There are many health claims made about ginger, but are they true? Read on to see what ginger can do, plus yummy ways to prepare this aromatic spice.
Before turmeric stole the spotlight
, ginger was one of the top spices people turned to as a kitchen cure. The dried spice made from ginger root has been used for thousands of years in Asian medicine to help treat nausea, diarrhea, colds, arthritis, menstrual cramps, migraines, high blood pressure and more. Modern advocates point to its stomach-soothing, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, and some say ginger may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But before you move your ginger from the spice rack to the medicine cabinet, here's a closer look at the science behind ginger's health benefits.
If you've ever drunk ginger ale or ginger tea to soothe an upset stomach, you probably know that ginger can help tame your tummy troubles. Of all the claims made about ginger, this one is the most backed up by science—especially when it comes to pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. "There's good medical evidence from randomized controlled trials showing that ginger teas and ginger capsules are better than placebo at reducing nausea and vomiting with basically zero risk to the pregnancy," says Hong-Thao Thieu, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center. The best dose? Research points to 250 mg four times a day (1 g total daily), or about 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ginger per day. And make sure it's real ginger. "A lot of products contain ginger flavoring, but do not actually contain ginger," says Thieu, "and supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, so the dose may be hard to control." If you're opting for ginger ale, be sure to stir out some of the bubbles to avoid gas buildup, which could make symptoms worse, adds Thieu. And, if you're pregnant, be sure to talk with your health care provider.
Ginger may also benefit those experiencing nausea during chemotherapy, especially in conjunction with standard medications. Participants experienced significantly less nausea and vomiting immediately after treatment when taking ginger three days before and three days after chemotherapy, according to a study in Supportive Care in Cancer. Effective doses were either 250 mg or 500 mg, twice daily. While the people in this study experienced the same intensity of symptoms on days two and three following treatment as the control group, sipping 4 daily cups of ginger tea (made by infusing 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger in hot water for 5-10 minutes), or cooking with 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ginger per day may be worth a try.
Though there is not yet enough research to say that ginger is beneficial for motion sickness or post-op nausea, there are promising studies (in both humans and animals) that help explain how ginger works. Compounds in the ginger plant—notably gingerols and shogaols—may help speed up digestion (which is slower during pregnancy and while undergoing chemotherapy) and reduce markers of inflammation (a possible source of nausea during chemotherapy) at doses around 1 g of ginger per day.
While some research suggests ginger is beneficial for people with osteoarthritis for reducing joint swelling and pain intensity, the doses studied are much higher than what you'd get from natural sources. For example, one trial found that people who took two daily doses of a ginger extract (equivalent to about 3 g of dried ginger, or 6 g per day) had a modest improvement in symptoms. The Arthritis Foundation still recommends ginger as a safe and alternate therapy to try, so it might be worth adding more ginger to your diet.
And attention ladies: ginger may also help with painful periods. While it's not a sure thing, preliminary studies suggest that 1 g of ginger a day (the equivalent of 1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger)—spread out into either two (500 mg) or four (250 mg) doses—may be just as effective as NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, against cramps.
Other Health Benefits of Ginger
Even though there are many more touted benefits of ginger—we've heard everything from cures the flu, helps you lose weight, reduces heart disease and cancer risk, relieves constipation, improves memory and symptoms of GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome—there's simply not enough research to back up these claims. But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. "Growing up with parents from Asia, I think there's a lot in allopathic medicine that we don't know enough about," says Thieu, "and if it's not harmful then it is probably worth trying."
Though ginger's flu-fighting power has only been seen in a test tube (i.e., not in humans), any hot beverage, including ginger tea, may have soothing effects to help you feel better faster. And a recent analysis of preliminary studies in Food & Nutrition Research suggests that 1 to 2 g per day (about 1/2 teaspoon-1 teaspoon fresh ginger) may improve markers of heart disease (fasting blood glucose, inflammation and even "good" HDL cholesterol).
Ginger seems to be beneficial for myriad conditions, but it is far from a cure-all. More research is needed, but, in general, 1 g of real ginger (sorry, not ginger-flavored gingersnaps or sugary soda) throughout the day seems to be both safe and effective. You can try about 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ginger, 4 cups of prepackaged or homemade ginger tea, or 1 cup of ginger ale (made with real ginger). The most common (yet rare) side effect reported was heartburn, especially when taking capsules. And experts advise avoiding high doses of ginger if you have gallstones or if you are on blood thinners or medication for diabetes or high blood pressure, due to possible drug interactions.
How to Use Ginger
Available in both fresh and powdered form, ginger is an aromatic, peppery and pungent spice that's great in stir-fries, steamed or braised dishes, and even in baked treats like muffins or biscuits, says Chef Fred Brash, instructor and ombudsman at the Culinary Institutes of America. Traditionally used in Asian cuisine, ginger is also great in smoothies (beware: it's strong; use sparingly) with bananas, apples and pears, or paired with vegetables like mushrooms, green beans, cabbage (Brash recommends Chinese napa) and zucchini.
And here are a few tips if you opt for fresh. "Look for smooth skin—not too many ruffles or wrinkles, which means it has been sitting around—and you want to make sure it is dry, so that it lasts longer at home," says Brash. Uncut ginger can be stored in a cupboard (for about 2 weeks) and in the fridge (for at least a month). Once cut, place it in the fridge in an airtight bag and it's good for about 2 weeks.
To help ginger last, take a spoon or paring knife and peel parallel strips, down the stem, so that a majority of the ginger is still protected by the skin. If preparing a stir-fry or using ginger in a steamed dish, cut 1/8-inch circles, then slice the circles into thin strips. (For braising, use thicker chunks, about 1/4-inch.) And savvy cooks will know the acronym GGS—for garlic, ginger, scallion. "It's a marriage of flavors," notes Brash. "They go really well together."
Watch How to Make Gingery Green Smoothies