Monday, September 17, 2012

Featured Herb: Ginger

There are so many herbs in the Chinese pharmacopoeia used to strengthen and regulate the function of the Spleen. It's hard to choose just one.

Ginger is a fabulous herb when you want to add a bit of warmth & spice to your life!
---And it's easy to integrate into daily meals & household use!

Note: When we talk about strengthening and regulating the Spleen, we are basically talking about improving the way our body digests food, assimilates nutrients, transforms food nutrients into usable energy and transports that energy to all the cells of our body--- ensuring the integrity of cells and tissues and providing energy which allows us to think and function on a daily basis. For more on the Spleen in Chinese medicine, please see related articles:

Late Summer Reflections: Transition, Earth Spleen
Nourishing Earth: Chinese Herbalism & the Spleen/Stomach

Ginger: Zingiber officinale

Ginger is used daily in kitchens throughout South Asia (where it was originally cultivated), East Asia and to a lesser extent West Asia. Africa and the Caribbean. The rhizome of the ginger plant is used.

In Chinese herbology, we think of ginger like this:

Fresh ginger is spicy and warming and has a special affinity for the Lung, Spleen & Stomach.
As a medicinal herb, ginger has the following uses:

  • In the treatment of colds and flus, when the patient feels weak and has chills, ginger gently helps to open the pores, induce mild sweating and help eliminate the invading virus. If the patient is warm and feverish, though, we'd use cool spicy herbs, like peppermint, instead of ginger.
  • It can alleviate nausea and vomiting. It's useful in morning sickness or in alleviating the side-effects of cancer treatment, especially when there is cold in the stomach. (When there is heat in the stomach, we combine ginger with cool or cold herbs--bamboo shavings or coptis root, for example-- to stop vomiting.)
  • Ginger reduces phlegm in the Lungs to treat cough and chronic Lung problems.
  • Finally, ginger is said to eliminate toxins from food and from other herbs.
Fresh ginger doesn't tonify the Spleen per se, but it helps the Spleen and Stomach work more efficiently by warming and stimulating them. In biomedical terms, ginger has constituents which mimic digestive enzymes and stimulates the production of gastric juices and lipase.

The Spleen is easily harmed by cold. When the Spleen is weak and cold, dampness and phlegm accumulate in the body. One of the places phlegm loves to hang out is in the Lung. Ginger is great at getting rid of phlegm in the lungs and the respiratory tract, and helping to reduce the production of phlegm in the first place.

Dried ginger is also used medicinally in Chinese medicine, and is considered to have different properties from fresh ginger. It is more warming than fresh ginger. Whereas fresh ginger warms the surface of the body, opening pores and inducing sweating, dried ginger is one of the most effective Chinese herbs for warming the inside of the body. It is used to "rescue yang," or to stimulate metabolic activity in yang deficient patients. Yang deficiency is characterized by weakness, slow metabolism, pallor, cold extremities, weak circulation, edema, etc. It could even be used in cases of mild hypothermia. In biomedical terms, it acts on the central nervous system to raise blood pressure.

Dried ginger has an affinity for the Heart, Lung, Spleen and Stomach.  Some additional uses include:

  • alleviating stomach & abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea due to cold,
  • alleviating cough, wheezing and fluid congestion in the lungs due to cold
  • stimulating menstruation, regulating the menses or stopping excessive uterine bleeding in women, when these are due to cold.
In all of these cases, dried ginger would be combined with other suitable Chinese herbs. Obviously, dried ginger would not be the herb of choice is the ailment were not due to cold (or weak, slow metabolism). This is important because many conditions treated in a modern acupuncture clinic stem from heat, yin deficiency (autoimmune conditions are often in this category) and other etiologies, and must be addressed differently. The coldness described here is often due to long-term weakness and chronic illness. In the long term, excess heat and yin deficiency results in yang deficiency.

Small amounts of ginger, usually fresh ginger, are often included in Chinese formulas because ginger acts as a carrier. It helps move other herbs through the blood, increasing their effectiveness and absorption rate.

Ginger has come into prominence in western naturopathic medicine, where its uses include:
  • appetite stimulation
  • alleviation of joint pain due to arthritis by increasing blood circulation
  • alleviation of gastrointestinal distress: may be helpful in cases of nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, gas, and even menstrual cramps
  • cardiovascular/cerebrovascular health: consumption 5 grams of ginger per day has been shown to slow the production of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the liver, and to prevent the adhesion of circulating platelets.
This article from the University of Maryland Medical Center summarizes some of the many clinical trials that have been conducted on ginger.

Using Ginger in the Household:

Late Summer & Autumn are great times of year to begin integrating more ginger into your diet. Late Summer is the time of year when the energy of the Spleen & Stomach is at its height, and Autumn is the time when the Lung is prominent. Ginger supports all of these organs, and helps to warm us and boost our immunity as winter approaches.

I always keep fresh ginger root in my fridge. I like to grate a bit of ginger pulp onto a warm dish of food at any meal. A bit of grated ginger is a must for me in a bowl of hot soup, especially miso. A few thin slices of fresh ginger, or a bit of dried ginger powder, can be sauteed in oil along with onions and garlic as the base flavoring for any vegetables. Ginger, garlic and onions have lots of antioxidants and prevent the formation of free radicals when oil is heated. I always toss a slice of fresh ginger into the rice cooker before I cook rice. It adds a lovely aroma and brings all the medicinal benefits listed above.

It's easy to make ginger tea: just boil a few slices of ginger in a pot of hot water, strain & drink. Add chamomile to the ginger tea to ease menstrual cramps. For sore throat, or first signs that you're coming down with a cold, add some peppermint or fresh green onions to your tea-- then bundle up & sweat out the virus.

Here's a fabulous recipe for homemade ginger ale.

You can use this ginger tea externally as well. Soak your feet in a bowl of ginger tea to head off a cold. A poultice of ginger (mashed ginger pulp, or even just a washcloth soaked in ginger tea) applied to sore joints and muscles can ease pain, arthritis and rheumatism. Applied externally to the chest, it breaks up lung congestion and expels mucous. Poultices of fresh ginger applied to certain lung points on the back of the body is a classic Chinese asthma remedy. A wash of warm ginger tea can be applied to the lower abdomen during childbirth to ease labor and delivery, and to the perineum to prevent tearing during delivery. A ginger poultice applied to the low back will warm and support the Kidney system, boosting energy and immunity. Just be careful to let the poultice or wash cool before you apply it externally to prevent burning.

A Few Words of Caution:

Ginger has a pretty mild effect on the body, but, as with any food or herb, you don't want to overdo it. Limit consumption of ginger to 2-4 grams per day. Just a bit will do. 

While small amounts of ginger support digestion, too much ginger can irritate the digestive tract. Pay attention to the way your body responds to it. Too much ginger may also interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and dietary iron. Ginger can thin the blood and it can elevate blood pressure slightly. Those taking blood thinners, barbiturates, beta-blockers, insulin or diabetes medications should consult with  about ginger since it could conflict with these medicines. Ginger may stimulate uterine contractions so pregnant women should be careful how much ginger they ingest, limiting it to one gram per day. If you have any doubts, talk to a qualified herbalist or other medical practitioner.

Other than that, have fun spicing it up!

Tierra, Lesley, L.Ac. The Herbs of Life: Health & Healing Using Western & Chinese Techniques.

Bensky & Gamble. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica.

Classroom lectures from Briahn Kelley-Brennan, L.Ac.