Getting to Know Your Herbal Allies: Ginger
Oh, dear, wonderful ginger! We at Banyan LOVE ginger—and chances are that you do too. After all, this beloved herb is what Ayurveda reverently refers to as vishwabhesaj, “the universal medicine,”1 and some practitioners consider ginger to be “the herbalist’s best friend.”2 Reflecting on its rather illustrious history, these lofty titles certainly fit ginger, as much of the world has recognized just how powerful ginger is. This isn’t any new revelation either—ginger has held an exalted place in both the kitchen, as a delectable spice, and in the medicine cabinet, as a reliable herbal resource, for thousands of years. Of course, with such a long and well-documented history, coupled with the seemingly endless recipes and formulas that feature ginger, we would need to write a book rather than a blog article to give ginger full justice—but even so, any amount of time spent on ginger, no matter how small, is well-spent! Please brew yourself your favorite cup of ginger tea and join us as we share a bit about one of our favorite herbal allies.
Ginger’s Influence Through the Ages
At first glance, this rhizome may seem a bit unassuming. Soft yellow and a bit knobby, this subterranean stem is really where all the ginger magic happens, and this is the part of ginger that has elicited such enthused reception from the entire world for the past few millennia. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, ginger was the second most used spice (next to pepper).3 Empires even measured their wealth and power by their trade in such spices as ginger.4 This stems back to ancient civilizations too: one ancient Chinese emperor is said to have planted vast fields—thousands of fields!—of only ginger, raking in veritable fortunes from the harvest.5 For a long time, only the elite and royal members of society could even afford to have ginger grace their tables. Even so, ginger’s popularity spread as time went on, making its way across Asia, Europe, and even to the New World as colonialism staked its claim on new lands.6
The world’s love of ginger can be measured beyond its link to prosperity. It has made repeated appearances throughout historical texts: it is in the prose of Shakespeare, an Indian proverb, the writings of the philosopher Confucius, and even in the careful records of cultivation kept by the explorers Marco Polo and Vasco de Gama.7 Needless to say, ginger has captured and held our collective attention.
Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese practitioners have certainly held a longstanding respect and reverence for this plant. But its status as a spiritual plant goes beyond these healing modalities. Ginger is even quoted in the Koran as a key ingredient in a spiritual drink:
“Round amongst them [the righteous in Paradise] are passed vessels of silver and goblets made of glass…a cup, the admixture of which is ginger.”8
Its widespread recognition as a spiritual herb is no surprise to us. Ayurveda recognizes ginger as sattvic. In fact, Dr. Lad and Dr. Frawley have stated that ginger is “perhaps the best and most sattvic of the spices.”9 A quality also found in tulsi, sattva is something (an herb, a food, an experience, a state of mind) that is infused with lightness, clarity, intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. Sattvic plants, then, infuse us with this divine energy. Calling ginger perhaps the most sattvic of the spices is a pretty powerful statement, but ginger definitely upholds its end of the bargain.
By welcoming ginger into your daily routine, you will be welcoming in more benefits in addition to those lovely doses of sattva. Ginger will be hard at work supporting healthy agni (the digestive fire). In fact, ginger’s association with strong agni could be called its pièce de résistance. And this has been long recognized! Every culture that has adopted ginger, which is nearly every culture in the world, has used ginger to support healthy digestion. Even Confucius wrote in 500 BC that he was never without ginger when he ate.10
The Digestive Fire-Keeper
By supporting agni, ginger sets off an entire domino effect of benefits. With healthy, happy digestion, you will burn through any ama buildup, and you will help prevent any new accumulation of ama. A side benefit of this? You will be supporting healthy, comfortable joints (as ama can build up in the joints).11 Ayurveda has capitalized on this quality, adding ginger to traditional formulas, like Yogaraj Guggulu, that can help support healthy joints. Banyan appreciates ginger’s soothing effect on the joints as well, which is why we’ve included it in our Joint Support tablets.
Another benefit of great digestion, thanks to ginger, is that you will be able to better absorb and assimilate nutrients from your food. Plus, ginger helps create a comfortable post-digestive experience. In other words, as a carminative, it helps make sure things digest well, and cleanly, so there won’t be the uncomfortable byproduct of gas that can occur with weak, sluggish digestion.12 If you would like to use ginger to aid in strong agni, check out some of our awesome digestive formulas such as Kapha Digest tablets (or Trikatu in powder form), Vata Digest tablets (Hingvastak in powder form), and Easy Digest liquid extract.
Hearty, strong digestion also leads to a stronger immune system. A healthier immune system means more ojas, and vice versa. This means more energy, vigor, strength, joy, and juiciness to live your life!
Plus, ginger has an affinity for the lungs, meaning ginger’s support of the immune system goes even deeper than as a welcome byproduct of great digestion. Ginger supports healthy expectoration and comfortable breathing, and it can help clear excess kapha and vata from the lungs. You probably won’t be surprised to find that ginger is included in most of our immune products, including Immune Support tablets, Bronchial Support herbal syrup, Throat Soother spray, and in the Ayurvedic formula Talisadi. A simple combination of ginger and tulsi is a great option too! Both are sattvic, warming, and great for supporting the immune system. This is one of our all-time favorite pairings here at Banyan. We simply make a tea with both the powders, or we add the liquid extracts to hot water. Chances are, there is at least one person drinking ginger-tulsi tea every day in our office!
A Closer Look at Energetics
Ginger’s magic in the physiology can be partly explained by looking at its energetics. Ayurveda recognizes the energetics of rasa (taste), virya (temperature), and vipaka (post-digestive effect). To explore this, let’s focus on your ginger tea for a moment. As you sip your tea, you will probably notice that familiar mixture of its heating, pungent taste and its soothing, sweet taste (these are ginger’s rasa), and as you continue to drink it, you will notice that you will feel a bit warmer. That’s due to the virya, or temperature of ginger, which is considered heating.
What do these energetics tell us? The pungent taste appeals to kapha, and the sweet taste is soothing to vata. As to the virya, ginger’s warming effect certainly foreshadows its ability to rev up agni. And like the tastes, it is also a nod toward its effects on the doshas.
Ginger’s warming effect also helps us understand how ginger increases circulation, vasodilation, and promotes sweating. To put this into perspective, just think about when you’re cold: everything—including your veins and your blood flow—is constricted in an effort to preserve your heat, and besides, things slow down when cold. When you’re warm, things expand, and your circulation is able to flow comfortably throughout your body. And it goes without saying that warmth can also mean sweating.
While we’re on the subject of how vata and kapha love ginger, it’s important to note that fresh ginger is great for calming and soothing excess vata. Plus, fresh ginger will not aggravate pitta as much as dry. Dry ginger is, well, dryer, and it’s also hotter, making it a great fit for balancing kapha.13 You can use this as a general rule of thumb when deciding to work with fresh or dried ginger.
Once ginger makes its way through the full digestive process, its vipaka, or post-digestive effect, is sweet, meaning that ginger is ultimately nourishing and cooling to the tissues!14 This shows the brilliance and complexity of the way herbs work. While ginger is at first heating (as felt through its hot virya right after you ingest it), its long-term effect on the body is cooling and nourishing. This can be seen in the way it supports a healthy shukra dhatu (reproductive tissue layer) and reproductive system as a whole.15, 16 It can be particularly supportive of a healthy, comfortable menstrual cycle, especially for women who may experience excess vata in the lower abdomen. If you are looking to alleviate the latter, a hot ginger tea made with fresh ginger can be great support.17
One of the exciting and very enjoyable aspects of ginger is its sheer versatility, and we invite you to experiment and have fun with this spice. Whether you choose to simply drink ginger tea or you choose a formula that includes ginger, you will be welcoming the power of this super herb into your physiology. And then there is the whole culinary world to explore with ginger! This darling of the spices can be added to practically any dish, making the addition of ginger to your life a delicious experience. No wonder ginger has maintained its revered status for the past few millennia! But then, we would expect no less of this “universal medicine.”