Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
In ancient times herbs and spices were used to preserve foods. Their effectiveness in food preservation was the result of their potent antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Ginger was one of the first Oriental spices to reach Europe. While ginger is indigenous to South East Asia, it is now widely cultivated in China, India, the United States, Australia and the West Indies.
Ginger is a perennial tropical plant with a thick tuberous rhizome. The fleshy rhizomes of ginger are harvested when the plant is about one year old and sun-dried for about a week. Typically, the ginger sold in a store is candied or crystallized. This is prepared by boiling the fresh rhizome in a sugar solution. The finished product is sliced and sprinkled with granulated sugar.
Ginger has a long history of use as a flavoring agent. It is frequently used in Indian and Chinese cuisine. Gingerbread and ginger beer are examples of popular Western foods of yesteryear that utilized ginger.
Ginger is a popular seasoning because of its sweet aromatic odor and pungent taste. Ginger can be used in entrees, breads, fruit desserts, cake, pies, puddings, and preserves. It contributes a unique freshness to food. It has a tendency to round out some flavors while accenting others. Ginger is now commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to mediate the effects of other ingredients and to stimulate the appetite.
A Travel Aid
Due to its anti-emetic qualities ginger has proven to be a valuable aid in treating nausea and preventing the vomiting associated with motion sickness. A study with college students who were highly susceptible to motion sickness found that about one gram of powdered ginger was very effective in reducing the symptoms of motion sickness. Typically, ginger should be consumed about 30 minutes before travel. Recently, when my family took a boat cruise in Alaska, the captain offered everyone on board either pieces of ginger or ginger cookies to help prevent sea sickness.
The activity of ginger is due to its aromatic volatile oil which gives ginger its characteristic odor. Active compounds include the terpenoids zingiberene and bisabolene and the aromatic gingerols. The latest research revealed that about half a dozen compounds appear to be important in providing the anti-emetic activity of ginger root. The anti-emetic mechanism of action of ginger does not appear to be due to an effect on the central nervous system but rather due to a gastrointestinal effect.
Ginger has also been used in the treatment of vertigo, for colic, lack of appetite, for vomiting associated with morning sickness in pregnancy, and rheumatic complaints. Ginger is used as a digestive aid since it promotes the secretion of saliva and gastric juices and increases the action of peristalsis in the intestines. In the past, ginger was used to relieve flatulence and prevent belching. The oil in ginger contains compounds which relieve coughing and are reported to have analgesic and fever-reducing properties.
Lower Risk of Blood Clots and Cancer
The use of ginger may diminish the risk of blood clots forming and increase bleeding time since ginger extracts inhibit the clumping of human platelets. This would be of value for heart patients at high risk of forming dangerous blood clots. The compounds in ginger responsible for this activity are mainly two labdane diterpenoid compounds and to a much lesser degree some six different gingerols. The powerful diterpene inhibitors appear to be as active in inhibiting blood clots as the sulfur compounds in onions. Preliminary data from research with rabbits shows that ginger may also help to lower blood cholesterol levels.
The rhizome of ginger contains over 20 phenolic compounds, known as gingerols and diarylheptanoids. Some of these phenolic constituents are potent antioxidants and possess anti-mutagenic activity and pronounced anti-inflammatory activity. These compounds also inhibit various cancers. The anti-cancer activity of ginger is due in large part to the presence of the antioxidant curcumin, a substance also found in the herb turmeric. Curcumin is reported to stimulate the activity of glutathione-S-transferase, an enzyme which assists in the elimination of cancer-causing substances from the body. The aromatic substances in ginger exhibit a strong antioxidant activity similar to that of vitamin E.
A typical daily dose of ginger is 2-4 grams (2 to 1 tsp.) of the rhizome or 0.5 to 1 gm three times a day. A single dose of 1-2 gm of powdered rhizome is normally effective as an anti-emetic. Modest amounts of ginger appear to be safe since no toxic or unpleasant side effects have been reported. Excessive consumption may interfere with cardiac, anti-diabetic and anti-coagulant therapy. Persons with gall bladder disease should consult a physician before they consume ginger.
Ginger, with its unique aromatic flavor, enjoys many culinary applications. Its health-promoting properties surely elevates ginger to being more than just a candy. Ginger is useful for treating an upset stomach, preventing symptoms of nausea and motion sickness, and increasing the action and tone of the bowel. Its anti-tumor properties and ability to reduce the risk of blood clot formation makes it a useful herb for lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.