What’s the skinny on ginger?

By Sonja Lien, MD May 16, 2016

Try ginger tea for nausea, heartburn or vomiting.

The handy ginger plant produces a rhizome (a special kind of root) that has been used for medicinal purposes in Asia since a few millennia ago. Nowadays, ground ginger (Zingiber officinale) can be found in most of our kitchen cupboards, most often used now for flavor in our cooking. However, there’s a reason our mothers suggested ginger ale when our tummies were upset, and that it is used as a component of so many healthy or healing recipes across different healing traditions.

Nausea is probably the best known ailment that can be treated with ginger, but there are others, too. The compounds in ginger that help with nausea, gingerols, can also help with arthritis and pain. When ginger is dried, it forms compounds called shogaols which can also give you a nice boost in these same areas. While the use of ginger for nausea is unlikely to come as news to many of you, you may have been surprised to read above that ginger can have anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects. This is not so surprising when one takes into account the fact that another member of Zingiberaceae family, turmeric, which has the active compound curcumin in it, to have some similar effects. It appears as though ginger has been shown to reduce prostaglandins, which are compounds in the body that produce inflammation, and it also aids in digestion by increasing the activity of the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines) while reducing stomach cramps.

There are now numerous studies showing its positive effects on nausea in pregnancy (although almost any mother who has battled morning sickness can tell you this firsthand), and even some studies by the U.S. military have shown good-quality ginger powder helps their soldiers find their sea-legs more quickly. There has also been good research showing ginger can help a person tolerate chemo.

Plus, as a nice added bonus nature threw in, a study published this last December showed that in obese women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, ginger was able to lower the levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. This small study took women and looked at the effects over six weeks of water exercise, ginger, or a combination versus placebo. All non-placebo groups had lowering of inflammatory markers, but the combination of ginger and water exercise was the best. Why do we care about this result? Links between obesity, inflammation, and cancer have been known to exist for years. Lower inflammation tends to lead to better overall health, and is associated with less risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Putting the body at less risk of other chronic disease and in good overall health leads to better ability to fight cancer.

While many of the research outcomes show benefit, some do not. It appears that the discrepancies seen are likely to be related to a combination of small studies and trouble getting quality ginger supplements. So, I’d suggest that anyone out there using ginger consider getting fresh ginger and using it that way so as to have better control of quality. When choosing ginger, choose ginger rhizomes that seems firm or more on the hard end of the spectrum. It should have a strong aroma of ginger and the skin ideally should be unwrinkled. It can be stored unpeeled in a sealed zip-top bag for up to 8 weeks in a crisper drawer and stay firm.

The safety of ginger is fairly well established. At very high intake, you may experience stomach irritation, but keep it to a few cups of tea, a few ginger chews, or a few slices of raw ginger each day to start. The best way to find a level that works for you is to simply try it in small amounts to begin with, and increase as needed and as you tolerate it. Those with bleeding tendencies or low platelet counts should be careful to not have too much as it can thin the blood, and people on blood thinners planning to use it as a supplement also need to use this with caution under the guidance of a physician, so they can test their blood clotting ability more often.

There is no shortage of recipes for ginger, and you can find anything from making your own ginger chew to tea to beer to salad dressing, so have fun experimenting. To get you started, though, here’s a favorite of mine:

Ginger tea:
Grate 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger in to a tea ball, brew basket, or tea bag, or other method of steeping. Pour boiling water over the ginger (cover the mug to help retain the heat if able) and leave sit for 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can add the ginger to the boiling water and continue to simmer it for 15 minutes, straining at the end. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. If needed, add honey as desired for taste. Drink a cup as needed for nausea, heartburn, or vomiting up to four times a day to start.

Tip: If you are using it for vomiting, let your stomach settle for about 30 minutes after vomiting. Then sip a cup slowly over the course of about 30 minutes.

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