Ginger (Zingiber officinale) was considered a luxury some 5,000 years ago. Commonly used in Indian and Chinese cooking, the root was also used as a tonic to treat common ailments. Ginger is an herbaceous perennial plant likely native to southeastern Asia. Today, as in days’ past, ginger is used both for its flavor and for its medicinal properties.1
Ginger has a slightly biting taste and is often used dried or ground to flavor sauces, curry dishes, pickles and ginger ale.2 The root may also be used to make tea. Some cultures enjoy slicing and eating it between dishes to clear the palate.
Ginger can also help combat bad breath (halitosis). A 2018 study3 identified the chemical component in ginger responsible for eliminating bad breath, finding that the compound 6-gingerol enables an enzyme in your saliva to break down unpleasant odors.
The plant grows a little over 2 feet high with leaves 6 to 12 inches long. It produces a flower of overlapping green bracts that may be edged with yellow.4 It is the underground stem, or rhizome, of the ginger plant that is prized for its medicinal substances.
Ginger appeared in Europe in the first century when the Romans traded with India. When Rome fell, Marco Polo brought it from his travels to the East.5 It was so highly valued in the Middle Ages the price of half a gram was the same as the cost of one sheep.
While it thrives in the Caribbean, India is currently the greatest producer6 in the world. When it comes to exports, though, it’s China that holds first place.7Ginger offers many health benefits that may reduce your need for some medications.
Ginger May Protect Against DNA Damage
Compounds in rosemary, ginger and turmeric are effective in reducing the inflammatory response in the body. In a study published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition,8 researchers set out to determine the bioavailability of herbs and spices after consumption. They measured the ability the compound had to protect lymphocytes from oxidative injury.
According to Nutrition Facts,9 in the average person approximately 7% have signs of DNA damage. After the researchers examined DNA damage in participants subjected to free radicals, the damage rose to just under 10%.
However, those eating ginger for just one week before being attacked by free radicals experienced only a 1% rise in DNA damage, as opposed to the control group, in which DNA damage rose by 10%.10
A number of studies11 have documented the antioxidant and immunomodulatory effects of ginger, which may help prevent and treat several different types of cancer, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer12 and prostate cancer,13 primarily by inducing apoptosis, inhibiting proliferation of cancer cells and sensitizing tumors to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.14
Ginger May Prevent and Reduce Nausea in Pregnancy and During Chemotherapy
The most common and well-established use of ginger is for alleviating symptoms of nausea and vomiting.15 In one study,16 ginger root performed as well as other drugs prescribed for seasickness. In another,17 a fixed dose of 1 gram of ginger was more effective than a placebo in the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting, and researchers recommended it as an effective means of reducing these symptoms.
In other studies, researchers have evaluated the efficacy and potential benefits of using ginger to reduce nausea during pregnancy.18 These symptoms affect an estimated 80% of pregnant women during the first trimester.19,20 Also known as morning sickness, in a small percentage the condition may persist and result in dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and weight loss.21
Although several medications are available, each comes with a list of side effects. One meta-analysis of previous studies22 found formulations and dosages of ginger were predictably variable. Still, while the dosage and duration varied, the analysis demonstrated ginger was better than placebo when administered in a dose of approximately 1 gram for at least four days.
This same meta-analysis looked at studies evaluating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, a major adverse effect suffered by cancer patients. The researchers evaluated seven trials and found five reported favorable results, while results from the other two clinical trials were unfavorable.
The mixed results may be explained by the use of nonstandardized ginger preparations and inconsistencies in study methods. The researchers went on to recommend an optimized design of clinical trials to more fully evaluate the efficacy of ginger in the prevention and treatment of nausea and vomiting.23
Anti-Inflammatory Properties May Help Many Conditions
In a study24 published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers did a meta-analysis to review the current scientific evidence for ginger’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
According to the researchers, inhibition of prostaglandin and leukotriene biosynthesis was likely the result of gingerol, shogaol and other structurally-related substances in ginger. These anti-inflammatory effects may be the underlying reason ginger is effective in pain management.
A University of Miami study25 showed it has the potential to replace nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. When a highly purified and standardized ginger extract was compared against a placebo in 247 patients with knee osteoarthritis, 63% those receiving ginger reported a reduction in pain and stiffness.
In a study published in the American Thoracic Society journal,26 researchers found as many as 40% of those with asthma used herbal remedies to manage their symptoms.
Results27 show the hypothesis that ginger can modulate intracellular calcium and induce bronchodilation in airway smooth muscle was true, leading the researchers to conclude the compounds found in ginger may be a therapeutic option for the treatment of asthma.
Ginger has also demonstrated effectiveness against painful menstrual cramps. As many as 10% of women have such severe cramps they’re unable to maintain a normal schedule one to two days each month.28
A study29 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that “Ginger was as effective as mefenamic acid and ibuprofen in relieving pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea.”
Ginger may also be effective against exercise-induced muscle pain. In one study,30 participants taking 2 grams of ginger per day for 11 days experienced a reduction in soreness after exercise. However, ginger doesn’t appear to exert an immediate effect,31 but improves in effectiveness over time.
Ginger Has Antifungal and Antibacterial Properties
Antifungal and antibacterial properties of ginger may also help prevent or treat a number of conditions. In one study,32 researchers found ginger extract was able to break up fungi biofilm formation and had antifungal properties against Candida albicans and Candida krusei. These are opportunistic fungal infections in the oral cavity.
In another study,33 researchers found the strong antifungal activity was a promising agent to inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungi destroying Chinese olives. Yet another34 found it was effective in some solvents against Fusarium oxysporum, recognized as a devastating disease in tomato plants.
Studies have also demonstrated the effectiveness of ginger extract against Aspergillus flavus,35 a producer of aflatoxin,36 a potent carcinogen. This pathogen attacks cereal grains, legumes and tree nuts.
Ginger extract has also demonstrated antibacterial properties that can be useful against periodontal disease. In one test tube study,37 compounds found in ginger were able to inhibit the growth of oral pathogens, and in another,38 ginger extract demonstrated antibacterial activity against multidrug-resistant clinical pathogens.
Migraine Sufferers Benefit From Ginger
Globally, migraines are the third most common disease and sixth most common disabling disease. According to a 2018 study,39 1 in 7 American adults reported suffering from severe headaches or migraines in the previous three months. The economic burden is substantial. The annual cost for direct health care and reduced productivity is estimated at $36 billion.40
As of March 2016, the annual sales of sumatriptan injections (sold under the brand name Imitrex) were estimated at $183 million.41 Sumatriptan injection is used as a rescue drug for migraine headaches. Common side effects of the drug include pain or chest tightness, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and drooling.42
Ginger has a history of being used for the treatment of headaches in Ayurvedic medicine,43 and has also been studied in a double-blind, randomized clinical trial of 100 patients with a history of acute migraine without aura.44
Patients were randomly selected to receive either ginger powder or sumatriptan. Researchers analyzed the onset of headache, severity and the interval between drug administration and response. Data from five migraine attacks per patient were collected. In both groups, the mean headache severity decreased significantly after two hours.
The patient satisfaction with both treatments did not differ. However, while the ginger treatment is statistically comparable to sumatriptan, it also has a much better side effect profile, as only a small number of participants experienced stomach upset.45
Reducing Systemic Inflammation Affects Blood Sugar, Weight and Liver Function
Ginger’s ability to reduce systemic inflammation may also make it a useful aid to improve blood sugar control, weight management and reduce your risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
In one study46 conducted to investigate the effects of ginger on fasting blood sugar, researchers collected data from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on 41 Type 2 diabetic patients.
One group received 2 grams of ginger powder supplement each day and the control group received 2 grams of lactose per day for 12 weeks. Researchers measured their fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C and several other factors before and after the intervention.
Data showed ginger supplementation significantly reduced fasting blood sugar and A1C measurements compared to baseline and to the control group. In a second study,47 researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on 70 Type 2 diabetics. The experimental group took 1,600 milligrams of ginger daily for 12 weeks.
The group taking ginger had a reduction in fasting plasma glucose and hemoglobin A1C, as well as insulin, triglycerides and total cholesterol as compared to the placebo group. The researchers concluded ginger could be considered an effective treatment for the prevention of diabetes complications.48
As the name implies, NAFLD is fat buildup in the liver that is unrelated to alcohol consumption.49 It’s one of the most common chronic liver diseases worldwide. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial,50 researchers concluded the experimental group taking 2 grams of ginger supplement for 12 weeks showed beneficial effects on some of the characteristics of the disease.
Preparing Ginger at Home
While ginger is a safe food, in rare cases, high doses may trigger mild upset stomach, diarrhea, sleepiness, restlessness or heartburn. Taking ginger with food typically alleviates these challenges.
Ginger may also interact with medications such as anesthesia, anticoagulants and analgesics, possibly leading to poor wound healing, sun sensitivity, irregular heartbeat, bleeding and prolonged sedation.51
Since ginger has been proven effective for easing muscle pain caused by exercise, researchers of a study published in the Journal of Pain suggested trying a bit of grated ginger root in your food or steep a few teaspoons of it in a pot of very hot water for five minutes. The study noted that when ginger is heated,52 it exerts hypoanalgesic effects, helping to alleviate pain 23% to 25% better than placebo.