Sunday, May 5, 2013

Monthly Topic #10: Underground Medicine

Ginger is a spice with such a wide range of varied and valuable health benefits that you can walk into any bookshop and pick up a title like "Ginger: Common Spice and Wonder Drug" by Paul Schulick. I'm talking about a spice that Confucius famously included with every meal. I'm talking about a gnarled stick with a big history. I'm not one to shy away from the obvious, but before we go on about herbal medicine, there are some other things to discuss about ginger that show it off as the sexy spice that it really is.

~Image Source: College Candy~

From Savoury to Sweet

First, there's the taste. Some people say it's acquired, others go as far as to say it's addictive. Looking at the outside, you'd never guess at the intense flavour and subtle heat of it's flesh, but cut it open and the pungent spicy aroma gives you some idea. Ming Tsai, author of Blue Ginger offered the opinion that "It's like every spice you've ever had all rolled up in one flavour. It has a palatable cleansing heat that's almost like a strong vodka - it takes your breath away". Confucious and Pliny praised it, Nostradamus included recipes for wine and ginger preserved in honey and the Koran speaks of a fountain of ginger-flavoured water.

In Asia, we probably have a ginger for every palate. You can buy it fresh, ground, pickled or candied and in the markets, standard ginger is available young, with a thin skin and mild flavour, or mature with a tough skin and a flavour that's hotter and more intense. You can also seek out red and yellow ginger, with slightly different tastes. Depending on how it has been preserved, it can be anything from strong and savoury to an almost sickeningly sweet candy. They key magic it is credited with in cooking is to neutralize strong fishy flavours, enhance most others and add its own unique aroma and taste to dishes. And in all Asian cultures, north, south, east and west, it is a key ingredient in regional culinary heritage. It is the most widely used spice in Chinese cooking and a key ingredient in most curry powders.

The West also found its uses for the spice. No one is really sure how it got to Europe, but there is a tale of a baker in around 2400BC on the isle of Rhodes, making gingerbread and historical accounts are certain that Persian trade missions sent to India by Darius brought it back. In the second century AD, ginger was included in the list of imports to Alexandria from the Red Sea that were subject to Roman customs tax. Because it can be readily transported still growing in pots, it was the living root that was traded extensively, leading to its spread throughout the world. By the 14th century, it was noted in England as being the second most common spice after pepper. It reached its zenith in thr 15th century when it was used both for culinary purposes and as a cure for the plague. Queen Elizabeth I's fondness for gingerbread led her cooks to shape them like her courtiers, creating the prototype of the gingerbread man and over time, the West has found many uses for the spice, including ginger beer, glace ginger and ginger chocolate.

Modern-Day Confucius say...

The origins of ginger are a bit of a mystery because it's not known to occur in a genuine wild state anywhere in the world, but there are references to its cultivation and use by Chinese and Indians going back over 5000 years, so it is thought to have originated somewhere between nothern India and east Asia. It performs key functions in Indian folk medicine, later developed into Ayurveda. In China it appears both in Confucian treatise on food (which concern themselves with taste, texture and appearance) and Taoist treatise (which are concerned with the life-giving attributes of various foods). Whether you're a believer in traditional medicine or not, that's a convincing set of references.

It's used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for many illnesses, chiefly to purge the body and calm the stomach. This makes it a tonic for most fevers, colds and digestive disorders and it is also thought to strengthen and boost the immune system. In TCM, it is used in adjusting the balance for a "cold body", having a warming stimulating effect on the internal organs and raising the body temperature to fight infection. In aromatheraphy, the base oil is used to ease muscle cramps. The oil is also used in holistic massage, particularly in the kidney and spinal areas to boost circulation, lift spirits and ease depression.

If you dimiss traditional medicine as folklore then it's also worth nothing that countless medical studies have been done on its effects in the past 30 years. Ginger the wonder drug can be used for:

Anti-Emetic and Anti-Motion Sickness

Ginger has been found to be effective in postoperative nausea and vomitting and significantly more effective than antihistamine dimenhydrinate in reducing motion sickness (in a test that involved throwing blindfolded sufferers around in a rotating tilting chair). It's though to have this effect because of the direct action of its active components on the gastric system.

Anti-Inflammatory (Rheumatism)

More than 200 potential drugs were tested in the 1990s in a search for a cure for rheumatism and musculoskeletal ailments and none have found to be safe. Gingerols in ginger were identified in a Danish study as potent inhibitors of the postaglandins which, in oversupply, cause inflammation.


A common side effect of the drugs used to treat inflammation is that they create or aggravate digestive ulcers. Studies were done which found that ginger calms and treats those ulcers but no one knew why until 1993, when lab tests found six anti-ulcer compounds contained in ginger.

Circulatory System<

A 1984 study in India found that ginger was antihypercholesterolaemic, which sounds like a word that only a scientist would use, but is explained simply by the study. Rats had their cholesterol levels artificially raised by including 1% cholesterol in their diets. For the rats without ginger the cholesterol levels went up a lot, for those with ginger they went up a little bit.


A bit gross to think about maybe, but there was a time when one of the chief reasons ginger was used in cooking was for its anti-bacterial properties, which helped counter the putrefaction of meat and fish. It was said to "bring life to food". Whether it really did this or just covered up, the bad taste was tested in 1986 by adding ginger extract to fresh, frozen and pre-cooked pork patties and testing their shelf-life.

It was found that it did and further tests went ont to show that it actually outperformed some commonly used chemical antioxidants. Tests are still underway, but it's expected that it will be found that gingerol related compounds are an effective antioxidant (free radical scavenger) in the body, improving resistance to cancer and other diseases.

Digestive System

Probably the most common use for ginger, it is a calmative but also has been found to promote natural enzyme reaction, stimulate digestion, act as probiotic support for natural stomach flora, have anti-diarrhoeal properties and, good news for drinkers, a 1993 study found that it offers some protection to the liver.

Other findings Still Undergoing Testing

  • In 1990 a study of 30 women found that oral ginger powder capsules may be an effective migraine treatment without side effects
  • Researchers found in 1996 that extracts of ginger placed directly on the skin of mice has an anti-skin tumor effect

Pantry of Medicine Cabinet?

Regardless of whether you're trying to spice up your recipes or cure your sniffles, look for a firm, blemish-free piece. The ginger root you select should thump when it's hit on a wooden cutting board. As far as storing it, a consensus has yet to be reached. My mother stores it in the freezer but her sister kept hers in soil, which is messy but because ginger keeps on growing, so she always has an endless supply. But the general advice is to just keep it in an open container on the shelf in the same way as you would with fresh onions or garlic.

The medicinal uses discussed in this blog post are based on scientific research but it has been widely believed for centuries that ginger is also an excellent remedy for coughs and colds (juiced with honey for colds and made into a tea for coughs), menstraul disorders (made into a sugared tea) and as an aphrodisiac (juiced and taken with a half-boiled egg and honey). So far no one has suggested that it can have any negative effect at all. So what have you got to lose? It looks ugly but tastes great and who knows what areas of your life it might enhance.


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