Ginger has been deemed a “superfood.” ‘Nuff said, right? After all, if the Internet says it’s good for you, then it must be true.
But you’re a discerning person and you know better than to hop on the latest health food trend.
Ginger is one of those foods. It seems like people are constantly touting the health benefits of ginger in our diets as some sort of holistic superfood.
But believe it or not, when it comes to ginger, the news is pretty good. It’s easy to find, relatively inexpensive, easy to incorporate into your diet and — possibly most importantly — it’s relatively well-researched. That said, you should do your own research. And that’s where we come in.
You’ve probably seen it in your grocery store — looking like a hand-sized root covered in papery, tan skin. But unless you’ve personally used it in your cooking or natural health arsenal, you may be otherwise unfamiliar with ginger root (the pickled pink version found with your sushi notwithstanding).
Ginger is a plant that’s been used in cooking, in ginger tea and in natural medicine for literal millennia. The portion of the plant that grows beneath the ground — the rhizome or root — is the part that’s used in kitchens around the world.
You won’t find ginger growing in the wild, and the exact origins are unknown. However, it’s been used as far back as 5,000 years ago in India and China, and made its way to the Roman Empire some 2,000 years ago. Needless to say, despite ginger’s current popularity, it’s far from a trend.
The oils and resins within ginger are responsible for its unique, spicy flavor and scent. While the root contains several bioactive compounds, the one known as gingerol is most frequently cited for making ginger smell the way it does, as well as for having a slew of health benefits. Others, such as gomgerol and shogaol, may be responsible for pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects.
Throughout thousands of years of use, ginger has been recognized for its potential health effects. Those purported effects include the treatment of: nausea, high blood pressure, migraines, arthritis, colds, upset stomach, pain, tumor prevention, heart disease and even aging. However, few of these uses have been substantiated by science.
Search your favorite online academic library — c’mon, everyone has one — and you’re hit with dozens if not hundreds, even thousands of papers about or mentioning ginger. So where do you begin?
Well, right here, actually:
There are numerous studies on the potential anti-inflammatory effects of ginger. However, many have been done only under the microscope or on animals, not on humans. This doesn’t negate their value, but human studies obviously provide the best evidence on how ginger may impact humans.
And results in human studies on ginger and inflammation have been mixed.
Still, one study found ginger to reduce pain and stiffness in participants suffering from arthritis of the knee 40 percent more than placebo, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Another, from the University of Georgia, focused on muscle pain and found daily supplementation with raw ginger to reduce exercise-induced muscle pain by 25 percent over placebo.
While lab research has shown promise in the use of ginger against inflammation associated with everything from certain allergic reactions to cancer, these findings haven’t yet been proven out in humans.
There is some evidence that ginger can aid in blood sugar regulation, specifically in type 2 diabetics. A meta-analysis, or review of existing studies, found that in five randomized clinical trials, ginger supplementation was found to “significantly” lower blood sugar and HbA1c levels.
HbA1c (often referred to as just A1C) levels measure the amount of blood sugar attached to the hemoglobin of red blood cells. Unlike a finger-prick glucose test that measures your blood sugar at the time of the test only, an A1C test measures a three-month average. For diabetics, it’s a good indication of blood sugar management overtime.
A 2015 study had similar findings — that supplementing with ginger significantly reduced fasting blood sugar levels, A1C levels, and other diabetes markers over baseline and a placebo. However, it’s again worth noting researchers remarked that additional similar studies are needed with more participants and a longer study period.
Nevertheless, the existing research points to good things.
Emerging evidence suggests ginger may aid in heart disease prevention by reducing blood lipid levels. According to one study of 85 participants, three grams of ginger per day resulted in reduced triglycerides, cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol), while increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good” cholesterol).
A somewhat smaller study had similar findings, that five grams of ginger taken daily over a three month period resulted in reduced LDL, cholesterol, and even total body weight.
Perhaps one of the most widely known uses of ginger as a health aide is in the treatment of stomach distress and nausea, specifically. Numerous studies, on humans, have demonstrated ginger’s effectiveness at preventing and treating nausea.
Likewise, it’s even sometimes recommended to cancer patients to help alleviate some of the side effects of chemotherapy. It is also effective at treating nausea related to seasickness and motion sickness.
Though the research on humans is limited, it appears as though there are no legitimate side effects of ginger supplementation. Is has been shown to cause heartburn and bloating in some people who use it, but overall, side effects are negligable — aside from the spicy taste, which is definitely something that may take some time to get used to (sushi, anyone?).
That said, there is very little known about long-term ginger use. It may interfere with the effectiveness of blood thinners, so talk to your doctor if you’re on such drugs and considering adding ginger to your diet.
There are several ways to incorporate ginger into your diet. You can cook with fresh ginger — it’s popular in Middle Eastern, African and Carribean cooking. You can find candied ginger that’s been dehydrated and coated in sugar. You can buy it in cookies, candies, capsules or find it in a variety of teas.
One cautionary note: There are products that are ginger-flavored but don’t contain actual ginger. Read the nutrition label to ensure you’re getting the real deal.