Ginger Health Benefits, Side Effects and Truth About Claims

Close up of ginger roots piled on top of each other

Ginger has a very long history of use in various forms of traditional and alternative medicine. In fact, there are few plants that have more health benefits associated with it than ginger.

Ginger is a flowering plant that originated from China. It belongs to the Zingiberaceae family, and is closely related to turmeric, cardamom and galangal. The rhizome (underground part of the stem) is the part commonly used as a spice. It is often called ginger root, or simply ginger.

Red flowering plant of ginger

Gingerol is the main bioactive compound in ginger, responsible for much of its medicinal properties. Researchers believe ginger’s chemicals work primarily in the stomach and intestines to provide possible anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects; but they may also work in the brain and nervous system to control nausea.

The edible part of the ginger plant that we usually use is the rhizome, or root stem that grows horizontally underneath the dirt, but the milder ginger shoots and leaves are edible too. 

The most common type of fresh ginger found at the supermarket is mature. It has a tough outer skin but should still feel smooth and emit a fresh, spicy fragrance. Rhizomes with wrinkles and cracks are past their prime. 

When you bring fresh ginger home from the market, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator. It should stay fresh there for two to three weeks.

Health claims attributed to ginger are considerable. Most involve stomach related remedies, using ginger to improve irregularities of the blood, and recognizing ginger as an anti-inflammatory.

Just 1 to 1.5 grams of ginger is used to treat many forms of nausea, especially morning sickness. It may work by breaking up and getting rid of built-up gas in your intestines. It might also help settle seasickness or nausea caused by chemotherapy or following surgery.

If you live with chronic indigestion ( dyspepsia) and related stomach discomfort, ginger is said to bring some relief. Ginger before meals may make your system empty faster, leaving less time for food to sit and cause problems.

Ginger is also said to lower cholesterol levels. The foods you eat can have a strong influence on LDL lipoproteins (the bad cholesterol) levels. High levels of LDL are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

List of health claims for ginger

Additionally, ginger is believed to drastically lower blood sugars and improve heart disease risk factors – especially in patients with type 2 diabetes.

As an anti-inflammatory, ginger powder may be effective against menstrual pain when taken at the beginning of the menstrual period. Ginger may also be effective at reducing the day-to-day progression of muscle pain such as reducing exercise-induced muscle soreness.

Joint pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis may be lessened through ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties.

There’s also the belief that ginger may help prevent cancer in some individuals. The possible anti-cancer properties are attributed to 6-gingerol, a substance found in large amounts in raw ginger.

Concerns logo for ginger

While rare, some people do have bad reactions to ginger such as abdominal discomfort (especially diarrhea), heartburn or gas.

Taking ginger might also increase your risk of bleeding as well as worsen some heart conditions when high doses of ginger are consumed. Diabetics also need to be cautious. Ginger might increase insulin levels and/or lower blood sugar. Consequently, diabetes medications might need to be adjusted by your healthcare provider.

Applied to the skin appropriately, ginger is likely safe, although it could also cause irritation on the skin of certain individuals if left on the skin for too long.

Some experts recommend that people with gallstone disease use caution with ginger because it may increase the flow of bile.

Of all the literature on ginger as a medicinal remedy, the greatest concerns involve women who are pregnant. While ginger may help deal with morning sickness, there is also the possibility ginger might affect fetal sex hormones or increase the risk of having a baby that is stillborn.

That said, most studies in pregnant women suggest that ginger can be used safely for morning sickness without harm to the baby. The risk for major malformations in infants of women taking ginger does not appear to be higher than the usual rate of 1% to 3%. Also there doesn’t appear to be an increased risk of early labor or low birth weight.

There is some concern that ginger might increase the risk of bleeding, so some experts advise against using it close to your delivery date. As with any medication given during pregnancy, it’s important to weigh the benefits against the risk.

Before using ginger during pregnancy (or afterward while breastfeeding), talk it over with your healthcare provider.

Definitely avoid giving ginger to children (especially under the age of 2). However, ginger is possibly safe when taken by mouth for up to four days by teenage girls around the start of their period. Ginger may interact with:

  • Medications that slow blood clotting
  • Phenprocoumon
  • Warfarin (Coumadin) or other blood thinners
  • Diabetes medications
  • High blood pressure medications
  • Heart disease medications
How to take ginger graphic

For medicinal purposes, ginger is usually take one of two ways: tea or eaten raw.

You can find many recipes on the internet for making ginger tea such as this one from Dr. Susan Brown, a medical anthropologist, a New York State Certified Nutritionist, and the author of “Better Bones, Better Body” – the first comprehensive look at natural bone health:

You can also eat raw ginger. This is generally done by pealing the ginger then cutting it into thin slices and storing in the refrigerator. Most people advocate eating a slice when you think of it during the day. Keep in mind that raw ginger has a strong taste that has been compared to a really hot radish.  This is why you take only a thin slice at a time.

Ginger advocates claim that eating raw ginger this way can lead to many health benefits including reducing acid indigestion, more regular stools and even weight loss after 30 days of consumption. But it’s advised not to ingest more than 4 grams of ginger per day.

A logo saying the science

Like many medicinal herbs, much of the information has been handed down by word-of-mouth with little controlled scientific evidence to support the numerous claims. However, in the last few years, more organized scientific investigations have focused on the mechanisms and targets of ginger and its various components.

In fact, there are currently quite a few clinical trials being conducted to prove or disprove the efficacy of ginger as a healing medium. Over the past several years, many of these trials have produced positive results supporting the health claims of its advocates.

For example, some research studies have proved the effectiveness of ginger against diabetes and its complications.

In other studies, it’s been verified that ginger root contains a very high level of total antioxidants surpassed only by pomegranates and some types of berries. This fact along with positive results from clinical trials verifies claims that ginger has the ability to decrease inflammation, swelling and pain.

The clinical trial of Black et al. involved 36 participants using 2 grams of ginger supplementation for 11 days to cure muscle pain. This trial proved that daily consumption of raw ginger resulted in moderate-to-large reductions in muscle pain.

One of the claims that remains controversial is that ginger helps relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis. One study showed that ginger had a statistically significant impact on reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis, but another high profile study proved that the effect of ginger in osteoarthritis was significant only in the first period of treatment.

Several controlled studies have reported that ginger is generally effective as an antiemetic (a substance that is effective against vomiting and nausea). Among those studies: Boone and Shields 2005, Thompson and Potter 2006  and Quimby 2007. The effectiveness of ginger as an antiemetic has been attributed to its carminative effect, which helps to break up and expel intestinal gas.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NCBI) has devoted a lot of space over the years objectively reporting on the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of ginger in studies and trials.

Slices of fresh ginger

A lot of eyes have been following research on the possibility that ginger may help prevent various forms of cancer, especially GI cancers such as gastric cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, colorectal cancer and cholangiocarcinoma.

In general, the trials have had mixed results. For instance, in one study of 30 people, 2 grams of ginger extract per day significantly reduced pro-inflammatory signaling molecules in the colon. However, a follow-up study in individuals at a high risk of colon cancer did not confirm these findings.

There has also been some limited evidence that ginger may be effective against pancreatic cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer. However, it’s generally believed that more research is needed.

Graphic that says conclusions

As a medicinal plant, ginger most definitely offers health benefits. Eaten raw or taken as a tea, ginger’s anti-inflammatory effect may be efficacious as a pain reliever, especially if the object is to reduce pain after intense physical activity.

There’s also reason to believe that ginger has value in helping with blood-based issues such as lowering cholesterol and improving blood sugar levels.

The claim that ginger helps with pain associated with osteoarthritis is less reliable.

There’s also good scientific support that ginger helps relieve symptoms associated with nausea including individuals suffering from motion sickness, morning sickness and nausea from chemotherapy and various post operations. While likely safe, women who are pregnant or nursing should ask their health provider if taking ginger is a good idea.

It would be nice to say unequivocally that ginger helps prevent cancer. It’s antioxidant qualities would certainly play into that role. However, while some research looks promising, it may be too early to classify ginger as an anticancer agent.

And, as with all medicinal plants and supplements, it’s wise to discuss their use with a health provider before consuming. For most people, ginger has no side effects. But there have been issues reported, including diarrhea and increasing the risk of bleeding.