Ginger: The Festive Spice Worth Looking At Twice

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Ginger not only adds a warm, zesty kick to many dishes, but has many health-promoting properties. Note, this is not to encourage you to eat a gingerbread housing estate this Christmas. But modern science does provide support for several health claims. 

Key Points:

  1. Ginger contains over 100 important micronutrients and biologically active compounds
  2. It has a diverse range of uses in traditional medicine practices throughout the world
  3. There is good evidence that it can relieve nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, and maybe other circumstances. It may also have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic value and potentially have a role in the prevention and/or management of some cancers and metabolic syndrome. More research is required.
  4. Mild side effects such as heartburn have so far been reported with daily consumption of 500-2000mg.

Nutritional value of ginger

The ginger root is a nutritional treasure trove, It contains over 100 important biologically active compounds including iron, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C. It is a good source of various polyphenols including flavonoids, gingerols, gingerdiols, paradols, shogaols, zingiberenes and zingerones. These have potent antioxidant properties. It also provides terpenes and sesquiterpenes, other phytochemicals with a wide variety of physiological properties. 

Benefits of ginger

Ginger has long been used in traditional medicine throughout Europe, India, Asia and the Middle East. The list of traditional applications is almost endless: including arthritis, stomach complaints, asthma, diabetes, cramps, pain, cold symptoms, and menstrual irregularities. It is so popular that approximately half of all Chinese herbal medicines include it. 

But… what does modern science say? Let’s take a closer look

Ginger as antioxidant

The polyphenols (particularly gingerol) are potent antioxidants within ginger. Cell culture studies provide supportive evidence of this. However, we have not yet seen whether these antioxidants remain bioavailable once consumed, or whether they actually reduce oxidative stress in the whole human body.

Anti-inflammatory effects

The antioxidant compounds are also thought to give ginger anti-inflammatory properties. While some evidence is suggestive of this, the results between studies is inconsistent. In addition, design differences between studies make comparison of results- and therefore strong conclusions- difficult. Larger studies with standardised protocols are needed.

Ginger and gastrointestinal health 

The most scientifically proven benefit is relief from nausea and vomiting. More randomised controlled trials have been conducted in this area than any other. A 2020 systematic review showed improvements in all 10 randomised controlled studies examining nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. This same review revealed, however, that additional well-designed clinical studies are required to examine the effect on the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and post-operatively. We also need to examine its value in motion sickness. 

In addition, in instances ginger has been seen to stimulate the digestive system’s activity (i.e. increase motility), reducing abnormal rhythms and reducing the time it takes for the stomach to empty. However, inconsistency in the assessment protocols used between studies means we cannot make sweeping statements.

Ginger and (different forms of) pain

Some studies suggest ginger can offer relief to various types of pain, but a more comprehensive body of evidence is required. If it does have analgesic effects, one school of thought is that this may be related to gingerol’s ability to inhibit the pro-inflammatory enzymes cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase. 

For example, eating ginger may help reduce menstrual pain. However, overall, the studies examining this are of poor quality.

Ginger and metabolic syndrome 

Systemic reviews suggest ginger may be beneficial by improving cholesterol, glucose control and insulin sensitivity, and obesity-related cardiovascular risk factors. Animal and cell culture studies also suggest ginger can reduce platelet aggregation and blood pressure. However, available clinical studies have examined less than 50 people. Higher quality evidence is required including clinical trials.

Controversy alert: ginger and cancer 

Because of the antioxidant content, some quarters consider ginger extracts to have cancer-preventative effects. This is jumping the gun even taking into account a small number of positive studies (see below). Putting treatment hopes in ginger would be even more reckless.

A 2020 systemic review found only four randomised controlled trials examining the effect of ginger on colorectal cancer.  They indicated that 1-2g of ginger per day reduced colorectal cancer-related risk factors such as inflammation, cell proliferation, differentiation, and apoptosis. These are all promising results, however there was no evidence explicitly related to the impact of ginger on incidence or patient survival. Note that though the body of evidence is small, further trials are warranted because the studies were of high quality. 

If, in time, ginger were to prove useful in colorectal cancer, this does NOT mean it’d be equally useful in other cancers.

Other benefits 

There is some data suggesting ginger may have antimicrobial effects- but there’s no evidence it’s of practical use. Animal studies suggest it may also reduce fever and have cardiotonic effects (improve the contraction of heart muscle).

What if you eat too much?

Only 17 of 109 trials examined In a 2020 systemic review provided information on adverse responses. It cannot be said whether this is because the others had no adverse responses or they simply weren’t recorded. 

The side effects that were recorded were mild, with heartburn being the most common. It was experienced by some people consuming between 500 and 2000mg of ginger per day. 

The Verdict

Ginger may have many of the uses it has been reputed for in traditional medicines. The nature of modern science means we’re sluggish to ‘prove’ or disprove these. There is good evidence that it can assist in relieving nausea and vomiting during pregnancy (if not at other times), and mixed evidence regarding its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, metabolic, anti-cancer and other effects. Regardless of these, it is a nutritional powerhouse and would be worth including some in some of your meals. We do not yet know what are optimal dosages for any given (potential) benefit. However, in the short term it appears safe at 500-2000mg per day, besides mild problems such as heartburn occasionally arising. 

What's your favourite way to use ginger?

References

Anh, N.H., Kim, S.J., Long, N.P., et al. (2020). Ginger on Human Health: A Comprehensive Systematic Review of 109 Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients 12, 157. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010157.

Buckle, J. (2015). Clinical Aromatherapy (Third Edition). https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/sesquiterpenes. Accessed 20/12/20 

Mascolo,  N., Jain, R, Jain, S.C.., and Capasso, F. (1989). Ethnopharmacologic investigation of ginger (Zingiber officinale). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 27(1–2):129-140 https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-8741(89)90085-8

Shahrajabian, M.H., Sun, W., and Cheng, Q. (2019). Clinical aspects and health benefits of ginger (Zingiber officinale) in both traditional Chinese medicine and modern industry. 

Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, Section B — Soil & Plant Science. 69(6): 546-556. https://doi.org/10.1080/09064710.2019.1606930

Singletary, K. (2010). Ginger: An Overview of Health Benefits. Nutrition Today. 45(4):171-183. doi: 10.1097/NT.0b013e3181ed3543 

Srinivasan, K. (2017). Ginger rhizomes (Zingiber officinale): A spice with multiple health beneficial potentials. PharmaNutrition. 5(1):18-28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phanu.2017.01.001

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