Up Close & Edible: Ginger

After more than 2,000 years of folklore touting ginger as a treatment for nausea and inflammation, it turns out that the ancients were right. Though the robust taste is not for the timid, ginger successfully quelled nausea and dizziness in several clinical studies and showed an excellent track record in preliminary trials as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Over the centuries, sages in China, India, Japan and Greece have celebrated the root's medicinal qualities in treating a host of ailments ranging from migraines to cholera to inflamed livers. Thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, the spice has appeared in the earliest medical books touting its calming effects and aid in troubled circulation. By the Middle Ages, Arab trade had brought the root to England, where it became popular in sauces, gingerbread and as crystallized candy. Even King Henry VIII was reputed to have a fondness for ginger at a time when it was known as a powerful aphrodisiac.

Today, ginger is finding a place in medicine again as researchers explore the qualities that have made this humble root so appealing for so long. Most documented is ginger's effectiveness in soothing all kinds of nausea from morning sickness during pregnancy to chemotherapy side effects and postoperative dizziness. "It's a really cool way to suggest a possible treatment for women who are pregnant because it doesn't have the harmful side effects of nausea medication," says Christine Gerbstadp, dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Doctors recommend 2 to 4 grams a day for nausea or, for travel sickness, about the same amount 30 minutes before boarding the vessel or vehicle.

Prospects also look good for ginger as an anti-inflammatory agent to treat those who suffer from such illnesses as arthritis. "The evidence is preliminary and promising," says Tieraona Low Dog, medical doctor and director of education for the program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.  "We have the basic science (for how it works), we have animal studies and we have a few clinical studies. But our challenges are what's the best dose and what's the best way to give it to somebody." Researchers also believe ginger has antioxidant properties, which could help prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

There are simple and yummy ways to get your ginger. The spice is a great complement for any stir-fry or salad, and a cup of hot water with ground ginger and honey could easily become a comforting nighttime routine. For those who dislike its strong taste, though, caplets with ginger powder are an alternative.

Ginger is not for everyone. Those on prescription blood thinners should consult their physicians before going on a ginger gorge, as agents in ginger could react poorly with the drugs. Also, since ginger flavor is so potent, use common sense if eating it causes any discomfort. "Like all spices, if you add too much, it upsets your stomach," says Low Dog. "That's going to be the trick for future research: how are we going to get ginger into people at that level without upsetting the stomach?"

Even if ginger doesn't become a medicinal mainstay, its place as a delicious treat is secure. "Those ginger candies?" Low Dog says:  "Oh, my God."