ginger

Learn more about the health benefits of this versatile spice.

Ginger. Just the word can conjure the heady scent and tangy taste of the freshly prepped knobby root. Whether you slice or grate it into stir fries or sauces; drink it in ginger ale or tea; or eat it candied, baked it into cookies or in ice cream, ginger not only imbues food with its particular pungent, pepper-citrusy flavor, it also has health benefit.

In Asia, India and the Middle East, ginger root has long been used as an herbal medicine as well as a spice. In China, it has, for thousands of years, been used as a digestive aid and a method of treating an upset stomach, diarrhea and nausea. In fact, in various parts of the world, it has been used to treat everything from arthritis and heart disease to headaches, the common cold and even menstrual cramps.

Today, people may use ginger for the treatment of nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness, pregnancy, from chemotherapy or following surgery. Other uses include osteoarthritis-related pain reduction – and there’s even some indication that it may lower cholesterol and help prevent blood clots.

Still, the research supporting some of these uses is ongoing.

“While ginger has long been used as a dietary supplement to help ease nausea, the beneficial effects may be limited to certain types,” Jessica Levings, MS, RD, owner of Balanced Pantry, a company that consults on food and menu labeling, tells Healthy Eats. “Contrary to personal reports, most research actually suggests taking ginger before traveling doesn’t help with motion sickness, but research does support its use in lessening pregnancy- and surgery-related nausea.”

Levings notes that studies underscoring ginger’s use as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent are “limited.”

“Some clinical studies have found that ginger can suppress the growth of food borne pathogens such as E. coli, but more research is needed to fully understand how the spice effects gastrointestinal infections and bacteria growth,” she says.

While eating fresh ginger – as a spice or a root – as part of a healthy diet is generally considered safe, taking it as a supplement may lead to mild heartburn, upset stomach or diarrhea in some people. It may interact with certain medications and, in some studies, increase the risk for bleeding or boost insulin levels, lowering blood sugar, or even exacerbate some heart conditions.

“As with any over-the-counter medication or supplement, it's important to talk with your healthcare provider before you begin taking it,” Levings advises. “This is especially true for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.”

Bottom line: While taking ginger as a supplement won’t counteract a healthy diet and eating it in large quantity is not recommended (no more than 4g per day for adults and 1g for pregnant women is advisable, and it should never be given to children under age 2, the University of Maryland Medical Center cautions), adding it to a balanced diet – once rich in fruits, vegetables, dairy, lean meat, whole grains and a range of herbs and spices – may be healthy.

“It’s the combination of healthy eating and physical activity that improves health and well-being,” Levings says.