Spotlight on ginger

Nature's flavorful soother...calms stomachs, quiets coughs and much more

If someone tried to sell you a potion that could get rid of headaches, ease stomach upset, quiet a cough, soothe menstrual cramps, and even cure cancer, you'd probably be quite skeptical. But there may be such a remedy, and chances are it's right in your spice rack. Ginger, the dried rhizome (underground stem) of Zingiber officinale, has indeed been recommended for just about every condition except hair loss. What's interesting is that not all of these claims are hype.

My first experience with ginger's healing powers was probably the same as yours-when Mom gave ginger ale for an upset stomach. But ginger-as a spice and medicine-had been around for thousands of years before your first sip. Ancient Greeks warded off the effects of gluttonous feasts by eating ginger wrapped in bread. (This eventually evolved into gingerbread.) Chinese sailors chewed ginger to prevent seasickness, for which it has again become popular. So what are its best uses today?

Nausea and motion sickness. Ginger's effects on these problems are the best established of its healing benefits. Studies in 1982 found that about 1 gram (g) of ginger was better than 100 milligrams (mg) of Dramamine for reducing symptoms of motion sickness. Since then, similar studies have shown generally positive results, and the board of German herbal experts known as Commission E has ruled that ginger is effective in preventing motion sickness.

Two groups of compounds known as shogaols and gingerols appear to be responsible for ginger's antinausea activity. But unlike most common motion sickness remedies, including antihistamines and scopolamine patches, ginger appears to act directly on the stomach, instead of the central nervous system. The result? No side effects such as drowsiness or dry mouth.

Ginger may also help alleviate nausea resulting from surgery and chemotherapy, but you have to balance its beneficial effects with its potential to inhibit blood clotting, which may be undesirable. The use of ginger to prevent morning sickness is not recommended.

Cough. If a dry, scratchy cough is keeping you awake at night, try brewing a cup of ginger tea. The ginger will stimulate the secretion of mucus to help quiet the cough, and the hot liquid will soothe the scratchiness.

Digestion help. Ginger is an effective carminative (helps relieve gas and its pain) and digestive aid. It also has a muscle relaxing action that can help relieve indigestion (just as Mom and the Greeks thought) and menstrual cramps. This botanical has been used throughout history for these conditions, but it must be noted that no studies have been done to verify these claims. Ginger also acts to stimulate the flow of bile from the gallbladder, which helps digestion.

Cancer. There is some preliminary evidence hinting that ginger may play a role in preventing or treating cancer. A study last year showed that mice treated with a ginger extract developed significantly fewer skin tumors than mice who received no treatment. It's far too early to say that ginger may help humans in this way, but it is reason enough to do more studies. We'll keep you posted.

When ginger may not help. Although ginger has gained a reputation as a headache remedy, there's not much reason to believe it works. It has been used for years in India to treat neurological disorders, but recent references have all been based on a single migraine sufferer in Denmark who apparently was helped by taking ginger. Therefore, this effect would have to be repeated in many more people before any conclusions can be drawn.The literature on ginger is also full of references alleging that it is useful in treating gastric ulcers, colds, rheumatism, gout, sexual deficiencies, high cholesterol, allergies, heart problems-and so on. Most of these assertions are based on folk observations or limited studies of small animals. Well-designed clinical studies with people are necessary to verify these purported benefits.
How much to take

If you wish to take ginger for its antinausea or digestive benefits, here are your options: Capsules containing 500 mg each of the herb are readily available. A pleasant tea can be prepared from 2 teaspoons (tsp) of powdered ginger from your spice rack or 1/2 to 1 tsp grated fresh ginger. Sweeten with honey, if you wish.

Candied ginger is also available in Asian food stores; a piece about 1 inch square and 1/4 inch thick provides an adequate dose (about 1 g). Don't bet on just any brand of ginger ale, though: A 12-ounce glass will provide the necessary amount only if it is prepared with real ginger, not an artificial flavor. Stick to the well-known brands like Canada Dry or Schweppes. And don't forget ginger's famous flavor for stir-frys, casseroles, and soups, of course.

Note: Take ginger 20 to 25 minutes before you travel if you suffer from motion sickness. It can be repeated every few hours as necessary. To reap ginger's digestive benefits, take before a meal to prevent symptoms or after a meal to treat discomfort.
The herb at a glance

Common name: Ginger, often designated according to geographical origin: Jamaican, African, Cochin (Asian) ginger

Scientific name: Zingiber officinale

Beneficial uses: Prevents nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness; aids digestion and relieves gas and bloating; quiets coughs; eases menstrual cramps

Possible side effects: May prolong clotting time of blood
Have any questions?

Ask Dr. Tyler to help you sort out what's what in the realm of herbal medicine. Send specific questions to "Honest Herbalist," Prevention Magazine, 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098. Or e-mail us at with "Honest Herbalist" on the subject line. Answers to your questions, if selected, will be published in this column. Dr. Tyler regrets that he is unable to answer each letter individually. Correspondence to us becomes the property of Rodale Press, Inc., and may be used in any media.

PHOTO (COLOR): A remedy that tickles taste buds, while it tames tummies.

PHOTO (COLOR): Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD

Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD, is America's foremost expert on herbs and plant-derived medicine. He is dean emeritus of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences, and distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy. He is also th e author of more than 270 scientific articles and 18 books, including The Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993).

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