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Ginger: Health Benefits, Risks and Uses

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a perennial plant that is both a medicinal herb and a common ingredient in Asian cooking. It grows in Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America. The root and underground stem (rhizome) of ginger have been used for two thousand years to treat conditions such as nausea and vomiting, digestive complaints, loss of appetite, common colds and breathing problems. Ginger has few health risks and, today, it is an increasingly popular alternative remedy in the West also for various other conditions such as migraines, rheumatic pain or arthritis. In China, ginger is commonly found in herbal mixtures used to treat a large variety of illnesses.

Potential Health Effects of Ginger

There are several substances in ginger that are thought to have a beneficial effect on the body such as volatile oils (e.g., gingerols, shogaols), niacin and vitamins. Volatile oils are not only the reason for ginger’s strong smell and taste, they are also the suspected reason for its power as an anti-nausea and anti-vomiting medication (particularly gingerols and shogaols).

As a result, ginger has been shown to have a number of pharmacological effects including helping to relieve nausea, vomiting and flatulence, increasing the amount of saliva and secretions in the stomach (which not only helps to protect the stomach lining but also promotes digestion), increasing the flow of bile, improving brain function, lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels as well as having antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and fever reducing effects.

When it comes to reducing nausea, ginger is thought to work on several levels. Besides protecting the stomach lining from irritation and speeding up transport of food through the gastrointestinal system, it also works in the brain to prevent the feeling of nausea. In turn, by reducing nausea, ginger also affects the body’s urge to vomit.

However, there is not enough evidence to show how, if at all, ginger helps other conditions such as indigestion, stomach ulcers, rheumatic pain, migraines, arthritis or hardening of the arteries, that it is frequently used for.

Potential Health Risks of Ginger

Ginger is of proven benefit against nausea and vomiting. In general, there are few risks associated with this herb, apart from occasional heartburn or an allergic reaction, such as a simple skin rash in sensitive individuals. In fact, ginger has fewer side effects than are likely with conventional anti-nausea medications. However, when used to treat nausea and vomiting, patients should know that if problems do not seem to improve, it is necessary to see a doctor. This is because these can be symptoms of a more serious health issue.

However, certain people should use ginger sparingly. Ginger increases the flow of bile and may promote the formation of gallstones in people who are prone to them. Also, those who are taking medication for diabetes, heart disease and blood clotting should avoid ginger as it may interfere with these drugs.

Although ginger has been shown to help reduce morning sickness (typically occurring in the first months of pregnancy), it is not known for certain whether it is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women (using ginger in small amounts to flavour food is fine). Likewise, there is no absolute proof that ginger is safe for young children under the age of 12.

What Is Ginger Used For

Ginger is probably as good as conventional medicinal drugs at treating and preventing nausea and vomiting, caused for instance by motion sickness, surgery or chemotherapy, but with fewer side effects. There is also some evidence that it can help reduce morning sickness in pregnant women, but it is not known how safe it is for the unborn child.

Many experts also believe that ginger is good for indigestion and that it can help relieve rheumatic, menstrual, joint and muscle pain, protect the stomach from alcohol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, prevent ulcers, ease arthritis, boost the immune system and metabolism, fight off the common cold and flu and reduce the risks of hardening of the arteries. Ginger has also shown anti-tumor activity that may help treat certain types of cancers. However, more evidence is needed on all of these before it can be said for definite.

How to Take Ginger

Ginger comes in many forms including capsules, tablets, essential oils, tinctures, tea and fresh ginger root.

The recommended dose for vomiting and nausea is between one and four grams of ginger three times a day as either a tablet or a capsule. For prevention of motion sickness, people should take ginger tablets, capsules or tincture at least an hour before boarding the vehicle or plane. This should help keep symptoms at bay for four hours.

Some people like to take their ginger as a tea at home, especially when treating common cold. Mixing in honey makes the drink more palatable and also helps relieve cough.

In addition, ginger is used as a spice to flavour food in Asian cooking. However, the cooking may destroy some of its pharmacological effects, while the usual amount of ginger used in one meal is much smaller than the medical dosages.

For personal advice on how to use the essential oil of ginger, it is best to consult an aromatherapist.