Skin, stomach, joints...ginger wants to help you all over.
Tim Chow, Unsplash
Most people don't encounter ginger until it's thrust upon them—usually while sick with the flu or hungover—in the form of a cloyingly sweet soft drink. But there are good reasons it's worth seeking out the knobby root when you're not already laid up on the couch. The spice has been used in China and India for centuries for its various healing properties and it's a revered ingredient in the traditional healing practices of ayurveda. There's also scientific research going back more than three decades that suggests ginger could be an ally for treating a number of common ailments. Here are a few.
It helps with digestion.
"Ginger is one of the best known digestive aids," says Taz Bhatia, an integrative health expert in Atlanta. "It contains the active compound gingerol, which has been shown to help ease indigestion, nausea, and vomiting." When it does the job, in other words, it acts a little bit like nature's Pepto. Bhatia suggests sipping on ginger tea before or after meals, or you can go for broke and do both if you're really feeling out of sorts. You don't even have to buy a bunch of tea bags; just grind a teaspoon right off the root and boil it in a cup of water. You can also add some honey to cut the bitter taste and score some extra health benefits in the process.
It makes boat rides less miserable.
"Ginger is an intestinal spasmolytic, which means it can help relax the intestines, which in turn can help settle your stomach," says Ariane Hundt, a clinical nutrition coach in New York City. One classic study (for some reason a lot of the best ginger research was done in the '80s) in the journal The Lancet found that taking ginger capsules delayed the onset of sickness twice as long as taking medication or a placebo. An double-blind randomized placebo trial found that ginger reduced the tendency to vomit and break into cold sweat for naval cadets better than a placebo did. Hundt suggests chewing on raw ginger before stepping on a boat—or if that's too weird, you can also try popping a couple of ginger candies.
It shows promise for fighting inflammation.
Despite some wellness sites that make inflammation out to be one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, it's important to note that not all inflammation is bad—often, it's a totally natural bodily response to a threat, Bhatia says. When you get a paper cut, for instance, and your skin turns all red and puffy, that's inflammation doing its job. It's chronic inflammation that has everyone spooked.
When your body perceives threats, it sends white blood cells to attack the invader, heal damaged tissue, or both. But sometimes there is no real threat and these white bloods cells have nothing to do, so they hang around like a guest who's outstayed his welcome, Bhatia says. Prolonged inflammation can eventually hurt your organs, Hundt says, and that's where ginger may be able to help your body fight back. In one study on rats, researchers compared the anti-inflammatory properties of ginger and curcumin (the active compound in turmeric) and found that both spices "significantly suppressed (but with different degrees) the incidence and severity of arthritis by decreasing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines." Worth noting: Turmeric was actually the more effective of the two, so consider incorporating both supplements the next time you experience a flare-up.
It could help relieve pain.
Okay, it's no substitute for two Advil, but after a hard workout, ginger just might help take the edge off your aching muscles. A small, randomized study found that supplements containing ground ginger, either raw or heat-treated, were effective as natural anti-inflammatories for muscle pain following exercise; people taking them reported about 25 percent less pain compared to those who swallowed a placebo. (The ginger was given in tasteless capsule form.) It's thought that cooking ginger increases its pain-relieving powers but that wasn't the case here: The non-heat-treated version worked just as well.
And in one petri dish study—meaning the effects still need to be studied on humans—researchers found reason to speculate that ginger extract could be more effective than cortisone and ibuprofen for treating osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. That's because the ibuprofen didn't have any effect on cytokine production, and cytokines can cause inflammation that leads to pain. (The more cytokines there are, the more pain you feel.) The ginger extract, on the other hand, reduced the number of cytokines significantly. (The corticosteroid did too, but drugs in that class are also linked to negative side effects like vision problems, increased appetite, depression, and restlessness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ginger doesn't have those downsides.)
It can help treat acne and fade scars.
Sure, acne is supposed to be something you stop having to deal with once you're no longer a teen. But adult acne is very real pain in the ass for a lot of people—women especially—according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Ginger can help with that, as it's known to be a strong antiseptic and cleansing agent that keeps acne from forming by getting rid of breakout-causing bacteria, says Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It can also reduce the appearance of skin pigmentation and scars. He recommends dabbing a fresh sliver on the affected area daily; you should notice a difference in a few weeks.
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