Food as Medicine

Cooking for Healing: The Pungent Potency of Ginger

The incredible benefits of this long-revered herb can be enjoyed in several ways
BY Sina McCullough TIMEJune 18, 2022 PRINT

Herbs and spices were used by ancient cultures to heal the body, mind, and spirit. While the Western world has largely replaced these natural remedies with pharmaceuticals, roughly 80 percent of people worldwide still use traditional or ancient medicine. This isn’t surprising considering that more than 80 percent of pharmaceuticals are derived or developed from natural products, including plants. In this series, we will explore the healing power of herbs and spices while learning how to incorporate these ancient remedies into our daily diet. 

Did you know that ginger was used to ward off the plague in the Middle Ages? In fact, ginger was so highly revered, it was placed on the table like salt and pepper.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) is an herbaceous plant with annual leafy stems that has been used as an herbal medicine for over 5,000 years and a flavoring agent in food long before recorded history. It has been used by Chinese and Ayurvedic practitioners for at least 3,000 years for its anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger was also used by ancient Greeks and Romans for its medicinal properties.

Ginger was an important article of trade throughout history because of its medicinal and flavoring qualities. It was exported from India to the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, ginger continued to be highly sought after. In fact, in the 13th and 14th centuries, one pound of ginger cost the same as one sheep.

Today, ginger is perhaps best known as a digestive tonic in ginger ales, as well as the essential ingredient in gingerbread men, which Queen Elizabeth I of England is credited with inventing.

Modern Science Catches Up to Ancient Wisdom

While the healing power of ginger has been harnessed among ancient cultures for thousands of years, modern medicine has been slow to recognize its benefits. However, the perception of ginger is changing as scientists have begun validating the wisdom of the ancients through studies that demonstrate numerous healing abilities, such as:

Protects the Heart

In a 2015 study, rats were supplemented with ginger for 28 days followed by induction of myocardial infarction i.e., heart attack. Compared with controls, the structural and functional integrity of the heart muscle was largely preserved in ginger supplemented rats. In fact, at higher doses of ginger, the heart tissue was reportedly almost “normal” even after the heart attack.

In addition, ginger supplementation resulted in an increase in antioxidant enzymes, which suggests that ginger may have prevented damage to the heart and improved the ability to defend against oxidative stress caused by the heart attack.

Ginger may also reduce inflammation of the heart by regulating genes involved in the development of diabetes-induced cardiomyopathy.

For example, a study published in 2020 reported a reduction in serum glucose levels in rats following supplementation with ginger. In addition, inflammation was decreased and cardiac tissue showed structural improvements (i.e., less scarring) compared with controls.

Likewise, a study published in Diabetes & Metabolism Journal concluded that ginger “significantly reduces heart structural abnormalities in diabetic rats.” The researchers theorized that the heart-protective effect of ginger may be due, in part, to its antioxidant properties. Taken collectively, available research suggests that ginger may protect the heart from damage caused by a heart attack.

Protects Against Aging

Oxidative stress and inflammation play a key role in the aging process. Consequently, ginger has been widely studied as an antiaging agent due to its ability to protect against both oxidative stress and inflammation.

For example, ginger consists of two major active components, 6-gingerol and 6-shogaol, which exhibit antiaging effects due to their potent ability to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation. 

Remedies Pain

Supplementing with ginger for three months decreased proinflammatory cytokines in patients with osteoarthritis, according to a study published in 2016. The researchers concluded that ginger supplementation may benefit osteoarthritis of the knee. 

Likewise, ginger was reported to reduce disease activity and inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis following daily supplementation with ginger for 12 weeks, according to a study published in Gene in 2019.

Ginger also alleviated pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea, according to a study published in 2009. In fact, ginger was as effective in relieving pain as mefenamic acid and ibuprofen.

Fights Chronic Diseases

Ginger was shown to contain numerous anti-inflammatory compounds, according to a study published in 2015. The researchers concluded that the healing compounds contained within ginger “might be used as [a] potential natural drug against oxidative stress and inflammatory related diseases.” 

In addition, ginger contains significant antioxidant activity, according a study published in Industrial Crops and Products. By lowering inflammation and boosting antioxidant capacity, ginger may help prevent and reverse chronic diseases.

Fights Cancer

Ginger “can prevent various cancers,” according to a study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine.

A comprehensive review published in Phytotherapy Research suggested that ginger may fight cancer because it exhibits “antiproliferative, antitumor, invasive, and anti-inflammatory activities.”

The researchers concluded that ginger exerts these healing actions through cell signaling, and well as regulation of oxidative and inflammatory processes associated with cancer.

Furthermore, a study published in 2021 concluded that ginger may help prevent colon cancer. Ginger has also been shown to decrease the development and progression of breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer without any detectable toxicity in normal tissues.

Promotes a Healthy Gut Microbiome

Ginger can boost the diversity and abundance of beneficial microbes in the gastrointestinal tract, which helps stave off chronic and acute disease.

For instance, 16 weeks of ginger supplementation improved the microbiome in mice, according to a study published in 2020. Specifically, supplementation resulted in an increase in species of the Bifidobacterium genus.

Bifidobacteria are a group of beneficial bacteria that are normally present in parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Low levels of Bifidobacteria have been associated with numerous diseases, such as rheumatic disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, gastrointestinal infections, colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, asthma, and cystic fibrosis.

In fact, Bifidobacterium have such a powerful impact on human health that certain strains are commonly used in probiotic supplements. Since the levels of Bifidobacterium tend to decrease with age, and ginger has been shown to boost those levels, ginger may be useful in combating the age-related loss of these powerful probiotics.

Prevents and Treats Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

According to a study published in Biomaterials, ginger “reduced acute colitis, enhanced intestinal repair, and prevented chronic colitis and colitis-associated cancer” in mice.

Furthermore, ginger reduced inflammation and promoted a healing effect without any signs of toxicity.

The researchers concluded that ginger represents “a novel, natural delivery mechanism for improving IBD prevention and treatment with an added benefit of overcoming limitations such as potential toxicity.”

Helps Prevent Neurodegenerative Disease

In a study published in Food Chemistry in 2013, ginger was shown to decrease neuroinflammation, which is inflammation within the brain or spinal cord.

Furthermore, a study in Neuropharmacology concluded that ginger “is an effective therapeutic agent for treating neurodegenerative disease.”

Ginger was shown to inhibit inflammation by decreasing the production of proinflammatory cytokines and prostaglandin E(2), as well as suppress the inflammatory response (i.e., microglial activation) normally induced when exposed to a neurotoxin. Thus, ginger exhibited significant neuroprotective effects.

Fights Obesity

Supplementing with ginger daily for 12 weeks resulted in weight loss, decreased serum insulin, and decreased insulin resistance along with improvement in insulin sensitivity compared to the placebo group, according to a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Likewise, a study published in 2015 concluded that ginger “has potential in managing obesity.” Following 12 weeks of daily supplementation with ginger, body weight, body mass index, and appetite decreased compared with the placebo group.

Fights Diabetes

Supplementing with ginger for 10 weeks was reported to decrease fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c in patients with Type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Likewise, a study published in 2015 reported improved fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c in Type 2 diabetic patients following daily ginger supplementation for 12 weeks.

Protects the Liver From Insecticide Damage

A study published in 2021 concluded that ginger protected the liver of rats from insecticide-induced injury following 30 days of ginger supplementation.

Compared with the control group, ginger reduced the level of oxidative stress caused by the insecticide and prevented damage to the liver tissue.

Since more than 90 percent of Americans have detectable levels of pesticide biomarkers in their body, ginger may be a beneficial addition to the diet to help protect the liver from those toxins.

Antibacterial

Studies have confirmed the antibacterial activity of ginger against numerous microbes, such as: Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, as well as Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhi.

Ginger has also been reported to inhibit growth of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a bacterium that can form biofilms in the human body and is becoming more difficult to treat with antibiotics due to increasing antibiotic resistance. Therefore, ginger may be a viable alternative.

Decreases Nausea and Vomiting in Pregnancy

Ginger was shown to be more effective than vitamin B6 for relieving nausea and equally effective for decreasing vomiting during early pregnancy, according to a study published in Midwifery in 2009.

Decreases Nausea, Vomiting and Fatigue associated with Chemotherapy

Ginger can be an “effective adjuvant treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea,” according to a study published in Nutrients in 2017.

Patients who received ginger during three cycles of chemotherapy reported better quality of life as well as less nausea, vomiting, and fatigue compared with the placebo group. No adverse effects were reported.

How to Add Ginger to Your Diet

When purchasing fresh ginger, always choose organic and make sure the root is firm and moist. Avoid shriveled roots because they contain less juice.

To remove the outer skin, use a peeler or the back of a spoon. The peeler removes a thicker layer, resulting in some waste. However, it’s often a faster and easier method of removal.

If the skin is difficult to peel, soak the ginger in warm water for a few minutes to soften the skin.

Simple ways to incorporate ginger into your diet:

Salads or sauces: Chop, grate, mince or slice fresh, peeled ginger directly into your salads and sauces, such as marinades.

Stir-fry: Grate or mince peeled ginger and add to stir-fry during the last two minutes of cooking.

Ginger Tea: Add ½ inch piece of fresh ginger (peeled and thinly sliced) to 2 cups boiling water. Cover and boil for 5 minutes. Remove ginger and add a drop of raw, local honey (optional) along with the juice of one organic lemon wedge. Enjoy warm.

Pickled Ginger: Using a peeler, remove and discard the peel from 6 ounces of ginger. Continue to peel the ginger into large pieces. Add the large pieces to a clean Mason jar and set aside. Combine 1/2 cup water, 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar, 3 tablespoons coconut or maple sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt to small saucepan. Cook over medium heat while whisking until the sugar dissolves and the liquid boils. Pour over the ginger pieces and allow to cool before covering. Then swirl and gently shake jar until ginger is fully submerged. Store in the refrigerator overnight before consuming. Serve cold on sushi or salad, or eat raw.

Ginger Syrup: Bring equal amounts of organic maple sugar and water to a boil. Next, add freshly grated ginger (peel removed), let steep for 10 minutes, and then strain. Add the syrup to smoothies or homemade lemonade. Syrup keeps well for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Grain-Free Soft Gingerbread Cookies

Let’s be honest, sometimes you just want a cookie! So, why not make it a healthier version by adding ginger? Below is my family’s favorite recipe for gingerbread cookies. They are grain-free and dairy-free but delicious!

Makes 20 Cookies

Ingredients (choose organic when possible):

  • 1 cup tigernut flour
  • 1/4 cup arrowroot powder
  • 1 tablespoon coconut flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon gelatin from grass-finished cows or 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon maple sugar
  • 2 tablespoons palm shortening or butter from A2/A2, 100 percent grass-fed cows†

†The recipe is no longer dairy-free when adding butter instead of palm shortening.

Instructions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Using an electric mixer, add all ingredients to the mixing bowl. Mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined; roughly 20 seconds.
  3. Scoop by spoonful onto cookie sheet. Optional: Roll cookies in maple sugar to coat the outside. This increases the sugar content of the cookie, but also provides a more “typical” gingerbread cookie taste.
  4. Bake 6 to 7 minutes. If you can wait until they cool, which I usually can’t, allow them to come to room temperature because they taste better.

Precautions and Possible Interactions

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult their health care provider before consuming ginger. While adverse effects to ginger are not common, the following have been reported: heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of the online program, “GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease,” and author of Hands Off My Food,” and “Beyond Labels.” She earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from UC Davis. She is a Master Herbalist, Gluten Free Society Certified Practitioner and homeschool mom of three.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of the online program, "GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease,” and author of Hands Off My Food,” and “Beyond Labels.” She earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from UC Davis. She is a Master Herbalist, Gluten Free Society Certified Practitioner and homeschool mom of three.
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