Perhaps the most global medicine of all, ginger is one of winter’s most popular spa ingredients.
By Katherine Stewart
For many of us, ginger means little man-shaped cookies, the snap of fruit cake, and the spicy heat of mulled apple cider. It goes with nutcrackers, twinkling lights, and gifts piled under the Christmas tree. But the zing of ginger is much older than Christianity itself. This knobby rhizome has been one of the cornerstones of health care for more than 5,000 years. Ginger appears in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and is an important element of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, which utilizes ginger to aid digestion and fight infection, fever, and menstrual irregularities. Chinese medicine classifies ginger as “yang,” or hot—one of the reasons it is commonly used to combat colds and increase sexual vitality. According to ancient texts, Confucius ate ginger with every meal.
Ginger was a favorite among many of the peoples of the ancient Middle East. It was a cooking staple for the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians. It is lauded in both the Koran and the Bible. Its medicinal properties were endorsed by Pliny, the Roman writer, as well as Hippocrates, the founder of ancient Greek medicine. Even William Shakespeare penned an ode to its pleasures.
“From spiritual beverage to aphrodisiac to remedy extraordinaire, ginger represents a healing heritage that is virtually unmatched in the history of medicine,” writes Paul Schulick in Ginger: Common Spice & Wonder Drug (Hohm Press, 1996).
Ginger’s ancient reputation as “the universal medicine” has been proven by contemporary science. According to clinical studies, ginger combats motion sickness and nausea associated with pregnancy. It lowers cholesterol, helps prevent blood clots, has antifungal properties, acts as an anti-inflammatory, reduces fever, and may even fight cancer.
“The results of our research on ginger and cancer prevention strongly suggest that ginger compounds may be effective preventative agents for carcinomas,” says Ann Bode, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hormel Institute in Austin, Minnesota, who has documented ginger’s ability to fight cancer in laboratory mice.
Ginger is also beneficial as a topical treatment. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine prescribe soaks in ginger-steeped baths to ease joint and muscle pain, alleviate cold symptoms, and enliven flagging spirits.
As a proven healer, it’s no wonder that ginger has become a popular ingredient in spa treatments. Many of those treatments draw directly from the Ayurvedic tradition. At the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in Ojai, California, the Ayurvedic Detox Massage helps to counteract the effects of alcohol, pollution, and other toxins. During the treatment, the therapist alternates feathering massage strokes with deep kneading and compression of key parts of the body to stimulate the lymph nodes. Massage oil infused with extracts of ginger increases circulation and creates a feeling of warmth. Compresses steeped in a ginger-lemongrass herbal mixture raise the body’s temperature even further and stimulate the lymphatic system. The client is left with a healthy glow that lasts long after she has left the therapist’s table.
The Ayurvedic Detoxification Body Treatment is another cleansing treatment at Spa Ojai. First, the body is exfoliated with a wet scrub made with coriander, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The herbs are allowed to dry under a heat lamp; this process opens the skin’s pores and releases toxins. The therapist then drizzles a warming blend of lemongrass and ginger oil on top of the herbs, and brisk massage strokes remove dead skin cells. After the client is wrapped in a fresh blend of ginger and elderberry, the heat lamps are turned back on and the sweating begins in earnest. A scalp massage with Ayurvedic hair oil and a mini Ayurvedic facial provide the indulgent and fragrant touches to this cleansing treatment.
“Although ginger is a great ingredient year-round, it’s especially appropriate for colder months because it leaves you feeling warmed from the inside,” says Spa Ojai director Kasia Mays.
“Oshadi,” meaning “giver of life,” is the Ayurvedic term for plants and herbs used in traditional healing practices and therapies. A wrap utilizing Oshadi Clay, infused with ginger, licorice, and mustard seed, is a component of the ESPA Body Envelopments performed at the Peninsula Spa by ESPA in Chicago. This warming treatment begins with a light scrub with a soft-bristle body brush to stimulate the lymphatic system, improve circulation, and remove dead cells. Once the skin has been primed, Oshadi clay is applied all over the body and the client is wrapped. The wrap is allowed to set for 15 or 20 minutes, raising the body’s temperature and increasing the absorption of nutrient-rich oils. After a relaxing scalp massage, the client washes off in a rain shower and is lightly massaged with a nourishing body moisturizer.
“The warmth of the Oshadi Clay improves the circulatory system and promotes a positive frame of mind,” says Tiffany Craig, spa director of the Peninsula Spa by ESPA. “It’s very physically and emotionally balancing.”
Grown in regions as diverse as China, the West Indies, and Surinam, ginger is also an agricultural product of Hawaii. At the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea, Maui, the Pineapple Ginger Facial begins with a papaya pineapple grapeseed polish, a gentle exfoliant with fruit acids that also hydrates the skin. The scrub is removed with hot towels and the face is steamed. A warm mask of ginger, seaweed, and roasted green tea simultaneously detoxifies the skin and replenishes vitamins and minerals. While it dries, the hands are massaged with lotion containing papaya and pineapple extracts, then enveloped in warm mitts. Once the mask is removed, the client receives a face massage. The treatment ends with the application of an “extreme cream” containing bee propolis and a high SPF.
“Native Hawaiians used to chew ginger to stimulate digestion,” says Pat Makozak, senior spa director at the Spa at the Four Seasons Resort, Maui, explaining why the ingredient is especially fitting for a Hawaiian spa environment. “In our relaxation room, we serve Ginger Blast tea, which we make by steeping fresh, raw ginger in water and adding lemon and honey. After you come out of a treatment, you want something easy on the stomach and also a little bit detoxifying. It also gets you going again if you’re feeling lethargic after a massage.”
Much of the ginger that we use in North America is called “Jamaica Ginger,” another name for white ginger. White ginger, which is not necessarily grown in Jamaica, is a variety known for its pungent sweetness. At the Rockhouse Hotel in Negril, Jamaica, the Caribbean Ginger and Lemongrass Spicy Wrap, made with locally produced ginger, is an especially popular treatment. The treatment starts with a full-body stretch, followed by a skin brushing. The client is then spritzed with restorative waters before a warm, spicy scrub is applied using fast, circular, rhythmic motions. Special attention is paid to rough areas such as the feet, elbows, knees, and heels. The scrub is removed with warm wet towels, and the client rinses off in a Vichy shower. The treatment concludes with a restorative massage and another spritz of aromatic waters.
“Ginger is both invigorating and soothing,” says Linda Hall, a West Indies-based spa consultant who designed the treatments and formulated the products used at the Rockhouse Hotel Spa. “The stimulating and enlivening “zing” of ginger boosts circulation and lifts the spirits.”
Anybody who has been to a sushi restaurant knows that ginger is a ubiquitous ingredient of Japanese cuisine. Inspired by the Ofuro, the centuries-old traditional Japanese bath, the spa at the Carneros Inn and Spa in Napa, California, offers the Red Flower Japan Body Ritual Massage.
The first step is a shower with Yuzu Mimosa Sea Algae Wash, to purify the body. After sitting in a steam room for five minutes, the client lies down on a treatment table and is exfoliated with Ohana Gingergrass Bamboo Scrub. The flakes are brushed off, and the therapist swabs the skin with steamed Wild Cherry Blossom rice buffs, which leaves a skin-softening film. The client is given a Shiatsu massage with Wild Lime and Kinmoxei Silk Oil, followed by a traditional massage with Plum Blossom Silk Cream to seal in moisture. Finally, borrowing a page from traditional Japanese bathing rituals, Japanese peony flower petals are placed on her chest.
Jeannie Jarnot, director of spa and retail operations at the Carneros Inn and Spa is especially enthusiastic about the scrub component of this multilayered feast for the senses. “I’ve been in this industry for ten years, and the Ohana Gingergrass scrub is my absolute favorite product that’s ever been developed,” she enthuses. “It is stimulating yet refined. It scrubs without scratching, and when it’s applied to the skin, it feels like a marvelous, soft brush.”
When countless civilizations have long associated ginger with wellness, it comes as no surprise that the spa world has caught on to this wonder herb’s myriad healing powers. As the weather turns cold, you’ll find enough ginger in the spa to lull you to bed, while visions of little gingerbread cookies dance in your head!