Ginger (Zingiber officinale) belongs to the Zingiberaceae plant family, which also includes turmeric and cardamom. Ginger comes from the Sanskrit word ‘‘hornroot.’’ It grows in Jamaica, India, Haiti, Hawaii, and Nigeria. This perennial plant grows 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m) tall. It has thin, sharp leaves 6-12 in (15-30 cm) long. The tangled, beige root is used medicinally, and can be 1-6 in (2.5-15 cm) in length. The root has a sharp, pungent taste and aroma.
Ginger contains several chemical components as outlined by Michael Murray, N.D. in The Healing Power of Herbs:
- starch (50%)
- protein (9%)
- lipids (including glycerides, phosphatidic acid, lecithins, and fatty acids; 6-8%)
- protease (2.26%)
- volatile oils (including gingerol, shogoal, zingiberene, and zingiberol; 1-3%)
- pungent principles
- vitamins A and B3 (niacin)
The pungent principles (including the volatile oil gingerol) are the most medicinally potent because they inhibit prostaglandin and leukotriene formations (products in the body that influence blood flow and inflammation). They also give ginger its pungent aroma.
Historically, ginger has been used to aid digestion. According to Michael Castleman in The Healing Herbs, ancient Greeks wrapped ginger inside their bread and ate it as an after-dinner digestive. This practice led to their invention of gingerbread. English society concocted ginger beer to soothe the stomach.
In the 1800s, the Eclectics used ginger powder and tea for several digestive complaints, including indigestion, gas, nausea, and infant diarrhea.
Beginning in the 1980s, several studies have shown that ginger is useful in aiding digestion. A 1999 German study reported the results from 12 volunteers who took 100 mg twice daily of ginger extract when fasting and then with a meal. In both instances, ginger was linked to increased digestive movement through the stomach and duodenum.
A study in India published in 2000 reported the effects of ginger (in combination with other spices including cumin, fenugreek, and mustard) on pancreatic action in rats. During the eight-week study, the combination of spices in more than a single dose stimulated several digestive enzymes in the pancreas.
The Japanese use ginger as an antidote for fish poisoning, especially with sushi. Ginger is thought to fight harmful intestinal bacteria (like E. coli, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus) without killing beneficial bacteria. Ginger aids Lactobacillus growth in the intestines while killing the Schistosoma and Anisakis parasites.
Because ginger is an antibacterial, it can work against ulcers caused by Helicobacter pylori. Ginger creates an anti-ulcer environment by multiplying the stomach’s protective components. Ginger’s anti-inflammatory abilities have also been shown to help reduce hip
and knee pain in some osteoarthritis patients.
According to a 1998 report that reviewed the results from 10 clinical studies, ginger also helps to suppress the nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy. However, a 2002 conference presentation cautions family physicians to reconsider recommending ginger to their pregnant patients because of the possibility for miscarriage.
Ginger lowers cholesterol levels by impairing cholesterol absorption, helping it convert to bile acids and then increasing bile elimination. In a 1998 study, rabbits were fed both cholesterol and 200 mg of ginger extract. The rabbits had a smaller amount of atherosclerosis. Ginger also enhances blood circulation and acts as a blood thinner.
Coughs can be relieved by drinking ginger tea made from dried or powdered ginger. It is ginger’s pungent taste that releases secretions to help throat congestion.
Preliminary studies also show ginger may have potential cancer-fighting properties. No definitive results have been reported and research continues.
Ginger is used in teas, ginger ale, ginger beer, capsules, broths, and as a spice when cooking Asian and Jamaican dishes. Ginger tea for coughs, nausea, digestion, and arthritis can be made by adding 2 tsp (10 ml) of freshly grated root or powdered root to 1 cup (250 ml) of boiling water and steeping for 10 minutes. A cup of the ginger tea, while still warm, should be sipped every 2-2.5 hours.
A compress for arthritic pain can be made by grating an unpeeled ginger root in a clockwise direction, then tying it in a moistened muslin cloth, dropping it in a pot of boiling water, and letting it simmer.
When the broth is removed from the stove, a cotton cloth is dipped into the broth and the excess moisture squeezed into the pot. While lying flat on the back, the person places the cloth on the aching body part. The broth can also be added to the bath for soaking.
Ginger comes in 250-500 mg capsules of dried ginger root. One to 2 grams of dry powered ginger equals about 1/3 oz of fresh ginger (10 g). A cup of ginger tea contains 250 mg; an 8 oz glass of ginger ale contains 1,000 mg, and a spiced dish contains 500 mg.
To prevent motion sickness, German health authorities recommend 2-4 g of powdered ginger daily. Another recommended dose is 250 mg four to six times a day.
To bring more blood circulation to arthritic joints, one to two capsules (250 mg each) per day are recommended initially. If results are good, the amount can be increased to six per day, taken between meals.
Ginger can be taken with onions and garlic. These agents work in harmony to stimulate the pancreas and decrease cholesterol.
As a blood thinner, two 250 mg capsules of ginger can be taken between meals up to three times a day.
Despite studies showing ginger’s aid for pregnancy nausea, the German Commission E has recommended that pregnant women not use ginger. Some studies indicate that high amounts of ginger might cause miscarriages. Researchers cannot follow up their suspicions with human clinical trials because of the danger posed to unborn fetuses. Dosages over 6 g could cause gastric problems and possibly ulcers. Ginger may slow down blood clotting time. Before taking ginger, consumers should check dosages with a healthcare provider.
Consumers should not ingest the whole ginger plant; it has been found to damage the liver in animals.
Ginger root is not recommended for people with gallstones.