Herb of the month: Ginger

ODE TO GINGER

At this time of year, when fresh herbs are sparse on the ground, it’s nice to spend time with old friends like as Ginger & co. Our lovely spices are available all year round and have a multitude of uses, from keeping us warm to staving off colds and flu to aiding digestion.

Ginger, particularly, is just so accessible, versatile and downright delicious. You can add it to everything – teas, biscuits, chocolate, stir-fries, mulled wines, sushi – and it doesn’t lose its potency like, for example, garlic does when you cook it. It is a relatively cheap, easy-to-use medicinal herb that can be added in small amounts to your diet and make a noticeable difference to your health.

Ancient praise for ginger

I’m not the only one who can boast a long-standing love affair with Ginger – it was the king of the ancient spice trade and had a political and economic significance equivalent to today’s oil reserves.

Trade routes were shrouded in secrecy, cultivation was documented carefully and tribute was paid in ancient Greek, Arab and Chinese literature to the medicinal, spiritual and economic importance of the spice.

Shakespeare wrote “And had I but one penny in the world, thou shouldest have it to buy ginger-bread”. Paul Schulick, an American herbalist, makes an even more remarkable assertion in his book “Ginger: Common Spice and Wonder Drug”:

“Your spice cabinet contains a most phenomenal herb and healing entity – one that is beyond the therapeutic scope of any modern drug, with the potential to save billions of dollars and countless lives”.

Not convinced? Read on for an analysis of just a few of ginger’s life-saving properties…

Anti-inflammatory

Inflammation in the body is mediated by chemicals called prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes. In the lab, Ginger has been shown to inhibit both prostaglandin and leukotriene synthesis by interrupting the COX and LOX enzyme pathways that are involved in their production.

An early study found it to be more potent than indomethacin, a common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory action explains its traditional use in fevers, colds and flu, and any condition for which anti-inflammatory action in needed – such as rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

It may also help with the pain of arthritis. Mixed results have been obtained from the scientific literature but, as a fellow blogger and ginger consumer wrote earlier this year, you might as well try it as the side-effects are minimal and the results could be great (http://criticalexaminer.com/2014/04/01/165/).

Anti-viral

Fresh ginger contains more of the antiviral compounds – called gingerols – than dried ginger (where they are converted to shogaols, which are better anti-inflammatories). The best way to treat a bad head cold is therefore ginger tea, ginger tea and more ginger tea. Crush whole ginger pieces (don’t bother peeling), add to boiling water and simmer for as long as you dare!

I use three or four good thumb-sized pieces to about 3 mugs of water and leave it to simmer for 10 minutes before leaving it to soak in another 15 or so. My general rule is the stronger the better. If you have hot flushes however, it’s probably best not to go anywhere near this recipe.

Circulatory benefits

Ginger’s traditional use as a circulatory stimulant is pretty self-explanatory – have a cup of the above tea and you’ll probably have to remove a layer or two. This makes it great for keeping the blood flowing in these cold winter months.

It’s a powerful antioxidant, which may protect the blood vessels against damage and the formation of harmful clots. Various studies, again with mixed results, have highlighted its anti-platelet and blood pressure-lowering effects, suggesting it may be useful in coronary artery disease. If you’re already on warfarin, it’s probably best to stay away from Ginger.

Anti-nausea

The evidence on Ginger is strongest for its anti-emetic or anti-nausea activity, especially for nausea during pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum) – which is great news for pregnant women who are generally told to stay away form everything!

Mixed results have been obtained for other forms of nausea – motion sickness, sea sickness, post-operative nausea and nausea due to chemotherapy. The mechanism is unclear but it could be due to its spasm-relieving effects on the gut or its interaction with the gut nervous system. Just be careful if you’ve got any acid reflux (heartburn), as it can aggravate this.

Memory-booster?

In Western herbal tradition, Ginger is thought of mainly as a digestive aid and circulatory stimulant. However, the Koran and Indian Vedas regard the spice as a heavenly, universal medicine (‘vishwabhesaj’) and the ancient Egyptians used it as a memory enhancer, as an aphrodisiac and to ‘clear the brain’.

One randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on 60 healthy middle-aged women showed a significant enhancement of cognitive (brain) function and working memory at doses of 400 and 800mg once daily for 2 months. This is the only human study than has been done on this intriguing property of Ginger – but many animal studies exist on a possible anti-Alzheimer’s effect mediated by its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action on the brain.

Other uses

Other traditional uses of Ginger include protection against and stomach ulcers, treatment of diarrhoea, constipation, diabetes, high cholesterol, migraine and period pains. In traditional medical texts, uses can be found for Ginger in disorders covering almost all the bodily systems. More human research needs to be done on this incredibly versatile substance – but until then – try popping it in your morning smoothie and see what happens!

Consumption of up to 5g of ginger a day is well-tolerated in humans and is enough to gain the benefits shown by most of the trials conducted. It’s not much hassle, doesn’t cost much and could produce real benefits. Give it a go!

I wish you all a wonderful, gingery New Year.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Herb of the month: Ginger

  1. Thanks for linking to my article, and I’m liking your blog! That’s interesting about the potential for cognitive enhancement of ginger, what was your dissertation about? Has there been any proposed mechanism on how ginger may interact with the brain?

    I worked in the field of iron biology as a graduate student, and one of the proposed mechanisms for alzheimer’s disease, dementia and probably cognitive decline in general relates to iron accumulation in the brain. It’s one of the key features that always seems to be found in the brain tissue of these patients. Of course, iron that is not stored and bound by hemoglobin, the iron storage protein ferritin, or some other molecule is free to react with oxygen causing oxidative stress, which is a mediator of many disease states. And ginger may act as an antioxidant, at least on one level, because it is an iron chelator. I don’t know exactly how iron chelation would improve memory and such in the short term, but I wonder if anyone has made a possible connection there?

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  2. Thanks for your comment! How interesting – and I did find one paper about how red and white ginger extracts protected against iron-induced lipid peroxidation in rat brain in vitro (Oboh et al, 2012). I’ve also heard about how iron accumulation in the body may be a big factor in cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and other conditions with oxidation and inflammation at their root. The interesting thing for me is, as you say, most disease states arise from oxidation and inflammation so, although ginger’s iron chelating activity in the brain may be playing a part, it is very possible that antioxidant activity in the body also reduces the amount of circulating inflammatory metabolites and hence reduces oxidative damage in the brain.

    My dissertation was on ginger’s effect on the CNS and its potential in the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders, whose pathogeneses are being increasingly connected to inflammation/oxidation and systemic disease. Other mechanisms I found for ginger were to do with cholinergic protein expression (AChE and BuChE), brain-derived neurotrophic factor and histone deacetylases. These were mainly for the constituent 6-shogaol but also whole ginger extracts. There’s not much research but I argue, as above, that ginger’s systemic effects may easily contribute to its CNS effects. And due to its lipophilic nature it’s highly likely to pass the blood brain barrier.

    Thanks for reading and for your interest.

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  3. I think you’re right probably right about the blood brain barrier issue. It’s interesting how everything is becoming an inflammation issue, but it does seem to be a much more important aspect than we ever thought…if not the single most important one.

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