Galangal is a popularly cultivated and eaten plant in Malaysia, Indonesia, other parts of Southeast Asia and India, but in the U.S. it might be mistaken for the more common ginger. Both galangal and ginger are in the Zingiberaceae family, as are turmeric and cardamom. They’re called “rhizomes” because their creeping rootstalks grow horizontally, sending out roots and shoots from nodes.
Both galangal and ginger are used in cooking but there are several clear differences between them. Galangal’s skin is smoother and paler than ginger and much harder to cut or grate than ginger, which can be peeled with a spoon.1 Galangal costs more2 than ginger but the biggest difference might be in taste.
Galangal has a sharper, pine-like flavor — it is akin to Vicks VapoRub™ say some — while ginger has a softer, sweeter more pepper-like taste.3 But aside from their culinary properties, both of which are pleasant, galangal possesses some significant health benefits that are not seen with ginger.
There are different types of galangal plants: greater galangal (Alpinia galanga), lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum Hance) and light galangal (Alpinia zerumbet), and all have demonstrated impressive health benefits in scientific studies.
Benefits From Substances Found in Greater Galangal
According to research in the Journal of Medicinal Food, a substance found in greater galangal called ACA (1′-Acetoxychavicol acetate) has “anticancer, antiobesity, antiallergy, antimicrobial, antidiabetic, gastroprotective and anti-inflammatory activities.” The breadth of positive actions, say the researchers, occur because:4
“ACA induces the activation of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which regulates the signal transduction pathways, and has an important role in the prevention of diseases, including cancer, obesity, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Such findings suggest that AMPK has a central role in different pharmacological functions of ACA, and ACA is useful for the prevention of life-threatening diseases.”
The Journal of Medicinal Food researchers and scientists writing in other journals have also found impressive anti-dementia actions associated with greater galangal. According to research published in Current Developments in Nutrition:5
” … ACA ameliorates age-related spatial memory deterioration by increasing serum ketone body production as a complementary energy source for neuronal cells of senescence-accelerated mice prone 8 (SAMP8) mice.”
When an extract of Alpinia galanga, EAG, was administered to mice that were bred to exhibit the characteristics of human dementia, the researchers found:6
” … [T]he serum β-hydroxybutyric acid level was significantly increased by the administration of EAG. EAG showed a tendency to increase the expression of synaptophysin, a marker of synapse …
These findings confirm that extract of Alpinia galanga improves cognitive function in human AD [Alzheimer’s disease] and FD [Frontotemporal dementia] model mice.”
More Health Properties From Greater Galangal
According to research in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, greater galanga may have another benefit on brain and cognition: mental alertness.7
The effects on sustained attention, mental alertness and sleep architecture were studied in human subjects who were given greater galangal (E-AG-01), caffeine or a combination of E-AG-01 and caffeine. The alertness response with galanga was significant. Researchers concluded:8
“A galanga (E-AG-01) induces a beneficial effect in mental alertness and the combination of A galanga with caffeine impedes the caffeine crash and improves sustained attention at 3 hours. Thus, these stimulant effects might yield a new usage for A galanga as a key ingredient in energy drinks or similar products.”
Greater galangal may have usefulness in the treatment of breast cancer, according to 2020 research in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention.9 Galangal ethanolic extract “effectively inhibited the growth of 4T1 cells,” which are highly aggressive mammary carcinoma cell lines, and inhibited their migration. The researchers concluded:10
“Galangal has the potential for use as a co-chemotherapeutic agent by inducing senescence in correlation with increasing intracellular ROS [reactive oxygen species] toward metastatic breast cancer.”
Greater galangal is known to have strong antimicrobial properties, and research in Food Chemistry has recently revealed that galangal flowers are especially effective:11
“The chemical composition of galangal flowers was significantly different from that of galangal rhizome … and exhibited the strongest antimicrobial activity among all fractions … against Staphylococcus aureus and against Listeria monocytogenes …
Galangal flowers had a 3-fold higher total phenols content than had rhizomes … These findings suggest that antimicrobial and antioxidant agents extracted from galangal flowers could potentially be utilized as natural food preservatives or as therapeutic agents.”
Health Properties From Lesser Galangal
Like greater galangal, lesser galangal (Alpinia officinarum Hance) belongs to the Zingiberaceae family and has intriguing health benefits. Flavonoids, DAHs (diarylheptanoid) and terpenes have been isolated from lesser galangal and shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer and antimicrobial activities.12
The journal Andrologia reports that lesser galangal may be an aid in treating male infertility, a condition that is on the rise and correlated with endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment.13
“Participants were randomised to take capsules containing dried extract of A. officinarum rhizome or placebo on a daily (total daily dosage of 300 mg) basis for 3 months.
After 12 weeks of intervention, the sperm count and total number of spermatozoa with normal morphology were increased in participants treated with A. officinarum extract compared with the placebo group …
Alpinia officinarum, a traditional medicine remedy, can be effective in the improvement of sperm morphology and sperm count in idiopathic infertility without causing adverse effects.”
Research in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal suggests that lesser galangal may have anticancer and antitumor properties. Researchers wrote that lesser galangal:14
” … exhibited a direct cytotoxic effect on the growth of some cell lines compared to the standard drug vinblastine sulphate. The activities were recorded against two cell lines; A-549 (Lung carcinoma) and CACO (colorectal carcinoma) …
Moreover, the effect of the investigated extract was also promising on the other three cell lines (HCT-116 (Colon carcinoma, Hela (Cervical carcinoma) & Pc3 (prostate cancer)”
A study in the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy suggests lesser galangal may be useful in the treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma, a common form of liver cancer:15
“Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common cancers and has a high mortality rate in less developed countries, especially in China. Galangin (GA), one of the most important and naturally active flavonoids, extracted primarily from the root of Alpinia officinarum Hance, has been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of HCC …
Experiments have shown that GA prevents HCC through multiple anti-cancer mechanisms, anti-genotoxic activity against environmental and dietary carcinogens; anti-proliferative effects through reversal of the Warburg effect in HCC; arrest of the cell cycle in the G0/G1 phase; [and] induction of apoptosis via stimulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) … In addition, synergistic effects with other chemotherapy drugs have been demonstrated.”
Other Health Benefits From Lesser Galangal
According to research in the journal 3 Biotech, the effects of lesser galangal in mice could lead to its use in the prevention of skin cancer in the future.16
“Lu et al. (2007) studied the effect of flavonoid constituents of A. officinarum on whitening effects based on melanin biosynthesis in B 16 mouse melanoma cells. The flavonoid mixture and galangin exhibited a broad absorption band at 270–290 nm related to the UV-B area supporting that galangin could be … a capable candidate for prevention of skin cancer.”
Lesser galangal also functions as a cholinesterase inhibitor.17 Reducing cholinesterase is part of the treatment used for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, myasthenia gravis and schizophrenia, so lesser galangal may prove useful in such treatments as it is further studied.18
Lesser galangal is known for its antimicrobial actions, and research in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found it is especially effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a pathogen associated with infections of the urinary tract, skin and respiratory tract and other severe acute and chronic infections.19 The researchers wrote:20
“The compound from A. officinarum inhibited swarming motility and significantly down-regulated the expression of type III secretory system effector genes exoS and exoT and flagellar master regulator fleQ genes [Pseudomonas aeruginosa] …
The study identifies a potent swarming inhibitory compound from the common medicinal plant A. officinarum and reinstates the potential of plant-derived compounds in tackling virulence properties of pathogenic bacteria.”
Health Benefits From Light Galangal
Like greater and lesser galangal, light galangal (Alpinia zerumbet or Alpinia speciosa)21 is also in the Zingiberaceae family. Its rhizome, or plant stem, is comparatively larger than the other galangals. Light galangal is used as a substitute for both greater galangal and ginger in cooking.22
Animal research published in Molecules found that light galangal may have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesia and antipyretic (anti-itch) properties. The researchers write that an extract from light galangal that contained 37 compounds:23
” … exhibited anti-inflammatory effects against carrageenan-induced rat hind paw edema, and suppressed leukocyte infiltration into the peritoneal cavity in carrageenan-treated mice. Furthermore, it possessed antipyretic effects against fever induced by subcutaneous injection of Brewer’s yeast in mice.
Additionally, the extract demonstrated both central and peripheral anti-nociceptive [anti-pain] effects in mice … These findings suggest that the leaf extract from Alpinia zerumbet could be a candidate for the development of a drug to treat inflammation and ROS related disorders.”
More Light Galangal Health Benefits
Light galangal may have cardioprotective properties, according to research published in Journal of Ethnopharmacology.24 Rats that received induced myocardial infarction (blocked blood flow to the heart) but were pretreated with Alpinia zerumbet (AZE) showed less damage, according to the researchers:25
“Rats administered with ISO [a drug that causes infarct] showed a significant increase in cardiac marker enzymes … Pretreatment with AZE significantly inhibited these effects …
Haemodynamic, biochemical alteration and histopathological results suggest a cardioprotective protective effect of oral administration of AZE in isoproterenol induced cardiotoxicity.”
Light galangal may also have anticancer properties, suggests research in mice published in the journal Molecules:26
“A. zerumbet extracts, specially CH2Cl2 and MeOH extracts, exhibited the highest potent anti-tumor activity against Ehrlich ascites carcinoma (EAC) cells … A. zerumbet extracts, specially MeOH and CH2Cl2 extracts, exhibited significant inhibitory activity towards tumor volume …
Taken together, these findings open the door to further investigations in order to explore the potential medicinal properties of A. zerumbet.”
A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggests that light galangal may diminish the effects of lipopolysaccharide-induced endothelial cell injury (related to cardiovascular disease), inflammation and apoptosis in mice.27 Essential oil extracted from fructus Alpinia zerumbet, which the researchers call EOFAZ:
” … completely prevented LPS-induced HAEC [human aortic endothelial cell] activation and inflammation in vitro and in vivo … Similarly, EOFAZ significantly blunted LPS-induced endothelial injury … EOFAZ protected against LPS-induced endothelial cell injury and inflammation”
Two other benefits of light galangal have been explored in scientific literature — its anti-inflammatory actions linked to a compound it contains called kavalactone28 and its ability to control cat fleas.29 Clearly, the many health benefits of this remarkable plant offer a lot more than culinary possibilities.