Versatile, flavorful, and therapeutic, ginger is quite a wonder plant.
The rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale, ginger is indigenous to southern China. It eventually spread to the Spice Islands, other parts of Asia, and then to West Africa and the Caribbean. In the first century AD, ginger was exported to Europe via India, thanks to the lucrative spice trade. Currently, India is the largest producer of ginger.
Healers have praised ginger for its medicinal properties for thousands of years and it is a folk medicine favorite. Its use as a stomach soother goes back centuries. As one sixteenth-century physician put it: “Ginger does good for a bad stomach.” In The Family Herbal from 1814, English physician Robert Thornton noted that “two or three cupfuls for breakfast” will relieve “dyspepsia due to hard drinking.”
Modern science has proven ginger’s effectiveness not only as a remedy for nausea and vomiting, but for a host of other health ailments.
Here are some areas in which the therapeutic properties of ginger have been studied:
Inflammation of the colon: A study conducted at the University of Michigan medical school and published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research found that a ginger root supplement administered to volunteer participants reduced inflammation markers in the colon within a month. This is significant because inflammation of the colon is a precursor to colon cancer.
Ovarian cancer: A study showed that exposing ovarian cancer cells to a solution of ginger powder resulted in their death via apoptosis (cell suicide) or autophagy (the cells digested/attacked themselves) in every single test. This study, conducted at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, also showed that the ginger solution prevented the cancer cells from building up resistance to treatment.
Asthma symptoms: Researchers at Columbia University found that airway smooth muscle (ASM) tissues exposed to asthma medication combined with purified components of ginger exhibited greater relaxation than those treated with the medication alone.
Liver damage caused by acetaminophen: Scientists at the National Research Centre in Egypt found that ginger can prevent liver damage caused by the painkilling medication.
High blood pressure (hypertension): Researchers from Chiang Mai University in Thailand found that ginger extract was more effective than the medication prazosin hydrochloride in reducing high blood pressure.
Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation): A study of 70 female students found that ginger can help reduce the symptoms of menstrual pain.
Migraines: A study performed at the VALI-e-ASR Hospital in Iran and published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that ginger powder is as effective in treating common migraine symptoms as sumatriptan. Sumatriptan is a common medication for migraine treatment (Imitrex, Treximet, Imigran, Imigran).
Muscle pain caused by exercise: A University of Georgia study that was published in The Journal of Pain followed 74 volunteers found that daily ginger supplementation reduced exercise-induced muscle pain by 25%.
Research into the health benefits of ginger is ongoing, and so far, the findings are promising. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine website says the following about the plant:
In vitro and animal studies suggest that ginger has antiemetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-drug-dependence, and hypoglycemic effects. It may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Ginger influences gastric emptying in healthy individuals and may promote feelings of satiety. Systematic reviews of ginger suggest moderate efficacy for treating osteoarthritic and chronic low back pain.
A small pilot study suggests that ginger supplementation may have chemopreventive effects for those at increased risk for colon cancer with normal-appearing colonic mucosa. More and larger studies are needed to confirm any true benefit with ginger supplementation for symptom control or chemoprevention.
The site lists these possible uses for ginger:
- Drug withdrawal symptoms
- Motion sickness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Respiratory ailments
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Stomach and intestinal gas
The beauty of ginger is that in addition to providing a variety of health benefits, the plant happens to have a pleasant flavor. It is slightly biting, hot, and pungent, with a rich fragrant aroma. Ginger is available in many forms, including fresh, dried, powdered (also referred to as ground), pickled, preserved, and crystallized (or candied).
Gingerol is the main active constituent of ginger. When ginger is dried, gingerol undergoes a dehydration reaction and forms shogaols, which are about twice as pungent as gingerol. Shogaols have a very strong antitussive (anti-cough) effect, and it, like gingerol, reduces blood pressure and gastric contractions.
It doesn’t take a lot of ginger to produce benefits. For nausea, ginger tea made by steeping one or two 1/2-inch slices (one 1/2-inch slice equals 2/3 of an ounce) of fresh ginger in a cup of hot water will likely be all you need to settle your stomach.
For arthritis, some people have found that consuming as little as a 1/4-inch slice of fresh ginger cooked in food helps, although some studies show that consuming more produces faster and stronger relief.
Use ginger in stir-fries, teas, soups, baked goods, kimchi, coffee, spiced apple cider, Chai tea, ginger-peach jam, lemon, honey, and ginger cough syrup, and in fresh vegetable or fruit juices (a delicious combination is apple, carrot, orange, and ginger).
When using ginger for medicinal purposes, many forms are available, including capsules, teas, tinctures, powders, and oils. Some experts say capsules are the best choice:
Dr. Roberta Lee, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, says capsules provide better benefits than other forms. She advises people to look for brands that use “super-critical extraction,” because it results in the purest ginger and will provide the greatest effect. She also suggests taking ginger capsules with food. Why? Although small amounts of ginger can help settle a sour stomach, concentrated doses can actually cause stomach upset. (source)
Ginger can interact with certain medications, so it is important to check with your doctor before using it for medicinal purposes. This is particularly important if you suffer from a bleeding disorder or take blood-thinning medications.
Do you use ginger in recipes or for medicinal purposes? If so, please feel free to share your tips and ideas in the comments.
Photo credit: Stefan Lins