Ginger (Zingibar officinale) is a crowd-pleaser not only for its characteristic spicy flavor but also the many favors it does the body. It’s known to quell morning sickness and ease motion sickness to some extent. It’s also had as a digestive aid since it increases peristalsis and expels gas. True to its fame as an anti-inflammatory, ginger blocks certain genes from producing enzymes that play a major part in the inflammatory pathway and inhibits other enzymes that help produce free radicals.
Ginger may once have been native to Asia, but now it enjoys a place of pride in cuisines across the world. The part of the herb used is the rhizome – the vertical fleshy part of the root. Its versatile use attests to both its unique taste and its multiple health benefits.
Here’s what it contains.
- Monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes like camphene, β-phellandrene, curcumene, cineole, geranyl acetate, terphineol, terpenes, borneol, geraniol, limonene, βelemene, zingiberol, linalool, α-zingiberene, βsesquiphellandrene, β-bisabolene, zingiberenol, and αfarmesene
- Terpenes like zingiberene, β-bisabolene, α-farnesene, β-sesquiphellandrene, and α-curcumene
- Phenolic compounds like gingerol ([6-gingerol, 8-gingerol, and 10-gingerol] It gives ginger its spiciness. It is chemically similar to piperine and capsaicin, which make pepper and chillies spicy, respectively), paradols, and shogaol ([6-shogaol and 10-shogaol] Dried ginger has more shogaol than fresh ginger), 1-dehydrogingerdione, 6-gingerdione and 10-gingerdione, 4- gingerdiol, 6-gingerdiol, 8-gingerdiol, and 10-gingerdiol, and diarylheptanoids
- Other polyphenols like quercetin, kaempferol, catechin and epicatechin (also found in green tea), rutin, naringenin, and curcumin (a compound that gives ginger its slightly yellow hue)
Why It’s So Great
1. Helps with Digestion
The thing with good digestion is that you hardly notice it. Ginger can help make the process even more “inconspicuous.” Here’s how.
- Increases gastric motility: The pungent chemicals in ginger, like the gingerols and shogaols, activate 5-HT4 receptors in the food tract. As a result, a chemical called acetylcholine is released. Acetylcholine gives a green signal to start the process of peristalsis – a series of contractions and relaxation that propels food down the food tract – in the last part (antral) of the stomach. In simple words, that means food passes quickly from your stomach to the small intestine.
- Expels gas: Ginger relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and helps release gas – the LES is like a door at the base of the food pipe that opens into the stomach. Usually it remains contracted so that no half-digested food or acid from the stomach can come back up. Ginger relaxes it for a short period of time so that gas is passed easily. The mechanism probably involves blocking calcium ions from entering cells and triggering muscle contraction.
Bonus: Pungent or spicy herbs increase heat inside the body. They activate a protein called TRVP1, which produces a sense of burning. Immediately, the sympathetic nervous system of the body takes over. This set of nerves preps your body for a fitting response to stress (in this case the burning sensation) – fight or flight. Since this requires energy, the white fat cells in your body start burning energy instead of storing it. Ginger is not as pungent as, say, mustard or chilli peppers, but it still produces a heating effect and could help you burn more calories for the next 6 hours. Naturally, you would experience this effect best when you have a few extra pounds.
2. Helps Ease Nausea
Ginger is often recommended for nausea due to motion sickness and morning sickness. Here’s how it works.
- Your brain collects information from the gut with the help of a special type of nerves called the vagal afferent nerves (information like about how full you are or how starved). These nerves have switch-like receptors on them, which get turned on by certain chemicals. Then they pass the information through a series of molecular events. The two receptors that pass on the information for nausea are M3 and 5-HT3. These get switched on by acetylcholine and serotonin, respectively. Gingerol (6-, 8-, and 10- gingerol) and 6-shogaol block these receptors and prevent the signal from passing to the brain.
Dried ginger might be more effective than fresh ginger, since shogaol which is found in dry ginger seems to have a more potent effect.
3. Supports the Immune System
Immunity can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Even as it is killing off foreign agents or trying to contain infections, it releases a horde of reactive cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. Some of the free radicals are used by the immune system to fight invaders, but some go rogue and attack normal healthy cells. The immune system is then called into action again. The result is an endless loop of damage and damage control. That’s where antioxidants save the day. These chemicals found in the body and replenished through food (mostly plant food) react with the extra free radicals and protect the cells.
- Ginger offers antioxidants that are useful in rounding up different types of free radicals (like reactive oxygen species or ROS and peroxides).
- 6 Dehydroshogaol, 6-shogaol and 1-dehydro-6-gingerdione in ginger stop the synthesis of nitric oxide, another free radical.
- Ginger inhibits an enzyme called xanthine oxidase, involved in the generation of reactive oxygen species – a highly reactive free radical.
When cells are damaged (whether by free radicals, microbes, or injury), inflammation ensues. You may notice it as redness, swelling, and pain. It is your immune system’s way of healing you. But sometimes, inflammation lingers on, putting all normal processes in your body on hold and making it susceptible to many health conditions. Ginger could lend a hand in reducing those kinds of inflammation.
Inflammation happens in a series of steps, involving a number of mediators. These mediator molecules pass on the instruction for inflammation to other molecules, and the chain continues. Two such mediator molecules are prostaglandin and leukotriene, produced by two enzymes called cyclooxygenase (COX) and 5-lipoxygenase (LOX), respectively.
- Gingerol and shogaol help prevent genes from producing COX1 ( 8-gingerol, 8-shogaol, and 8-paradol are the most effective) and COX2 (10-gingerol) enzymes. They also directly inhibit the action of COX enzymes so that prostaglandins are not produced.
- They inhibit LOX from producing leukotriene.
- They prevent the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines (a special group of proteins) like IL-1, TNF-α, and IL-8.
4. Helps Keep Energy Levels Steady
You must have often used ginger tea as a pick-me-up. There’s more to it than folk wisdom. Possibly, thanks to its heat-producing effect (thermogenic effect), ginger can cause an increase in blood flow. More blood flow means more nutrients and oxygen delivered directly to cells. What you may experience as an effect is a feeling of rejuvenation.
The other way ginger keeps your energy levels steady is by helping maintain your blood glucose balance. It lends your body’s glucose-lowering mechanism a hand, possibly by blocking enzymes (α-glucosidase and α-amylase) involved in breaking down carbs. As a result, not too much glucose is released into the blood after a meal. While you may not find anything wrong with some extra glucose for energy after a meal, the fact is that your body stores away the extra glucose as glycogen for later use and also fat. Also an uneven release of glucose portends an energy crash soon after.
5. Helps with Detoxification
The liver is your body’s primary organ for detoxification. It helps your body discard toxins. But in the process, it also takes a hit from free radicals, especially if there are not enough antioxidants around. Anything that aims to detox your body must therefore focus on providing antioxidant support to the liver. Which is why ginger finds itself in most detox drinks.
- Not only does it have more than 50 antioxidants, it also helps increase the activity of the natural antioxidants like glutathione and antioxidant enzymes in your body like superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase.
- In fact, it increases the production of the antioxidant enzyme gamma-glutamyl-cysteine ligase, which controls the rate of production of the antioxidant glutathione.
Ginger is just as versatile when it comes to its use in food. Sliver it thinly and mix it with salads, stir fry it, use it as tempering, pickle it, grate it over ready meals, or use it to flavor desserts, ginger will fit in perfectly.
You could also consume it in the form of a tea. Cut a 1-inch ginger root into thin slices. Steep them in boiling water for about 10 minutes.
You can safely have up to 4g ginger every day. That’s equivalent to about 3 teaspoons.