When I was younger and came down with a ‘stomach bug’, my parents would often give me flat ginger ale to relieve my discomfort. Growing up, it was a fairly common remedy for stomach issues. Most of us as kids had no idea why it worked, but we knew we felt better and that was the important bit. Fast forward a few decades, and during a bout with norovirus in which I was desperate for some relief, I gave this little trick a try. Sure enough, I felt better.
So the question is, why does it work? It’s not just any flat soda product; it has to be ginger ale, which gives us something of a hint. It’s the ginger. Zingiber officinale, the scientific name for ginger, has been used for thousands of years for a wide variety of health issues, most of which are related to gastrointestinal distress (Ali, 2008). Its use appears in both Chinese medicine and the Ayurvedic system, and it addresses ailments such as stomach cramps, bloating, vomiting, and even infectious diseases, such as helminths (worms) and bacterial infections related to the GI tract. As an infectious disease specialist studying clinical herbalism, I became curious about what modern scientific inquiry might have to say that could corroborate some of these ancient claims.
As it turns out, there is a tremendous body of literature that fully supports many of these assertions. In addition, the studies that investigate ginger are increasing rapidly in number, particularly because scientists have become interested in whether it could be used as a means of decreasing antibiotic usage and, therefore, combating antibiotic resistance. In a really fantastic literature review by Valussi in International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition (2012), we see multiple studies that point to the components of ginger that seem to be responsible for its myriad of uses. The essential oil found in ginger along with chemical components known as oleo-resins were extracted in ethanol (a tincture) and given either via injection into the intestine or orally to rats. In the case of the injection, we see an increase in bile secretion. In the oral administration the results show increased digestive enzymes, including those produced by the pancreas, trypsin and chymotrypsin to break down large proteins in the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). Valussi further describes several studies wherein consumption of ginger in both lab animals and people results in reduced spasmodic activity in the intestines, but increased rates of digestive activity. This includes enzyme stimulation and peristaltic movement, which drives food products through the GI tract. These studies offer evidence to explain why ginger is frequently used to calm an upset stomach (antispasmodic activity) and why those who have difficulty with constipation or other digestive issues (including Crohn’s disease, IBS, and ulcerative colitis) may find some relief by the consumption of ginger before or immediately after meals.
The good work of ginger does not end there. As I mentioned before, many scientists are interested in if ginger could be utilized in lieu of antibiotics and other antimicrobial treatments to stem the tide of resistance in microbes. A study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (Iqbal, 2006) demonstrated that crude powder and a simple aqueous extract of dried ginger were somewhat effective in treating sheep with helminth (nematodes/worms) infections. Both the powder and extract showed a dose-dependent anthelmintic effect with up to a 66.6% reduction in six different species of worm infection. The standard pharmaceutical, Levamisole, exhibited a 99.2% reduction; but it is worth noting that Levamisole has recently gained notoriety as a cutting agent for cocaine, due to its transient neurological side effects, most often reported as “excitement” in both humans and livestock. As such, further investigation of ginger as a potential substitute or complementary treatment is warranted.
Finally, an in vitro study in Phytotherapy Research (Bensch, 2011) explored multiple herbal extracts (in ethanol) to determine if any among them might prove useful against the digestive infection caused by Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni). This is a bacterium that leads to severe diarrhea and is loosely associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an illness in which one’s immune system attacks one’s nerves – resulting in tingling, weakness or even paralysis. Bensch found that of the 21 extracts he studied, the extracts of ginger and licorice exhibited the greatest effect – the inhibition of the C. jejuni ability to adhere to cells in vitro. This finding suggests these extracts warrant further investigation as to whether they could prevent C. jejuni adhesion in the human gut and, thus, prevent infection and disease.
In summary, there is a lot of exciting evidence from both ancient systems and modern scientific inquiry that suggest how ginger is a great addition to one’s diet and perhaps to one’s over-the-counter arsenal of complementary or alternative options as well. This is especially exciting for those who suffer from chronic gastrointestinal distress. That’s not to say that ginger will fix it all, but it may alleviate pain and discomfort for acute flare-ups. Certainly we have progressed rather a long way in our understanding of sugar and other processed foods, so the old trick of a flat ginger ale might not be the best option anymore. Ginger is readily available, however, as are tinctures and teas made from it (or try your hand at making your own), should you wish to integrate any of these into your diet or wellness regimen. While ginger is suggested to be safe with few or no side effects, it is always important that you make sure to check with your physician before making changes or additions to existing medications.
Ali, Badreldin H., Gerald Blunden, Musbah O. Tanira, and Abderrahim Nemmar. Some phytochemical, pharmacological and toxicological properties of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe): A review of recent research. Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (2008): 409-420.
Bensch, K., J. Tiralongo, K. Schmidt, A. Matthias, K.M. Bone, R. Lehmann, and E. Tiralongo. Investigations into the Antiadhesive Activity of Herbal Extracts Against Campylobacter jejuni. Phytotherapy Research 25 (2011): 1125-1132.
Iqbal, Zafar, Muhammad Lateef, Muhammad Shoaib Akhtar, Muhammad Nabeel Ghayur, and Anwarul Hassan Gilani. In vivo anthelmintic activity of ginger against gastrointestinal nematodes of sheep. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006): 285-287.
Valussi, Marco. Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 63(S1; 2012): 82-89.
Rebecca Powell Doherty, PhD has been studying science and doing research since 2001. She graduated with her B.S. in Biology and Genetics from NC State University in 2005 and went on for her PhD in Immunology at UNC Charlotte, graduating in 2010. She has been teaching Anatomy and Physiology, along with other science courses for 7 years.