Getting to The Root of Ginger's Health Benefits
Excerpts from “Ginger: Spice Up Your Health,” by Barbra Wexler, MPH.
While it’s beloved for its culinary diversity, as it’s used in cookies, curries, soups, cakes, and more, ginger is even more versatile that you may think. Beyond cooking and baking, ginger is full of nutritional value that can help spice up your health routine.
Researchers find ginger to have a host of health benefits. Ginger has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, anticarcinogenic, antifungal and antiemetic properties, just to name a few. Currently, investigators funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are researching the safety and efficacy of ginger on inflammation and nausea in chemotherapy patients, as well as interactions between ginger and prescription drugs.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) state that the maximum recommended daily dose of ginger for adults (age 18 and older) is 4 grams and that “ginger powder, tablets, or capsules or freshly cut ginger can be used in doses of 1 to 5 grams daily, by mouth, divided into smaller doses.” The NIH/NLM Web site also suggests that heartburn or mild upset stomach, symptoms infrequently caused by fresh or dried ginger root, may be reduced by taking ginger capsules rather than powder.
Ultimately, ginger is widely recognized as safe to consume. It is on the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, and the British Herbal Compendium does not report any adverse health effects associated with ginger.
As metal ages, it often rusts—oxygen attaches to iron to form oxide compounds that weaken and corrode the original structure. A similar process takes place inside the body. Oxygen can strip electrons from other molecules, creating unstable ions known as free radicals or oxidants. Stress, illness, poor nutrition and environmental toxins can also create additional free radicals.
As we age, tissues and cells become more susceptible to free radicals and its harms. While oxidative stress is not itself a disease, high levels of unresolved oxidative stress can weaken the body and contribute to the development of chronic and degenerative disease. Oxidative stress is implicated as a contributing factor in more than 30 different disorders—from heart disease and stroke to Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Fortunately, the body can protect itself from free radicals with antioxidants. Commonly found in fruits, vegetables and spices, antioxidants are chemical scavengers that bind to free radicals and neutralize them. Unfortunately, even health-conscious Americans often fail to obtain the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables in their diets.
Luckily, ginger is a potent antioxidant and adds more to the diet than just flavor. Several animal studies have revealed that ginger protects against free radicals. According to one study, published in the July 2008 issue of Phytotherapy Research, researchers from the University of Delhi in India found that zingerone (a component of ginger) is especially effective against peroxynitrite, an oxidant that is involved in the development of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and atherosclerosis. A diet containing naturally occurring antioxidant compounds, such as those in ginger, may effectively modulate oxidative stress.
Inflammation is an immune system response to infection, irritation or injury. It is a healthy first response to infection and injury; however, inflammation that becomes chronic can push the immune system into a prolonged state of high alert.
Inflammation also is involved in a variety of diseases such as allergies, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and some forms of cancer.
Scientific studies offer strong support for ginger’s anti-inflammatory actions, which have been appreciated for centuries. About 30 years ago, Taiwanese researchers at the Tzu Hui Institute of Technology identified gingerol as the chemical responsible for many of ginger’s anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-killer) effects.
Ginger shares many qualities with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen because it may decrease the formation of prostaglandins. Unlike NSAIDs, however, ginger also inhibits the formation of leukotrienes, hormone-like substances involved in inflammation.
Researchers have also investigated the topical use of ginger to reduce temporary inflammation. In the 2007 issue of Planta Medica, a team of Italian researchers suggests that topical applications of ginger—dry or in medicated plasters or creams—may have anti-inflammatory activity, reducing temporary swelling and relieving discomfort.
Several clinical trials have tested the effects of ginger’s anti-inflammatory qualities on arthritis, and the results have been mixed. Two researchers from the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Miami reported that ginger extract significantly reduced symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee. However, a study conducted by researchers at Frederiksberg Hospital in Denmark produced less positive results, reporting initial—but not long-term—improvement in symptoms. Although many patients in these trials experienced modest symptom relief, the authors of an article in the January 2008 issue of American Family Physician write that there is not yet enough evidence to support the widespread recommendation and use of ginger for the treatment of osteoarthritis.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is second only to all cancers combined in terms of death rate and years of potential life lost. Cardiovascular disease refers to conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels, including coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, rheumatic heart disease, stroke and congenital heart defects.
There is increasing interest in ginger’s potential to support the body in the fight against cardiovascular disease. Recent laboratory and animal studies show that ginger not only has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity but also exerts anti-platelet, hypotensive (blood pressure–lowering) and hypolipidemic (lipid-lowering) effects.
Anti-platelet activity is important for heart health because platelets—small blood cells involved in normal and abnormal blood clotting—can clump together and form clots, which can obstruct blood vessels. Many physicians advise that patients at risk for heart disease take a daily dose of aspirin because of its anti-platelet action. Only a few human clinical trials have tested ginger’s anti-platelet activity. Most tests that used a low dose produced inconclusive results; however, ginger doses of 5 grams or more demonstrated significant anti-platelet activity.
Ginger may also lower blood pressure and reduce heart palpitations. In the October 2005 issue of Vascular Pharmacology, Pakistani investigators posit that it does this in two ways—by blocking calcium channels and by stimulating the transmission of nerve impulses. The results of a study published in the February 2005 issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggest that ginger also offers other cardioprotective benefits, lowering serum cholesterol and triglycerides and supporting healthy blood sugar levels.
In the May 2000 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, researchers in Israel reported that mice that consumed ginger extract had fewer atherosclerotic lesions, helping to regulate LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and reduced susceptibility to oxidation. Increased plasma LDL levels and LDL oxidation are among the risk factors for coronary artery disease.
Many investigators suggest that ginger has potential as a cheaper, natural alternative to conventional blood pressure medications and lipid-lowering drugs, and one with fewer side effects, too.
Natural Relief from Nausea and Motion Sickness
During pregnancy, nausea and vomiting plague many expectant mothers. Concern about the use of drugs during pregnancy and their potential to harm unborn children has inspired interest in safe, natural alternatives to the antiemetic drugs commonly used to treat nausea and vomiting.
Ginger has a long history of relieving pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting, and a study published in the April 2001 issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology confirmed ginger’s safety and efficacy. In the February 2008 issue of Midwifery, Iranian researchers reported ginger to be more effective than vitamin B6, which has traditionally been prescribed to help nauseous expectant mothers. And unlike medications often used to control the most severe nausea and vomiting associated with pregnancy, none of the studies observed any adverse side effects attributable to ginger.
Among its many properties, ginger has antibacterial and antifungal actions. In August 2007, Molecules published a study in which researchers compared the antibacterial action of the Zingiberaceae species of five essential oils—ginger, galanga, turmeric, kaempferia, and bastard cardamom against E. coli and other bacteria. The researchers found that ginger oil had the highest antibacterial efficiency.
Researchers in London found that ginger had antibacterial action against Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which has been implicated in infections of the gastrointestinal tract as well as some cancers.
In Ayurvedic medicine, ginger is prescribed to “ignite the digestive fire.” Anecdotal reports suggest that ginger may help people reach healthy weight goals by increasing the pH of the stomach, which in turn slows the rate of gastric secretions and increases digestive enzyme activity. Ginger also helps to maintain a normal rate of stomach emptying. Ginger consumption is purported to reduce food cravings and kick start metabolism by increasing circulation—particularly circulation in the gastrointestinal tract—thereby enabling healthy weight loss.
Some research suggests that ginger may also aid weight loss by inhibiting intestinal absorption of dietary fat. An animal study conducted at Louisiana State University found that NT reduced weight gain in animals fed a high-fat diet, further supporting the claim.
In the October 2006 issue of British Medical Journal, researchers from Kuwait reported that ginger reduced body weight and blood sugar in diabetic animals while also reducing their cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The investigators concluded that “ginger may be of great value in managing the effects of diabetic complications in human subjects.”
Overall, while ginger is most widely known for its ability to spice up your favorite foods, it also has the power to spice up your health and wellness habits. By incorporating ginger into your favorite recipes, you can soak up the numerous benefits that come from this unique Asian root.
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