Ginger Root: Universal Medicine

There are no panaceas in medicine, but if there were going to be one, it would have to be the humble Ginger root. Ginger is called “Vishabhesaj” in Ayurveda, Sanskrit for “universal medicine.” That is both because of its wide applicability, its common use in medicine and kitchen, and its value for promotion of health.

Ginger in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine for Digestion and Metabolism

One of the basic rules for promoting longevity and wellness in both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine is to promote good digestion. Ginger in Ayurveda is so valuable for promoting health and wellness because it is so good at stimulating Agni digestive fire, one of the roots of health.

Ginger root can wake up a digestive tract in Vata or Kapha types with naturally weak Agni/digestive fire. It can also stimulate the Agni digestive fire in people who have weakened their digestion and clogged their channels through overeating cold energy, raw, and heavy foods.

Ginger is also excellent  for people with food poisoning or diseases like dysentery, and even colds and flu with diarrhea or nausea.

Digestion is a Warm Process

Both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda speak of digestion 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 filtered by the liver after having been dissolved by our pancreatic enzymes, bile, and hydrochloric acid, after having been first masticated by the teeth and warmed and broken down a bit by our saliva.

Ginger Root In Chinese Medicine to Aid Assimilation of Nutrients

Ginger root, in both its fresh form “Sheng Jiang” and its dried form, “Gan Jiang” stimulate 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 its not just that ginger stimulates digestion, but that it aids in assimilation of nutrients making them more “bioavailable” in the blood stream, and with its warm, pungent nature helps to unclog the shrotas or channels in Ayurveda that corresponds to what we call the “triple burner” and ministerial fire in Chinese Medicine.

“Triple Heater” Damage in Chinese Medicine; Ama in Ayurveda

When the triple heater physiology is impaired in Chinese medicine, a process akin to the development of Ama/toxins in Ayurveda, then it is easy for disease to form. Its like having an engine whose oil has turned to sludge, or a garden whose soil has become water logged and has to much clay.

Symptoms of Ama Digestive Toxins Accumulating That Can Be Remedied with Ginger Root

We see this kind of condition in people with foul smelling, greasy looking bodies, with foul breath and thick greasy coatings on the tongue, with 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.

Ginger Root in Ayurveda: Trikatu for Weak Digestion

If you have weak digestion, and you are a cold damp type, without acidic type indigestion or burning sensations, then you might try the famous Ayurvedic remedy Trikatu. Trikatu is usually in tablet form and is a mixture of dry ginger with black pepper and long pepper. You can also make it yourself as an Ayurvedic churna to put on food or just in the palm of your hand right onto your tongue.

You can easily make this yourself with fresh ginger, too. In that case grind equal parts long pepper and black pepper in the spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder). And 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 Effect on the Gut

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 in Ayurveda is so valuable for promoting digestion that it is often added to difficult to digest bitter cold medicinals. I

n 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.

Kitchen Medicine: Masala Chai with Ginger

This is why its dry ginger in Ayurveda more than fresh that we find 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.

Chai masala 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 and Absorption

Sheng Jiang/fresh Ginger, 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.

Ginger root in South Asian cooking

Whether its in Korean Kimchee, Japanese pickled ginger, Vietnamese tapioca deserts, Laotion and Thai soups, Chinese bone broth, or Pakistani curries, ginger serves the same purpose–to promote digestion of foods that are heavy with animal fat or coconut milk, or cloying with sweet tasting ingredients.

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.

Ginger root in Chinese Medicine: Fish Poisoning

In Chinese medicine fresh ginger root is also considered an antidote to 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.

Ginger for 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 powder is more effective.  You do have to drink very large amounts of ginger powder for nausea in pregnancy, like tablespoons at a time.  Normally for pregnancy nausea we use an herbal prescription with ginger and other herbs like Ban Xia/Rx.Pinellia called Er Chen Tang.

Fresh Ginger to Disperse Cold, and to treat 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 and 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. But do not use it for a hot, dry, unproductive cough. 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. Its so simple.

Basic Fresh Ginger Root tea for coming in from the cold.

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

Masala Chai Recipe for Early Spring or any Wet, Cold weather

Place in 12 oz of water

1 tsp fresh ginger root
½ tsp ginger powder
½ tsp cardomon powder, more to taste
2-3 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

Ginger Root Contraindicated in Pitta Elevation

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.

But if you are a Pitta predominate type, and not unbalanced, then you can probably use Ginger, especially fresh ginger root, without any problems, in moderation. In India, since many people are lacto-vegeterian, 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 Root  in Ayurvedic Churnas

Churnas in Ayurvedic medicine are spice mixtures to promote digestion and to pacify the doshas. One of the classic churns for Vata elevation, with symptoms of excessive gas or susceptibility to gas no matter what the food 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, or 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, and 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 churn.

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

Vatta Spice Churna

Grind together equal parts of

Cardamon Seed
Cumin Seed
Fennel Seed

with 1/5 parts of

Hing/Asafoetida
Ginger
Turmeric.

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 Root  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.

There was no Immodium, 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.

Ginger in Ayurveda:  Kitchen Medicine

In the old days homes in India came stocked with ginger pills. They took 4 parts fresh ginger root and crushed it to a paste in a stone mortar with 1 part ginger powder. Then they mixed into little pellets the size of large bb, and left to dry in the shade.

For prevention 2 pellets were taken 3x per day now and again, at the change of the seasons, when traveling, during the rainy season, or when health or digestion were not right.

Ginger in Ayurveda: According to Dosha

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 Vata it was taken with a little rock salt.

Fresh Ginger Root for Vata

For regular use by Vata dominant types, fresh ginger root is the best because it is less stimulating than dry ginger, and has a certain sweetness, and also enters the intestines. The large intestine is the seat of Vata.

Ginger Powder for Kapha

But 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. Its absorbed higher in the gut, in the stomach, the seat of Kapha.

Ginger in Ayurveda for Pain

Menstrual and Intestinal Cramps and Bloating

Ginger root 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 in Ayurveda with Herbs for Arthritis

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 Boswellya and Triphala in Ayurvedic remedies, and is also in many of the Chinese formulas we use for Arthritis.

Fresh Ginger root in Chinese Medicine as a poultice for sprain, strain, and arthritic pain.

Grate a whole bunch of fresh ginger. Mix it with ground frankincense, myrrh, and Chinese rhubarb/Da Huang. If not available, use ginger alone. Or add some Zheng Gu Shui liquid to the ginger.

Place a large mound of ginger root right on your skin and wrap with gauze to keep on. Tape it.
Now cover with plastic so as to be water tight, and immerse your limb in hot water. Keep in hot water for 20 minutes. If hot water is not possible use a moist heating pad.

Ginger with Ume Plum for Headache.

A very traditional  home remedy for mild tension headache in Japan, and even for migraine, is to brew strong ginger root tea using fresh ginger, to which a salted pickled Ume Plum is immersed.

For migraine one might use green tea. The ginger in this tea helps draw the Qi out of the head, and the Ume Plum with its salty astringent quality also helps with the nausea associated with migraine, and lowers the Qi.

I hope you will enjoy experimenting with some of these recipes and come to love Ginger as I have.

copyright eyton j. shalom, l.ac. 2015 all rights reserved.

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