In the darkest days of winter, with the icy winds whistling around the house, I need something to warm me up. As traditional Chinese medicine has it, ginger restores Yang, or hot energy. Indeed, the slang meaning of ‘ginger’ implies liveliness and vigour. The ‘hot energy’ it restores has been widely believed to include sexual energy since ancient times, with ginger commonly used as an aphrodisiac. The Kama Sutra, a c.400 BCE Hindu work on human sexuality, suggested ginger as an effective means of exciting sexual energies, while the Greeks and Romans believed it stimulated male sexual arousal. The twelfth century abbess Hildegarde of Bingen, who wrote knowledgeably about herbal remedies, recommended its use for stimulating the vigour of older men married to young women, while the University of Salerno in Italy taught that to have a happy and vigorous life in old age, including an active love life, one should eat ginger. 
Ginger is thought to originate in south-eastern Asia, though it is now cultivated commercially in nearly every tropical and subtropical country in the world. It was one of the first spices first traded along the Spice routes, popular at first for its medicinal qualities, and later as a food ingredient. It was known in England before the Norman Conquest, as it was commonly mentioned in eleventh century Anglo-Saxon medical texts. Like other exotic spices, it was incredibly expensive, with pound of ginger equivalent to the cost of a sheep in the thirteenth century, but even so, next to pepper, it was the most popular spice.
We generally know this spice in two forms, the dried, powdered ginger, and the fresh ‘root’ (actually the rhizome of the plant) with its individual divisions known as ‘hands’, since they may also be imagined as resembling hands with knobbly fingers, which is perhaps why the ancient Greeks and Romans thought it grew in the fabled land of the Troglodytes, a misshapen and promiscuous race living on the edge of the earth.  Fresh ginger and dried ginger powder have distinct aromas and properties and are used differently in both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese traditional medicine. Ginger root contains a large range of phytochemicals, with the pungency of the fresh root is attributed to the primary presence of compounds called gingerols, but when ginger is cooked or dried these turn into shogaols, which are twice as piquant, explaining why dried ginger has a greater pungency than fresh ginger. Cooking also produces zingerone, which is characteristic of the ginger flavour found in gingerbread. Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with the invention of the gingerbread man, which became a popular Christmas treat. 
Ginger has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It featured in the first Chinese great herbal, the Pen Tsao Ching, reportedly compiled by the emperor Shen Nung around 3000 BCE  and is used in half of all traditional Chinese prescriptions.  In Ayurveda, it referred to as Mahaousbadba (‘great cure’) and Visbwa Bhesbaja (‘universal medicine’).  That tells us just how trusted and useful ginger is.
One of the most common traditional uses is in cases of sickness and diarrhoea. In England, from the Middle Ages onwards, ginger beer was brewed to soothe the stomach, and indeed, it is still used as a home remedy.  In fact, doctors and pharmacists will often recommend ginger because it works – it has been shown to be effective as Metoclopramide (an antiemetic drug) in reducing nausea amongst patients receiving chemotherapy.  If you are feeling nauseous, sip ginger tea throughout the day. It can also be effective in relieving motion sickness. Drink some ginger tea before you set out on your journey, and chew on a piece of crystallised ginger while you are travelling.
Ginger’s friendliness to the stomach continues with its value as a carminative herb, taken for indigestion, wind and irritable bowel. The ancient Greeks took it after large meals, wrapped in sweetened bread to settle the stomach and aid digestion.  Add ginger to food, smoothies etc. or drink ginger tea after meals.
Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, so is very useful in conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, where inflammation leads to pain. Applied externally, in the form of a compress, salve or oil, it stimulates peripheral circulation, helping toxins to be removed from painful joints. Furthermore, fresh ginger actually has pain-killing properties with the compound gingerol acting on the receptors located on sensory nerve endings. Applying a ginger compress to an affected joint will cause a momentary burn, followed by pain relief.  If you are having a flare up, take a cup of ginger tea three times a day, use ginger and cinnamon massage oil or use a ginger compress on affected parts.
A ginger compress may help relieve bursitis and tendonitis and muscle aches and sprains or rub with ginger and cinnamon massage oil.
Some people find that ginger can help relive a migraine. Research has found that this is as effective as Sumatriptan, a commonly prescribed migraine drug.  Ginger is thought to block prostaglandins, the substances that cause inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain.  Take a cup of ginger tea as soon as you feel any symptoms.
Another traditional use of ginger is to relieve menstrual pain and cramps, and some recent studies bear this out. One showed it was as effective as ibuprofen.  Try taking a cup of fresh root ginger tea as required. It is thought to work by regulating the production of prostaglandins.
Colds & Flu
In colds, flu and sinus conditions ginger loosens phlegm and helps clear mucus from the throat. Drink Ginger Tea or have a Ginger Bath. You can even use a strong cup of ginger tea as a gargle to relieve a sore throat. The compounds called gingerols in ginger help block the production of the substances that cause bronchial congestion.
Natural ginger is considered safe for most people with no known side effects when used moderately or in food amounts. It is best taken with food. However, if you have acid reflux it may exacerbate symptoms. Very large amounts of ginger may lower blood sugar, so if you are diabetic, you should take care to monitor your blood sugar levels. Large amounts of ginger should be avoided by those with gallstones. To be on the safe side, if you wish to use supplemental amounts of ginger during pregnancy, please consult a health care professional.
Fresh Ginger Tea
2 cm fresh ginger
500 ml water
Peel ginger and slice thinly. Boil the ginger in water for 10-20 minutes. Remove from heat, strain, add honey and lemon if desired.
© Anna Franklin, abstracted from The Hearth Witch’s Kitchen Herbal, Llewellyn, 2021