Ginger, the knotted, thick, beige-coloured underground stem, or rhizome, is a versatile medicinal plant. In botanical terms, the herb is called Zingiber officinale, a trusted, age-old remedy. The ancient Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, to cull a prime exemplar, extols ginger in the treatment of arthritis, colic, and diarrhoea. It also eulogises its use in heart disorders.
Ginger is a priceless native to Asia. It grows in fertile, moist, tropical soil, typical of the region — no wonder, ginger’s culinary history as an exquisite spice is over 5,000 years old. In the modern world, where there’s a progressive ‘look-back’ into ancient remedies, or back-to-the-future prospect of old wisdom, ginger root continues to be widely used as a digestive aid for tummy troubles.
You know it just as well, don’t you, that ginger continues to be revered around the world as an important cooking spice? You may also have been, likewise, witness to your grandma using it to treat common cold, or flu-like symptoms, including headaches, and painful periods. Yes, ginger has been — no prizes for guessing — extensively used to ease gas and treat nausea for centuries. It’s no surprise that ever since the herb arrived in Great Britain from the Caribbean, in mediaeval times, Queen Elizabeth I became so captivated with its digestive properties that she employed a special gingerbread baker. There are millions of people that espouse the use of ginger bread, no less, today — they just don’t accept any other bread in its place.
Ginger helps control inflammation too. It effectively influences the pain pathways directly. In so doing, it relieves inflammation — the basic cause of pain. Gingerols – the medicinal notations in ginger — have yet another advantage. They not only prevent the aggregation of platelets, and reduce inflammation, they also help ‘thin’ the blood.
Most complementary and alternative medical [CAM] physicians today use ginger to treat problems associated with inflammation, especially joint pain, bronchitis, and ulcerative colitis. A clinical study on a group of patients with osteoarthritis [OA] of the knee joint reports that patients who received a ginger extract twice daily experienced less pain. They also required smaller amounts of conventional analgesic medications in contrast to the placebo group. While it is agreed that there have not been too many large-scale studies on the benefits of ginger for OA, it is interesting to note that one topical study has found that ginger was no more effective than the conventional drug, ibuprofen, in reducing symptoms of OA. There was, of course, a silver-lining — ginger was found to be free of side-effects.
Research also suggests that some of the compounds found in ginger may have mild natural aspirin-like effects. It is also evidenced that ginger has the ability to snuff out certain toxins that may cause pain, by increasing circulation. A popular remedy in Japan and elsewhere for spinal and joint pains, ginger is reported to possess over 500 medicinal compounds.
Ginger is a bulbous ‘gem.’ Its stem extends roughly 12 inches above the ground with long, narrow, ribbed, green leaves, and white or yellowish-green flowers. The important active components of the ginger root are thought to be volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds. They are called — as you already know — gingerols and also shogaols.
Ginger products are made from fresh, or dried, ginger root. It is also made from steam distillation of the oil in the root. The herb is available as extract, tincture, oil, and capsule. Fresh ginger root can also be purchased and prepared as tea. Besides, ginger is found in a variety of foods and drinks, including ginger bread, ginger snaps, ginger sticks, ginger pickle, and ginger ale.
Ginger is no less a top prescription paradigm in the treatment of queasiness, or vomiting, associated with travel sickness and the morning gastric pangs of early pregnancy. Most important: ginger is today used as a chemotherapeutic agent in some forms of cancer, with benefit, though controlled clinical studies have been relatively few and not all-encompassing.
Ginger’s health benefits, in a nutshell, are as follows: it reduces inflammation/pain/infection; it helps in healthy digestion; it provides over 150 times the protein digesting power of papaya; and, it eases digestion. Ginger also has over 15 anti-aging constituents that ‘stupefy’ free radicals. It augments blood platelet health and heart function; it also enhances natural resistance for cold and flu. Besides, ginger has over 20 constituents that impede inflammatory processes, promote prostate health and also increase the absorption and utilisation of other nutrients and herbs extensively.
Studies suggest that ginger may be more effective than placebo in reducing the ‘green about the gills’ symptoms of seasickness. In one study, a group of rookie sailors, found susceptible to motion sickness, were given powdered ginger. They experienced a significant reduction in vomiting and sweating compared to individuals who took placebo. The results were found to be identical in a study conducted on healthy volunteers.
While research agrees that such results hold promise, some studies have indicated that ginger may not be as effective as conventional medications in reducing symptoms associated with travel sickness. A group of volunteers were given ginger — fresh root powder — and, scopolamine, a conventional medication commonly prescribed for motion sickness, or placebo. Those receiving the medication experienced appreciably fewer symptoms in comparison to volunteers who were given ginger. However, the fact remains — given the known safety profile of ginger, most people consider it a better and also a much more dependable option for motion sickness.
Studies have found that ginger is more effective than placebo in easing the symptoms of nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy. In one comparatively small study, a handful of pregnant women with severe vomiting, who were given one gram of ginger every day for four days, reported better relief from vomiting than the placebo group. In a large study on pregnant women with nausea and vomiting, the report was identical. There was no tangible improvement in the placebo group.
Clinical studies also report that a gram of ginger root, given to patients before surgery, reduced nausea as effectively as conventional medications. This was more perceptible in women who received ginger. They required fewer nausea-relieving medications following surgery.
While it would be too much bravado to give the total thumbs-up sign for ginger in the treatment of heart conditions, it would be comforting to record that a handful of studies have found ginger to be a useful therapeutic agent for lowering cholesterol levels and preventing the formation of blood clots. Blood clots, as you know, can slow down, or stop, blood flow in the arteries. This is good news on the CAM front, because ginger could have a potential role to play in protecting the blood vessels from blockage and its damaging effects, such as atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack, or stroke.
While medicinal doses for adults are often calculated on the basis of the 150 lb [70 kg] adult-weight register, most CAM physicians recommend a ginger intake of two [maximum = four] gram per day. This, of course, includes ginger obtained through diet such as ginger ale, ginger snaps, and ginger bread. Here goes — for arthritis, one could take fresh ginger juice, extract, or tea; 2-4 gm daily. One may rub ginger oil on the painful joint too; or, place the fresh root in a warm poultice, or compress, and apply to painful areas. For nausea and digestive affections: 2-4 gm of fresh root daily [0.25-1 gm of powdered root]. In tincture form: 30-90 drops, in some water, daily. For vomiting: one gm, or half-teaspoonful of powdered ginger, every four hours, or as needed. In chewable form, ¼ oz of fresh ginger. For cold and flu, sore throat, headache, and menstrual pain: place a drop of ginger oil and/or few portions of fresh rhizome — especially for mouth ulcers — in steaming water and inhale 2-3 times daily. Or, take one ginger capsule, 500 mg, twice daily, as a food supplement.
While it must be remembered that the use of herbs, such as ginger, is a long-established medicinal approach to treating illness and for maintaining health, or optimal well-being, it should be emphasised that herbs contain certain active substances that may lead to some side-effects — though they are infrequent — in some individuals. Besides, a few herbs may also interact with other herbs, supplements, or conventional medications. It is, therefore, advisable that herbs should be taken with care — preferably, under the supervision of an integrative or CAM physician, having adequate knowledge of their action profiles.
Ginger should not be used in children under two years of age. For children over two years of age, it may be used to treat nausea, colic, and headaches. It would, nonetheless, be advisable to adjust the recommended adult dose to account for the child’s weight. In other words, if the child weighs 50 lb [20-25 kg], the appropriate dose would be 1/3 of the adult dosage.
Most drug committees have given ginger the classification of a relatively safe herb — primarily because side-effects associated with ginger are uncommon. However, it must be remembered that ginger in excessive doses may cause mild heartburn. All the same, it is advisable to avoid ginger during pregnancy, except under medical supervision. Besides, gallstones patients should not take ginger without consulting their physician, or therapist. One should also avoid ginger if one is taking any of the following medications and/or consult their healthcare provider — blood-thinning drugs, such as warfarin, or cyclophosphamide, the anti-cancer medication.
Research suggests that the action of conventional drugs that treat pain and inflammation is ‘mirrored’ by a number of natural or other compounds. Ginger, for example, has traditionally been used to treat pain and inflammation. Constituents of ginger — 10-gingerol, 6-shogaol and 8-paradol — have been shown to have natural and potent inhibitory effects on inflammation in clinical studies. In one randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on a large group of patients with OA, researchers tested a proprietary ginger extract combined with another proprietary extract of Alpinia galanga [Siamese ginger], a member of the ginger family. The two extracts resulted in good pain reduction. What stands out on the ginger therapeutic canvas is studies have consistently shown that the herb reduces prostaglandins, which sensitise pain receptors at the nerve endings [nociceptors], by up to 58 per cent. In addition, ginger contains melatonin — the regulatory hormone, similar to serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone — which also has strong anti-inflammatory effects, not to speak of being a handy remedy in treating jet-lag.
The inference is therapeutically obvious. When you think of ‘gingerly’ cures, you have the wholesome medicinal qualities of ginger in all their healing resplendence.