When you think about cooking for the holidays, do any specific ingredients come to mind? Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom—they all bring warm and festive flavors to the table. But let’s not forget about the main ingredient in some of our most favorite holiday treats: ginger.
In ayurvedic medicine, the ginger plant is considered to be an entire medicine chest in itself. For thousands of years, people have been ingesting the ginger plant not only for its potent, sweet, and peppery taste, but also for its ability to soothe, treat, and heal even the most unpleasant of body upsets.
Indigenous to southern China, ginger has since made its way across the world and has become a staple of many cultural cuisines. Indians use ginger in many traditional dishes, such as curries and gravies, while also incorporating the spice into drinks such as teas and coffees. In the Caribbean, ginger is used to make carbonated ginger beer and ginger cake; and in Western cuisine, ginger is used in sweet foods such as gingerbread and ginger ale. During the Middle Ages, ginger was thought to have a “magic” effect due to its ability to act as a preservative: Dishes prepared with ginger didn’t spoil easily. Although many use fresh ginger in their food preparation and teas, it can also be candied, made into a juice or oil, pickled in vinegar or sherry, or crushed into a powder.
Ginger for Your Health
The ginger plant is easily recognizable and can be grown in your very own garden—or even indoors! Ginger prefers a tropical climate and rich, moist soil. While in bloom, ginger produces white and pink flower buds, which can eventually bloom into yellow flowers that give off a sweet but earthy scent. The ginger rhizome, or underground stem—sometimes confused for a root—is harvested when the stalk withers.
The health benefits of the ginger rhizome span throughout millennia and throughout our bodies. Although ginger is not a huge source of nutritional value, the plant does contain trace amounts of certain vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, manganese, magnesium, and potassium. The most common uses of ginger are related to the stomach; you may have used ginger in the past to treat an upset stomach, nausea, or indigestion related to pregnancy, motion sickness, chemotherapy treatment, or post-surgical recovery. The plant can also help regulate our digestive system, and it’s even been thought to help treat cancers such as colon and ovarian.
Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, including gingerols, shogaols, and zingerones, some use ginger for arthritis pain, as well as pain associated with sore muscles, menstrual cramps, and migraines. Ginger contains broad-spectrum antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic properties as well. The next time you experience a burn, try rubbing ginger juice on the skin to soothe pain. Those who suffer from upper respiratory infections can use ginger to help treat symptoms of bronchitis, flus, and colds. A recent study presented at the American Thoracic Society International Conference concluded that adding ginger to isoproterenol—a type of asthma medication—enhanced its ability to dilate and open the bronchi (tubes made of connective tissue and muscle found in the lungs). Research has also shown ginger’s ability to stimulate circulation and relax muscles around the blood vessels, thus alleviating the effects of high blood pressure.
We all know beauty lies within, but what can ginger do for us on the outside? If life has left you with a few scars, cut a piece of fresh ginger and dab it on hypopigmented skin once or twice daily. Within a few months, skin usually turns back to its normal color. Is winter weather leaving you with a flaky scalp? Rub raw ginger onto scalp, then rinse with warm ginger water. This method may also prevent hair loss and repair split ends. Having a bout with acne? Ginger’s antibacterial effects minimize the rate of acne formation by killing bacteria on the surface of skin and deep within its pores.
Maximize Your Health Potential
Although eating plenty of ginger will have you on the right track to optimal health, taking a ginger supplement is a good way to ensure you’re capitalizing on ginger’s vast array of health benefits. When choosing a ginger supplement, be sure to select a product that is a standardized herbal extract of pure ginger root. Any other ginger product may not contain enough active ingredients to offer the right benefits. Supplements are available in capsule, powder, or liquid form, and the daily recommended amount is 550 milligrams twice daily.
People who take ginger have a very low chance of experiencing side effects. Some minor reported side effects include heartburn, diarrhea, upset stomach, and extra bleeding during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Some more serious effects include an increased risk of bleeding for those with blood disorders; an increased risk for lower blood pressure for those who suffer from diabetes; and although the jury is still out on pregnancies, a higher risk of miscarriage has been reported for those who supplement with ginger daily. With that being said, it’s always recommended to consult your doctor before introducing a new supplement into your diet, especially if you’re affected by a specific disorder or are taking any other supplements and/or medications.
Whether you’re in the holiday spirit for baking, experiencing an upset stomach brought on by said sweets, or just want to sit down on a chilly winter day for a delicious cup of tea, consider adding some ginger into the mix. It’s an inexpensive, easily attainable spice that should make its way to your home not only in the heart of winter, but all year round.