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Ginger, which comes from a flowering root plant, especially provides a variety of great health benefits. Found first in Southeast Asia, the spice has been used in Eastern medicine practices since the 9th century, and is also a staple of Asian, Indian and Caribbean cuisines.
By appearances alone, ginger doesn’t look like a body booster. When you’re eating ginger, you’re eating the root (called the rhizome), which resembles a smaller sweet potato or even a gnarled tree.
But ginger is both delicious and highly nutritious. Dietitian Candace O’Neill, RD, LDN, shares the multiple health benefits of ginger and explains why it packs a powerful punch.
Fresh ginger boasts a potent compound called gingerol, which includes antioxidant properties and reduces inflammatory enzymes. As a result, ginger is “beneficial for inflammatory-related conditions and pain relief, specifically menstrual cramps and also arthritis-based conditions,” O’Neill says. For example, in a clinical trial, ginger showed promise for improving knee pain associated with osteoarthritis.
Dried ginger also contains anti-inflammatory compounds, but gingerol changes form when heated into a different compound that’s not as effective.
Interestingly, O’Neill says ginger’s been linked more to long-term pain relief rather than immediate pain relief. “When you take over-the-counter pain medication, it helps in an instant. Researchers studying the effects of ginger found the spice has a delayed effect. In a few days, people may anecdotally say, ‘You know what, I feel like I’m in less pain.’”
Gingerol could also explain ginger’s role in keeping blood sugar levels steady. This is key to controlling the long-term health effects of Type 2 diabetes. “The ginger reduces enzymes that break down carbohydrates and so it helps with glucose (sugar) metabolism,” notes O’Neill.
People with Type 2 diabetes often don’t produce enough insulin, which is important to ensuring glucose circulates throughout your body and doesn’t accumulate in your bloodstream. Studies have also found that ginger encourages your muscles to absorb glucose, without requiring you to take extra insulin.
This could lead to additional positive side effects. “When you’re insulin resistant, sometimes, it can make it harder to lose weight,” O’Neill explains. “Improved blood sugar regulation may help with weight loss and potentially make your body more sensitive to insulin.”
As a kid, your parents might have given you ginger ale to treat an upset stomach. But it’s likely not the ginger that settled your tummy. “Most ginger ales don’t actually contain real ginger,” says O’Neill. “It’s probably more of the carbonation that helps settle someone’s stomach.”
Eating fresh ginger can help with various forms of nausea, though, including morning sickness, motion sickness and the side effects of some chemotherapy regimens. “Ginger may be helpful because it helps increase the way food moves through your GI tract, called gastric motility, and block serotonin receptors in our gut lining,” she adds. This can help silence nerves that trigger your vomiting reflex.
One study found that people who took ginger pills daily saw decreased levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol and bad cholesterol (otherwise known as low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) after 45 days, as compared to people who were given a placebo. But more research is needed to definitively say that you can take ginger to lower cholesterol.
There’s no magic amount of ginger that makes a difference for inflammatory-related conditions and pain relief.
But don’t start taking a ginger supplement before consulting a doctor.
“High-dose supplements can actually cause nausea and gastric reflux,” O’Neill warns. “High doses of ginger can also interact with blood-thinning medication. It’s always important to speak to a practitioner before you start taking any dietary supplement.”
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, other potential side effects of ginger include:
Ginger is easy to add to your diet, in no small part because a little goes a long way. “People sometimes describe fresh ginger as tasting spicy-sweet, while dry ginger has more of a pungent taste,” O’Neill shares.
You can buy ginger in fresh, dried or powdered form — or take ginger root and grate or grind it yourself at home to your desired consistency. “Ginger can be found in a few options at the grocery store,” she adds. “You can purchase just the root itself. You can buy it dried, or you can consume pickled ginger or ginger tea. There are also ginger shots that might be beneficial.”
Ginger tea also offers health benefits, especially if you’re looking for relief from inflammatory conditions or nausea. But O’Neill notes another common liquid — ginger beer — may not be the best choice for relief.
“Sometimes, ginger beer has a lot of added sugar, which is not healthy, especially if you’re concerned about an inflammatory condition like arthritis,” she continues. “Drinking ginger tea would be probably more advantageous since it does not contain added sugar.”
You can use ginger in vegetables, stir-fries, chicken dishes, soups, curries, sauces for main dishes, salad dressings, desserts, smoothies, and even pancakes and tea. Sprinkle it on applesauce or vegetables before roasting them.
Some common ginger-augmented recipes include:
“You can keep fresh ginger root in the freezer and grate it to add to recipes as needed,” O’Neill suggests. “The options are endless. The benefits are long term.”
Get in the habit of incorporating ginger-rich foods into your diet on an ongoing basis, so you experience the most health benefits. Luckily, because ginger tastes so good, we’re more inclined to eat it.
“Which is important, because eating it more often will cultivate a healthier dietary pattern,” O’Neill encourages. “This can help with reducing the risk of chronic disease — or help to manage chronic disease.”