In this blog post, we’ll be exploring the uses of ginger in Ayurveda through the lens of modern science. Ayurveda, which originated in ancient India, is one of the world’s oldest health practices—and at Ayurkula, we believe it still has a lot to teach us. Ginger in Ayurveda has been traditionally used to balance doshas and treat many different types of conditions.
In this post, we’ll first discuss the history of ginger from a modern “superfood” back to ginger’s traditional uses in Ayurveda. We’ll then explore the health benefits of ginger that modern studies have uncovered as well as practical ways you can use ginger in your health routine.
Why ginger, now?
At Ayurkula, we always start with the core questions: Why are we thinking about this topic now? And is this really where our core focus should be?
Most people are driven to explore particular healthy foods like ginger for 3 reasons:
- They want to improve their overall health
- They have particular conditions that they want to treat
- Because the food is currently a fad or “trending”
It’s important to keep in mind that no one plant, herb, or food alone is a magic pill. I’ve found in many cases people I speak with are looking for the ONE magic food they can ADD to their diet when in reality, they would benefit much more from REMOVING one or two harmful foods or behaviors. This is why I want to emphasize that ginger should always be used in conjunction with other healthy practices and a holistic understanding of health.
Historical uses of Ginger
Ginger’s use in wellness and medicine has been recorded around the world including in China by Confucius, in Greece by Dioscorides, and of course in Vedic times in India by Charaka.
The ginger plant has over 25 varieties and prefers to grow in hot, humid climates with rich, loose soil. Its root belongs to the same plant family as turmeric and cardamom and gets its spicy aroma from organic compounds called gingerols, which are actually a kind of ketone.
Uses of Ginger in Ayurveda
Ginger in Ayurveda is used as a fresh root, as a powder, and also in numerous formulations. It has two different names depending on how it’s used, the fresh form is known as “adrak” and the dry form is called “shunti.” Its wet form is milder, shorter-acting, and suits the pitta dosha better. The dry powder is more heating and suits the vatta/kapha doshas better.
In Ayurveda, a plants or food’s properties determine when it should be used. In contrast to western medicine, which generally treats all people suffering from particular conditions as a group, Ayurveda treats based on the balance of an individual’s doshas. This means that what’s good for one person, may be counterproductive or even harmful for another.
Ginger’s Ayurvedic properties are “pungent” (katu), hot in potency, oily, and with a sweet aftertaste. It mitigates excess kapha and vata and their associated conditions like obesity or arthritis, respectively.
In addition, ginger is used in many formulations which address other body imbalances and disease conditions which we will take up at another time.
It is used in various conditions including as an:
- remedy to improve digestion (agni)
- anti nausea
- treatment for cold, cough, respiratory issues
- dissolver of toxins
One of many Ayurvedic references to ginger comes from an ancient sanskrit shloka from the Astanga Hridyam, 500 AD:
A rough translation of the shloka above would be that “Ginger increases hunger and is an aphrodisiac, water-absorbent, good for the heart/mind, relieves constipation, increases taste, and is easily digestible.”
A classic formulation that includes ginger is made from three pungents (spices), including ginger, black pepper and long pepper. This combination is referenced in the ancient texts:
A rough translation would be “this combination is useful in obesity, indigestion, cough/difficulty in breathing, infectious diseases, and the inflammation of nasal mucosa.”
Science-backed health benefits of the use of ginger in Ayurveda
Ginger’s traditional uses continue to be validated by modern scientific studies. Let’s explore some of the potential health benefits of ginger and how they connect to ginger in Ayurveda.
May help reduce nausea
Nausea, or the urge to vomit, can be caused by numerous factors such as stress, motion sickness, pregnancy, food poisoning, and the side effects of medical treatments like chemotherapy for cancer.
Numerous studies have supported ginger’s anti-nausea effects and it has also been studied for relief of morning sickness in pregnant women. One analysis goes as far as suggesting: that “ginger could be considered a harmless and possibly effective alternative option for women suffering from the symptoms of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy.”
Ginger in Ayurveda is generally chewed upon for nausea relief along with a dash of lime and rock salt. The current scientific theory for gingers’ potential anti-nausea effects is that it blocks the serotonin receptors involved in the contraction of the smooth muscles inside the stomach and gut. This may prevent digestive upset and vomiting.
Ginger may alleviate respiratory issues and cough
Respiratory issues can manifest from a variety of causes including asthma, allergies, influences, rhinovirus, bronchitis, or even pneumonia.
Studies have shown that ginger exhibits antiviral activity against some respiratory viruses and can potentially help relax bronchial airways. There is also evidence ginger may help suppress dry coughs and allergic responses.
In Ayurveda, ginger juice along with honey is often used as a warm tea to soothe respiratory symptoms. Similarly, dry ginger powder, and black pepper are made into a paste and used for cough relief.
May improve digestion
We’ve all experienced indigestion in various forms, whether stomach aches, heartburn, or bloatedness. Ginger may be able to help. Ginger has even been shown as a promising treatment for more severe issues such as inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS).
A Tabriz University study found that ginger “can be considered as a useful complementary therapy for [Functional Dyspepsia]”, which is a term for recurring digestion that doesn’t have a set cause. The study also found that ginger helped to inhibit indigestion triggered by H. pylori, a type of bacteria that infects the stomach.
In Ayurveda, indigestion is often said to be the result of a weak digestive fire or “agni” and excess Pitta. Recommendations focus initially on improving digestion or “pachana” through the use of lighter meals, like old rice and diluted yogurt with dried ginger and coriander leaves.
May reduce inflammation and related conditions
Inflammation is a result of the body’s immune system malfunctioning. Chronic inflammation is increasingly being shown to underlie many of our most common illnesses so reducing it is critical to increasing wellness and healthspan.
Ginger in Ayurveda is used in many anti-inflammatory formations, often alongside a resin called Guggulu that is used to treat excess vata. You can find an excellent overview of the research studies that have been conducted on ginger’s anti-inflammatory effects here.
Ginger could play a role in weight management and obesity
Obesity is a major issue around the world, especially in countries like the US where 40% of adults are overweight. Obesity increases the risk for many life-threatening diseases, including diabetes, auto-immune disorders, heart disease, and stroke.
Ginger has shown some encouraging results in the treatment of obesity through the regulation of energy metabolism. One study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed that “dietary ginger prevents body weight gain by remodeling whole-body energy metabolism and inducing browning of white adipose tissue (WAT),” and cited ginger as a plant that helps the therapeutic treatment of obesity and related disorders.
May play a role in risk management of cardiovascular disease
Heart disease, plaque buildup, heart attack, stroke, and heart failure are a leading cause of death in many countries, including the US. Ginger has been shown to reduce diabetic heart structure abnormalities in animal studies conducted by the Urmia University of Medical Sciences.
It’s important to note that in Ayurveda, the approach to treating issues like cardiovascular disease are person-specific and outside the scope of this discussion.
May play a role in regulating blood sugar, diabetes and hyperglycemia
Chronic high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is associated with Diabetes. This could be of two kinds: Type 1 diabetes which is a genetic condition that often shows up early in life, and Type 2 diabetes which is generally lifestyle-related and shows up later in life. There is evidence that ginger may help insulin sensitivity and improve blood lipid profiles.
Diabetes, in Ayurveda, is predominantly a Kapha dosha disorder that has many variants involving body tissues. Ginger in Ayurveda is commonly used in combination with other interventions to treat these conditions.
May play a role in alleviating PMS symptoms
Premenstrual symptoms, both physiological and psychological, can be complex, leading to mood shifts, anxiety, bloating, cramps, and other forms of discomfort. Ginger has been studied to have a beneficial impact in relieving symptoms such as anxiety, migraines, and mood.
In Ayurveda, disturbed menstruation is a complex condition that involves a detailed analysis of doshic imbalance, purification, and pacification along with diet and lifestyle modification. Among other things, use of ginger or shunti is also indicated as a part of a wholesome diet during this period.
May improve immunity
Our immune system is the bedrock of our health, protecting against outside threats and anticipating what the body needs to keep in balance. Ginger has shown a potential to exhibit indirect inhibitory effects on the viral life cycle and exhibited anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory properties.
It’s important to keep in mind that each human’s immune system can vary as a consequence of heritable and non-heritable influences. Non-heritable influences, like symbiotic and pathogenic microbes, can explain a lot of this variation. The heritable (genetic) basis of individual’s differing susceptibility to the same viruses is an active research area. Even the same individual’s immunity could vary significantly by circadian rhythms, seasons and age. I’ve discussed immunity in Ayurveda more in this video workshop as well as this piece on the coronavirus.
May play a role in fighting cancer cells
Cancer involves abnormal cell growth which is often facilitated by an underactive immune system. Treatment approaches for cancer are best left to medical experts, but there is the potential to involve an Ayurvedic approach in an integrative and adjuvant manner.
Ginger derivatives have shown chemopreventive properties which are under study for drug development. Research has highlighted ginger’s potential to help fight gastrointestinal, colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancer.
May play a role in brain function, including in Alzheimer’s disease
Stress and brain disorders such as Alzhiemer’s, which are associated with memory loss and dementia, are rapidly increasing across the globe.
Ginger root extract was found to be protective against the disease in Alzhiemer’s disease in studies on rats. It attenuates senile plaque-forming amyloid-associated cell death. The study says “gingerol exhibits preventive and/or therapeutic potential for the management of AD via augmentation of antioxidant capacity.”
Ayurveda deals with the mind or manas, memory and other conditions utilizing an extended set of approaches under rejuvenation related Rasayan Shastra, which are outside the scope of this discussion.
Ayurvedic recipes using ginger
If you have got this far, you no doubt agree that there is enough signal that ginger may be a beneficial thing! However, it’s important to use moderation, especially with so-called “superfoods” like ginger in Ayurveda. If ginger was the only thing needed for health, most of the world would be sleeping healthy and peacefully.
Now let’s get beyond gingerbread cookies and explore the use of ginger in Ayurveda in practice, in both raw and powdered form.
Bring a cup of water to boil, squish a small 1-inch blob of ginger into it, squeeze some lime, add a dash of honey, and twiddle your toes on your couch with your favorite book.
Warm Ginger milk with Honey and Turmeric
Warm a cup of your favorite kind of milk to a boil, add a pinch each of dried ginger powder and turmeric, one ground cardamom. Add honey to taste and enjoy it as your bedtime drink, especially in the winters.
Ginger Carrot Soup
- Take a few carrots (eg. 4-5 for ratio) and about 2 inches of ginger. Scrub and chop into one inch pieces.
- Warm butter or ghee in a pan and add the ginger and carrot pieces.
- Stir for a couple of minutes and then add 4-5 cups of water, salt per taste and pepper. Cook well till soft. It takes me about 10 minutes in a cooker and about 15-20 in a pan.
- Once cooled a little, grind well in a mixer. Add more water (or coconut milk) to dilute as you like. Add some freshly dry-fried and ground coriander seeds and a squeeze of lemon if you wish. Some green coriander leaves add to its beauty and flavor! This should serve four people.
Ginger Tomato Chutney
Make as much as you wish of this tomato chutney because it won’t stay around long — it usually gets eaten before you know it!
- Chop tomatoes into small pieces.
- Chop ginger into matchstick thin, half a centimeter long pieces.
- In a big pan, add ghee or oil. To this add about a pinch of asafetida (hing or Dragon’s breath), a tsp of cumin and fennel seeds, a pinch of turmeric, some curry leaves and fry.
- Once blossomed, add ginger and then tomatoes and cover and cook. Once in a while, smash the tomatoes with a ladle. When they are well cooked, soft and smashed up, add some salt and a pinch of sugar or gur. Flavor with chopped green coriander leaves. Enjoy with parathas, sandwiches, or any accompaniment.
There are numerous other ways to use and experiment with ginger – as a meat tenderizer, in sauteed vegetables, etc. Simply use your imagination and remember that a little goes a long way.
A word of caution: Having excessive ginger may cause an upset gut, heartburn, skin irritation or other issues such as bleeding when used indiscriminately. If you are on certain drugs, it may interfere with them. Be sensible. Ginger extracts and isolates of active ingredients may not always work in the same fashion as unprocessed ginger—even more so in humans as opposed to animals.
Bottomline: Ginger in Ayurveda can be wonderful but use common sense and always consult your doctor!
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All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation related activity.
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