To fully appreciate the merits of ginger, one must look beneath the surface — literally. Root ginger is the underground stem, or rhizome, of the ginger plant. Underneath its knobby, burlap-colored skin lies pungent golden, white or red flesh. Ginger's sweet, tangy punch — enjoyed in cuisines the world over — conceals its medicinal nature. This versatile, international ingredient is in fact one of the world's oldest and most universal healing herbs.
Ginger's use as a remedy for digestive distress, colds and viruses dates back at least 5,000 years to ancient Chinese practitioners. For centuries, the Ayurvedic tradition in India and Tibet has made use of ginger to treat inflammatory joint diseases including arthritis and rheumatism. Many of these time-tested therapeutic values have been borne out by modern Western science.
The Chinese first prescribed ginger for digestive maladies as early as 3,000 B.C. Today, controlled studies indicate that ginger may be as effective as or superior to pharmaceuticals in reducing nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness, surgery, pregnancy or illness. Compared to over-the-counter motion sickness drugs, ginger may provide greater benefit for the multiple symptoms of dizziness, cold sweating and upset stomach. While many antivomiting drugs can cause birth defects during pregnancy, ginger is safe and side effect free. Other digestive benefits include protection against ulcers and pro-biotic support of natural gut flora.
In addition to calming the intestinal tract, the zesty spice may also defend against the growth of colorectal and other cancer cells. The active compounds gingerols offer free radical protection through antioxidant activity. They also may help guard against cell damage in the case of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals or to the sun. In mice, ginger oil has been shown to prevent skin cancer. A study at the University of Michigan showed that gingerols can kill ovarian cancer cells without creating resistance as conventional chemotherapeutic agents often do.
Inflammation is thought to be a precursor to the development of cancer, and ginger's effectiveness as an anti-inflammatory agent is well-documented. Trials in Denmark showed that regular ginger consumption brought relief in pain and swelling to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers and improved mobility. Since ginger inhibits the formation of inflammatory compounds, it can quell other inflammatory conditions such as asthma and migraines and is safer than pharmaceuticals. Ginger holds promise for arteriosclerosis or coronary artery disease patients as well. A Cornell University study found that ginger inhibits the aggregation of platelets, which can lead to blood clots.
The warming sensation of consuming fresh ginger is a boon for staving off colds, flu, and even skin infections. Brewed as a tea, ginger induces healthy sweating, which reduces fevers, detoxifies the body and transports an important germ-fighting agent — dermicidin — to the skin's surface. Dermicidin acts as a barrier against microorganisms including E. coli, staph aureus, fungi and Candida albicans. Ginger itself has antimicrobial properties. It has been proven to kill salmonella and a common parasite called Anisakis, making ginger a useful food preservative.
Ginger's array of curative possibilities is proof positive that we should honor the wisdom of the ancients. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, who praised the health benefits of ginger in his writings and was never without it when he ate, once said, "Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it." Given ginger's buried treasures, this couldn't be more true.