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Nutrient - Warming Ginger

By Corin Evans DipION MBANT

Related to cardamom, turmeric and galangal, ginger or Zingiber officinale to give it its proper name, has a long history of medicinal and culinary uses around the world. Its distinctive aroma and flavour is an integral part of many foods, both savoury and sweet all over the Asian world, whilst in the West gingerbread men, ginger cake and ginger beer were the firm family favourites of our childhood.

Grown in Asia and the Caribbean, it is the rhizome or thick horizontal stem of the plant that has been used through the centuries for various purposes. In India and China it was used to treat colds, coughs, nausea and rheumatism, whilst the Ancient Greeks ate it after meals as a digestive aid. In more modern times, ginger is still widely used for its therapeutic effects, most notably that on travel sickness. With its characteristic pungent aroma it is easy to imagine that ginger must be doing you ‘a power of good’ but what does current research reveal about this valuable natural food ingredient?

Ginger owes its unique aroma and flavour to the phytochemicals such as gingerols, zingerones and shogaols that constitute the oils and oleoresins found in its rhizome. It is these groups of compounds that seem to be responsible for ginger’s health benefits. Studies suggest that ginger may exert an anti-sickness effect via both the central nervous and gastrointestinal systems. Ginger’s effect on motion sickness is slightly less conclusive, some studies show benefit and others not, however many people do seem to find it very useful.

People often turn to ginger for relief from morning sickness, and many studies do seem to find positive results for its use, however others report that ginger may affect foetal sex hormones. In light of this controversy it is best to stick to ginger in tea or biscuits rather than as a supplement to help survive the queasiness experienced by many women during early pregnancy.

Long-term health benefits

Ginger may also be helpful in supporting healthy protein digestion, thanks to an enzyme called zingibain. This is a proteolytic, or protein digesting enzyme, and ginger can contain up to 2% of it. It would seem that the ancient Greeks knew what they were doing when they ate it after meals!

Sufferers of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis may also find ginger useful. It is thought to inhibit the inflammatory pathways, leading to a reduced production of inflammatory chemicals in the tissues. In a similar vein it seems to be as effective as commonly prescribed medications in relieving menstrual cramps, which may prove particularly valuable for those who find they often turn to medication to help them deal with painful periods.

Ginger may also prove to have potential value in the fight against cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown benefits in thinning the blood and also for managing cholesterol levels.

Ginger’s antioxidant capacity is also being studied for its potential benefit in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have found that one of the primary constituents of ginger, gingerol, appears to help prevent oxidative cell death caused by B-amyloid, a substance found in the amyloid plaques or deposits in brains of those with Alzheimer’s. It appears to do this by strengthening the cell’s own antioxidant defence systems, up regulating several antioxidant enzymes including glutathione.

Providing a wealth of potential health benefits, adding ginger to your shopping list certainly seems to be a great idea. Use fresh ginger to spice up stir-fries, curries, soups and biscuits, or add a couple of slices to flavour hot water for a deliciously warming drink. 

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