the rhizomes to mature.

Ginger can be grown from rhizomes purchased at supermarkets or other food stores. Commercial ginger is often treated with a growth inhibitor to keep it from sprouting before use, but sometimes pieces – especially those marketed as organic – will begin to sprout. If you would like to learn more about this process and take a crack at growing ginger yourself, read this article.

The History of Ginger: Ginger is an ancient spice said to have been consumed for upwards of five thousand years. A native to Asia (specifically southern China), the first written record of ginger comes from the Analects of Confucius, written in China during the Warring States period (475–221 BC) (Source). The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was known to eat a small amount of ginger before every meal, and praised it for its digestive and healing powers.

From there it spread to Europe via the Silk Road. During the Middle Ages it was favored as a spice for its ability to disguise the taste of preserved meats. Henry VIII is said to have used a ginger concoction in hopes of building a resistance to the plague (Source).

By the 13th century, ginger was widely appreciated in the spice trade and its worth had greatly increased. As with all imported goods at the time, only the most wealthy could afford it – a pound of ginger was worth the price of a whole sheep! Members of the royal family and nobility would often follow their meal with a wine spiced with ginger to aid digestion.

Fast forward to 2019, world production of ginger was 4.1 million tonnes with India producing 44% of the world's total. Nigeria, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Japan and Mali complete the top 10 countries that produce the world's global supply of ginger. Overall ginger is produced in almost 40 countries world wide (Source).

Medicinal Uses:  Ayurveda calls ginger the “universal medicine" because it offers benefits for everyone and almost every disease. Both delicious and medicinally potent, ginger is a classic example of "let food be thy medicine".

Well-studied in modern day clinical trials with positive results, it seems that there isn't much that ginger can't do. We will touch on a few of the key medicinal benefits of ginger in this blog post, but if you would like to dive deeper into the many benefits this herb has to offer, I highly recommend you read this comprehensive article by one of my favourite herbalists, Rosalee de la Foret, on the health benefits of ginger. She wrote it best!

Ginger as an Herbal Synergist

Ginger is a popular herbal synergist amongst herbalists and is commonly added to many herbal formulations. An herbal synergist has the ability to amplify the effects of other medicinal herbs (making them more potent) by dilating blood vessels in the body. This process allows other medicinal herbs to be delivered faster throughout the body, absorbing and integrating into our systems with greater speed and efficiency. 

Health Benefits of Ginger for Digestive Issues

One of ginger's primary claims to fame is its ability to treat nausea, vomiting, motion sickness, and morning sickness during pregnancy. As a carminative, it promotes gastric secretion when taken with or after meals, and is used in dyspepsia (indigestion), flatulence (accumulation of gas), and colic.

Herbalist Rosalee de la Foret says that ginger particularly shines for those suffering with digestive complaints who are also energetically cold and stagnant because of its warming, carminative, and dispersing qualities. How do you know if you are a cold and stagnant type? Symptoms may include bloating, gas, heaviness after meals (bowling ball stomach), constipation, white coating or "scallops" on the tongue, or cold hands and feet.

Health Benefits of Ginger for Pain and Inflammation

Ginger is a strong ally for various types of pain and is widely used for inflammatory pain such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Numerous studies have shown ginger to be effective and safe at relieving arthritic pain, both through topical application and by taking it internally. Some studies have even shown that it is as effective as taking an ibuprofen for reducing the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. Ginger has also been shown to relieve muscle pain after workouts (Source).

When using ginger for pain, it works especially well for people with signs of coldness. These people may have a pale face or tongue and typically feel colder than others. They may have slow digestion or problems with bloating and tend towards lethargy or slowness. Ginger may not work well for those with signs of heat (Source). 

Health Benefits of Ginger for Colds and Flu

Fresh ginger is a potent antiviral and antibacterial, making it a popular choice for treating influenza, the common cold, and both bacterial and viral gastroenteritis.

Because of its diaphoretic properties, ginger can promote perspiration which is especially helpful when sickness is accompanied by feverish conditions.

As a gargle, it may be useful for sore throats. It is our family's experience that hot ginger tea with lemon and sage-infused honey is especially helpful! It is deliciously soul-soothing and is our go-to remedy when sickness hits our home.

If you are experiencing the onset of a cold or flu and are feeling especially cold and shivering, a potent cup of hot ginger tea can warm you up from the inside out.

Food Uses: Fresh ginger is an essential ingredient especially in Asian stir fries, soups, sauces, marinades and curies, but it is an extremely versatile root. Here are some other options: 

Add ginger to banana bread or muffins - it pairs wonderfully with bananas as they are distant relatives. Ginger and apples are another great combination, add it to apple sauce or apple pie, or simmer fresh ginger with apples and sugar to make a compote to put on pancakes!

Make ginger ale by combining freshly grated ginger, simple (or agave) syrup and sparkling water. 

Combine grated ginger with orange juice and honey for basting a roast chicken or turkey.

Simmer cubed butternut squash, chopped carrots and garlic in chicken broth. Add fresh ginger, salt and pepper, then puree for a delicious soup. 

Finally, combine ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic and sesame oil for the best beef marinade (think thinly sliced steak).

Cosmetic Uses: Ginger is abundant in antioxidants that increase blood circulation and fight off free radicals - this means it helps combat dull skin, fine lines and wrinkles and overall helps your skin look more youthful. 

Have a blemish, burn or a blister? Dab some cotton soaked in ginger juice and it will calm the inflammation and reduce unsightly blemishes. 

Want to make your skin more radiant? Try mixing fresh grated ginger with a natural face mask to help moisturize and soften the skin!

Finally, ginger may even help with scars. Apply a slice of fresh ginger onto the areas of your skin that are lacking colour and let the juice dry - within a few moths your scars will fade. 

*Always do a patch test when using something new on your skin to be sure it will not irritate or cause an unwanted reaction!

Products we make featuring Ginger: Ginger is one of three ingredients in our Aurora's Delight Tea. One sip delivers intensely fresh flavour and a burst of warmth and brightness that rivals the rising sun. Energizing and supportive for the digestive system, this tea is combined with peppermint and stinging nettles to make the perfect caffeine-free cuppa to start your day! 

Our Pumpkin Pie Essential Oil Blend benefits from a dash of ginger root essential oil to enhance the warmth and coziness this blend emits when diffused.

Invigorated Goddess Essential Oil Blend also features ginger essential oil to balance out and add some warmth and depth to the minty fresh I-just-took-a-walk-in-the-forest feeling you get when diffusing it.

And lastly, our Chai Body Butter and Chai Lip Balm wouldn't be complete without a hefty sprinkle of ginger to enhance the cozy and comforting vibes!

Safety Class: (Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately and that have a history of safe traditional use).

Interaction Class: B

Pregnancy and Lactation: Research shows that ginger is safe and effective for pregnancy-related nausea, such as morning sickness. 

Sources: The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne, University of Rochester Medical Center, The Food Network, 


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