Ginger is one of the ancient, revered medicines of India and Asia. The list of conditions for which it is used is so long that it might prompt skepticism. How can one herb affect so many seemingly different diseases? Here's how this alternative medicine works:
Ginger's ability to combat a variety of diseases and conditions is due in part to its impact on excessive inflammation, which is a significant underlying cause of many illnesses. Inflammation is the body's natural healing response to illness or injury, and its pain, redness, heat, and swelling are attempts to keep you from moving a damaged area while it is being repaired. Inflammation subsides as the body heals. However, in some conditions, including arthritis, diverticulosis, gallbladder inflammation, and heart disease, the inflammation does not go away. It becomes chronic and leads to many other problems.
Ginger is particularly useful in treating chronic inflammation because it partially inhibits two important enzymes that play a role in inflammation gone awry -- cyclooxygenase (COX) and 5-lipoxygenase (LOX).
While anti-inflammatory drugs block COX more strongly, they don't affect LOX at all and therefore only address part of the problem. Even worse, anti-inflammatory drugs can cause side effects, such as ulcers, because they also block the beneficial effects that COX has on the digestive tract, including protecting the stomach.
Ginger does not cause stomach irritation; instead it helps protect and heal the gut. Ginger also treats a broader range of the inflammatory problem because it affects both the COX and the LOX enzymes. And because it doesn't shut down the inflammatory process entirely, ginger may actually allow it to work properly and then turn itself off, the way it does with an injury.
Besides reducing inflammation, ginger has many other benefits. It helps relieve nausea, destroys a host of viruses, and in some laboratory studies has shown promise as an anticancer agent.
Ginger Induces Cell Death in Ovarian Cancer Cells
Lab experiments presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer, by Dr Rebecca Lui and her colleagues from the University of Michigan, showed that gingerols, the active phytonutrients in ginger, kill ovarian cancer cells by inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) and autophagocytosis (self-digestion).
Ginger extracts have been shown to have both antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects on cells. To investigate the latter, Dr Liu examined the effect of a whole ginger extract containing 5% gingerol on a number of different ovarian cancer cell lines.
Exposure to the ginger extract caused cell death in all the ovarian cancer lines studied.
A pro-inflammatory state is thought to be an important contributing factor in the development of ovarian cancer. In the presence of ginger, a number of key indicators of inflammation (vascular endothelial growth factor, interleukin-8 and prostaglandin E2) were also decreased in the ovarian cancer cells.
Conventional chemotherapeutic agents also suppress these inflammatory markers, but may cause cancer cells to become resistant to the action of the drugs. Liu and her colleagues believe that ginger may be of special benefit for ovarian cancer patients because cancer cells exposed to ginger do not become resistant to its cancer-destroying effects. In the case of ovarian cancer, an ounce of prevention—in the delicious form of liberal use of ginger—is an especially good idea. Ovarian cancer is often deadly since symptoms typically do not appear until late in the disease process, so by the time ovarian cancer is diagnosed, it has spread beyond the ovaries. More than 50% of women who develop ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease.
Immune Boosting Action
Ginger can not only be warming on a cold day, but can help promote healthy sweating, which is often helpful during colds and flus. A good sweat may do a lot more than simply assist detoxification. German researchers have recently found that sweat contains a potent germ-fighting agent that may help fight off infections. Investigators have isolated the gene responsible for the compound and the protein it produces, which they have named dermicidin. Dermicidin is manufactured in the body's sweat glands, secreted into the sweat, and transported to the skin's surface where it provides protection against invading microorganisms, including bacteria such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus (a common cause of skin infections), and fungi, including Candida albicans.
Ginger is so concentrated with active substances, you don't have to use very much to receive its beneficial effects. 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 relief consuming as little as a 1/4-inch slice of fresh ginger cooked in food, although in the studies noted above, patients who consumed more ginger reported quicker and better relief.
A clue to ginger's success in eliminating gastrointestinal distress is offered by recent double-blind studies, which have demonstrated that ginger is very effective in preventing the symptoms of motion sickness, especially seasickness. In fact, in one study, ginger was shown to be far superior to Dramamine, a commonly used over-the-counter and prescription drug for motion sickness. Ginger reduces all symptoms associated with motion sickness including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and cold sweating.
Safe and Effective Relief of Nausea and Vomiting During Pregnancy
Ginger's anti-vomiting action has been shown to be very useful in reducing the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy, even the most severe form,hyperemesis gravidum, a condition which usually requires hospitalization. In a double-blind trial, ginger root brought about a significant reduction in both the severity of nausea and number of attacks of vomiting in 19 of 27 women in early pregnancy (less than 20 weeks). Unlike antivomiting drugs, which can cause severe birth defects, ginger is extremely safe, and only a small dose is required.
A review of six double-blind, randomized controlled trials with a total of 675 participants, published in the April 2005 issue of the journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology,has confirmed that ginger is effective in relieving the severity of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. The review also confirmed the absence of significant side effects or adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes.
Anti-Inflammatory EffectsGinger contains very potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols. These substances are believed to explain why so many people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis experience reductions in their pain levels and improvements in their mobility when they consume ginger regularly. In two clinical studies involving patients who responded to conventional drugs and those who didn't, physicians found that 75% of arthritis patients and 100% of patients with muscular discomfort experienced relief of pain and/or swelling.
Arthritis-related problems with your aging knees? Regularly spicing up your meals with fresh ginger may help, suggests a study published in a recent issue of Osteoarthritis Cartilage. In this twelve month study, 29 patients with painful arthritis in the knee (6 men and 23 women ranging in age from 42-85 years) participated in a placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study. Patients switched from placebo to ginger or visa versa after 3 months. After six months, the double-blind code was broken and twenty of the patients who wished to continue were followed for an additional six months.
By the end of the first six month period, those given ginger were experiencing significantly less pain on movement and handicap than those given placebo. Pain on movement decreased from a score of 76.14 at baseline to 41.00, while handicap decreased from 73.47 to 46.08. In contrast, those who were switched from ginger to placebo experienced an increase in pain of movement (up to 82.10) and handicap (up to 80.80) from baseline. In the final phase of the study when all patients were getting ginger, pain remained low in those already taking ginger in phase 2, and decreased again in the group that had been on placebo.
Not only did participants' subjective experiences of pain lessen, but swelling in their knees, an objective measurement of lessened inflammation, dropped significantly in those treated with ginger. The mean target knee circumference in those taking ginger dropped from 43.25cm when the study began to 39.36cm by the 12th week. When this group was switched to placebo in the second phase of the study, their knee circumferences increased, while those who had been on placebo but were now switched to ginger experienced a decrease in knee circumference. In the final phase, when both groups were given ginger, mean knee circumference continued to drop, reaching lows of 38.78 and 36.38 in the two groups.
How does ginger work its anti-inflammatory magic? Two other recent studies provide possible reasons.
A study published in the November 2003 issue of Life Sciences suggests that at least one reason for ginger's beneficial effects is the free radical protection afforded by one of its active phenolic constituents, 6-gingerol. In this in vitro (test tube) study, 6-gingerol was shown to significantly inhibit the production of nitric oxide, a highly reactive nitrogen molecule that quickly forms a very damaging free radical called peroxynitrite. Another study appearing in the November 2003 issue of Radiation Research found that in mice, five days treatment with ginger (10 mg per kilogram of body weight) prior to exposure to radiation not only prevented an increase in free radical damage to lipids (fats found in numerous bodily components from cell membranes to cholesterol), but also greatly lessened depletion of the animals' stores of glutathione, one of the body's most important internally produced antioxidants.
A study published in the February 2005 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine sheds further light on the mechanisms of action that underlie ginger's anti-inflammatory effectiveness. In this research, ginger was shown to suppress the pro-inflammatory compounds (cytokines and chemokines) produced by synoviocytes (cells comprising the synovial lining of the joints), chrondrocytes (cells comprising joint cartilage) and leukocytes (immune cells).
Protection against Colorectal CancerGingerols, the main active components in ginger and the ones responsible for its distinctive flavor, may also inhibit the growth of human colorectal cancer cells, suggests research presented at the Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research, a major meeting of cancer experts that took place in Phoenix, AZ, October 26-30, 2003.
In this study, researchers from the University of Minnesota's Hormel Institute fed mice specially bred to lack an immune system a half milligram of (6)-gingerol three times a week before and after injecting human colorectal cancer cells into their flanks. Control mice received no (6)-gingerol.
Tumors first appeared 15 days after the mice were injected, but only 4 tumors were found in the group of -gingerol-treated mice compared to 13 in the control mice, plus the tumors in the -gingerol group were smaller on average. Even by day 38, one mouse in the (6)-gingerol group still had no measurable tumors. By day 49, all the control mice had been euthanized since their tumors had grown to one cubic centimeter (0.06 cubic inch), while tumors in 12 of the (6)-gingerol treated mice still averaged 0.5 cubic centimeter—half the maximum tumor size allowed before euthanization.
Research associate professor Ann Bode noted, "These results strongly suggest that ginger compounds may be effective chemopreventive and/or chemotherapeutic agents for colorectal carcinomas."
In this first round of experiments, mice were fed ginger before and after tumor cells were injected. In the next round, researchers will feed the mice ginger only after their tumors have grown to a certain size. This will enable them to look at the question of whether a patient could eat ginger to slow the metastasis of a nonoperable tumor. Are they optimistic? The actions of the University of Minnesota strongly suggest they are. The University has already applied for a patent on the use of (6)-gingerol as an anti-cancer agent and has licensed the technology to Pediatric Pharmaceuticals (Iselin, N.J.).
Preparation and Dosage
The part of ginger we use is not a root, as one might guess from the way it looks. It's actually the rhizome, or underground stem. The spicy, aromatic compounds in the rhizome that impart the medicinal activity to ginger are relatively susceptible to heat and oxygen, so tread gingerly when making medicine from this herb.
To make a tea, cut a two-inch cube of rhizome into slices and simmer them in one cup of water on low heat for 10 minutes. Cover the pot while cooking to retain as many volatile constituents as possible. Remove the slices, and sip the remaining liquid before a meal. Eat the slices after drinking the tea. Drink three cups of tea per day, one before each meal.
Ginger capsules or powder are also widely available. Take at least 2,000 milligrams three times or more per day with or without food. Just be sure to use powder that has not been sitting around too long, as it can lose its potency.
People often make the mistake of taking too little ginger and thus don't gain the full benefits.
Tips for Cooking Ginger
To remove the skin from fresh mature ginger, peel with a paring knife. The ginger can then be sliced, minced or julienned. The taste that ginger imparts to a dish depends upon when it is added during the cooking process. Added at the beginning, it will lend a subtler flavor while added near the end, it will deliver a more pungent taste.
Store fresh ginger rhizomes in a cool, dark, dry place. Do not keep them in the refrigerator, even after cutting them, or they will shrivel up. Use within 2 to 3 weeks for optimal effects. Capsules or powder should be kept away from heat and light.