Ginger -- the underground stem, or rhizome, of the plant Zingiber officinale -- has been used as a medicine in Asian, Indian, and Arabic herbal traditions since ancient times. In China, for example, ginger has been used to help digestion and treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea for more than 2,000 years. Ginger has also been used to help treat arthritis, colic, diarrhea, and heart conditions.
In addition to being used as a medicine, ginger is used throughout the world as an important cooking spice. It also has been used to help treat the common cold, flu-like symptoms, headaches, and painful menstrual periods.
Ginger is native to Asia where it has been used as a cooking spice for at least 4,400 years.
Today, health care professionals may recommend ginger to help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting from motion sickness, pregnancy, and cancer chemotherapy. It is also used as a digestive aid for mild stomach upset, to reduce pain of osteoarthritis, and may even be used in heart disease or cancer.
Several studies -- but not all -- suggest that ginger may work better than placebo in reducing some symptoms of motion sickness. In one trial of 80 new sailors who were prone to motion sickness, those who took powdered ginger had less vomiting and cold sweating compared to those who took placebo. Ginger did not reduce nausea, however. Similar results were found in a study with healthy volunteers.
However, other studies have found that ginger does not work as well as medications in reducing symptoms of motion sickness. In one small study, participants were given either fresh root or powdered ginger, scopolamine, a medication commonly prescribed for motion sickness, or placebo. Those who took scopolamine had fewer symptoms than those who took ginger. Conventional prescription and over-the-counter medicines that decrease nausea may also have side effects, such as dry mouth and drowsiness.
Pregnancy-Related Nausea and Vomiting
Human studies suggests that 1g daily of ginger may be effective for nausea and vomiting in pregnant women when used for short periods (no longer than 4 days). Several studies have found that ginger is better than placebo in relieving morning sickness.
In a small study of 30 pregnant women with severe vomiting, those who took 1 gram of ginger every day for 4 days reported more relief from vomiting than those who took placebo. In a larger study of 70 pregnant women with nausea and vomiting, those who received a similar dosage of ginger felt less nauseous and did not vomit as much as those who received placebo. Pregnant women should ask their doctor before taking ginger, and should be careful not take more than 1g per day.
A few studies suggest that ginger reduces the severity and duration of nausea -- but not vomiting -- during chemotherapy. However, one of the studies used ginger in combination with another anti-nausea drug, so it’s hard to say whether ginger had any effect. More studies are needed.
Nausea and vomiting after surgery
Research is mixed as to whether ginger can help reduce nausea and vomiting following surgery. Two studies found that 1g of ginger root before surgery reduced nausea as well as a leading medication. In one of these studies, women who received ginger also needed fewer medications for nausea after surgery. But other studies have found that ginger didn’t help reduce nausea. In fact, one study found that ginger may actually increase vomiting following surgery. More research is needed.
Ginger extract has long been used in traditional medical practices to reduce inflammation. And there is some evidence that ginger may help reduce pain from osteoarthritis (OA). In a study of 261 people with OA of the knee, those who took a ginger extract twice daily had less pain and needed fewer pain-killing medications than those who received placebo. But another study found that ginger was no better than ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or placebo in reducing symptoms of OA. It may take several weeks to see any effect.
- A few preliminary studies suggest that ginger may lower cholesterol and help prevent blood from clotting. That can be helpful in treating heart disease, where blood vessels can become blocked and lead to heart attack or stroke. But more studies are needed to know whether ginger is safe or effective for heart disease.
- Laboratory studies have also found that some substances in ginger may kill cancer cells in test tubes. More research is needed to know if ginger would have the same effect in humans.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain components that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.
Side effects from ginger are rare, but if taken in high doses the herb may cause mild heartburn, diarrhea, and irritation of the mouth. You may be able to avoid some of the mild stomach side effects, such as belching, heartburn, or stomach upset, by taking ginger supplements in capsules.
People with gallstones should ask their doctor before taking ginger. Make sure to tell your doctor if you are taking ginger and will be having surgery or placed under anesthesia for any reason.
People with heart conditions and people with diabetes should not take ginger without asking their doctors.
Pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding should talk to their doctor before taking ginger.
Do not take ginger if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking blood-thinning medications, including aspirin.
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