'Tis The Season For Ginger
Support your digestion and circulation with this spicy root

By Kendra C. Howard

Winter holidays often bring more than tidings of comfort and joy. Cooler weather increases the body's need for warmth, along with the desire to eat, and this, as many of us know all too well, can lead to unwanted gastric distress.

For those bracing themselves for a season of intestinal tumult, there's good news ahead. Ginger is one addition to your holiday diet that can improve the function of both your digestive and circulatory systems. Spicy, piquant and warming, ginger has been a crucial ingredient in Asian cuisine and medicine for thousands of years.

"Ginger stimulates digestion and 'tones' intestinal muscles," says Carl Hangee-Bauer, ND, LAc, an acupuncturist and Oriental medicine practitioner in San Francisco, Calif. "Ginger reduces intestinal irritation and improves bile production and secretion from the liver and gall bladder."

The numerous medicinal benefits Hangee-Bauer points to make ginger an ideal guest at your holiday table. Ginger alleviates gastrointestinal distress such as nausea and vomiting. It's also a carminative, helping the body to expel excess gas. Besides promoting better digestion, ginger also assists in many circulatory functions, resulting in healthier hearts and arteries.

All this support for our bodies is packed into the ginger plant's rhizome, the fleshy upper part of the ginger plant's rootstock that looks somewhat like a hand. Grown in the hot climates of the world, ginger rhizomes are easy to find in most markets. Fresh ginger is juicy, spicy and has a distinct lemony aroma. Essential oils in ginger contain bacteria-fighting properties and rapidly decompose when dried or stored for long periods, so it's best to use the fresh root to fight off colds and other infections.

Ginger's Healing Powers
Ginger's healing characteristics come from its unique combination of oleoresins—an umbrella term that includes both essential oils and pungent oils—that account for its anti-inflammatory, antinausea, and antispasmodic properties. Specifically, ginger's power in halting nausea and vomiting has been studied extensively. Professor Edzard Ernst and Max Pittler, PhD, researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, systematically reviewed trials of ginger as a treatment for these two digestive ills. They concluded that ginger powder taken at a daily dose of one gram was considerably more effective than placebo in easing nausea and vomiting (British Journal of Anaesthesia, 2000, vol. 84).

Ginger also has two enzymes, protease and lipase, that help us digest animal protein and fats. What's more, ginger's essential oil contains numerous compounds, including zingiberene, bisabolene and farnesene. These oils are valuable in reducing gas in our GI tract.

A Stimulating Root
Circulatory support is another realm of the healing power of ginger. Ginger's pungent oils such as gingerol are responsible for anti-inflammatory and antiplatelet aggregation effects, which promotes better circulatory function. Our blood can flow more sluggishly as we get older and the challenge of colder weather taxes our circulatory systems. "Ginger improves the health of the circulatory system by making platelets less sticky," says Hangee-Bauer. Less sticky platelets are important, because sticky, or sluggish, blood leads to clots and possible strokes. Ginger causes blood cells to produce fewer chemical messengers called thromboxane and prostaglandins that lead to sluggishness.

Proceed Gingerly
There are a few circumstances in which ginger should be consumed with caution. "Ginger is a very safe herb," says Hangee-Bauer, "though I have seen a few people experience heartburn with ginger capsules." People with gallstones should consult their health practitioner before using large doses of ginger, advises Hangee-Bauer, because it can aggravate the gall bladder. Ginger is also safe for occasional use during pregnancy up to one gram a day, but consult your health care practitioner to find out what's best for you.

Easy Integration
Now that you know the benefits of ginger, here are a few easy tips for incorporating the root into your diet. Ginger can be taken alone fresh or as a powder, and one pleasurable way to consume ginger is to make ginger tea. Peel a piece of ginger that's about the size of half a sugar cube. Grate the cube into a tea mug, add hot water and honey, and let steep for several minutes. Drink up to four cups a day. If you're taking standardized ginger powder capsules, suggested dosages are 1 gram (about one-fourth of a teaspoon) up to four times daily.

For many, the easiest way to use ginger is to cook with it. There are a variety of recipes—from savory to sweet—that call for freshly chopped or grated ginger. The recipes below are tasty representations that will warm up any wintertime menu.

Kendra C. Howard writes about alternative health and nutrition.