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January 3, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

Mother knew best: Ginger’s medicinal benefits

From nausea to arthritis, ginger products can provide relief

ANN ARBOR, MI -A common mother’s home remedy for a tummy ache or nausea has long been a glass of ginger ale or ginger tea. It turns out mom was onto something.

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“Ginger does appear to have several medicinal qualities,” says Suzanna Zick, N.D., MPH, research investigator in family medicine at the University of Michigan Health System. Zick is specifically looking at whether ginger can be used to prevent nausea from chemotherapy. But, she says, ginger has also been shown to warm the body, settle the digestive tract and relieve some types of arthritis.

There are three main ways that ginger appears to help.First, its main constituent is a substance called gingerol, a strong antioxidant that helps to decrease either the production of or potential damage from free radicals in the body. This works in nausea by decreasing oxidative products made in the digestive tract that cause nausea to occur.

Second, ginger causes the blood vessels to dilate, explaining its warming effect. The third factor is that it blocks serotonin receptors in the stomach that cause nausea. “What it actually does is blocks those receptors so serotonin can’t go into them and cause more nausea,” Zick says.

Fresh ginger root appears to have the most medicinal qualities. Zick recommends buying fresh ginger at the supermarket and grinding or chopping it to add to foods. The dried form of ginger may work well too. Ginger is available in capsule form, or you can get benefit from ginger tea, ginger ale and even things like ginger snap cookies – as long as they are made with real ginger.

“People really need to be aware that there are a lot of products, especially ginger ales these days, that put in a synthetic form of ginger or hardly any real ginger. So if you really wanted the medicinal effect, you would have to make sure that that brand had actual ginger in it,” Zick says.

Zick and colleagues at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center are looking at whether ginger can prevent nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. Study participants receive ginger capsules in one of two doses. The study, which is ongoing at 10 sites throughout the country, is testing whether ginger can help people who experience nausea even after taking standard anti-nausea drugs.

“We know anecdotally that the participants in the study say they are overall very
happy to be in the study and satisfied with their treatment,” Zick says. “We don’t know what that means yet. We’re hoping that means the ginger is doing something really good, and we have had a few participants say they felt they could decrease their other medications while they were in the study. Whether that’s a placebo effect or from the ginger, we’ll have to wait until the study ends,” Zick says.

While it’s too early to know if ginger will help cancer patients, previous studies have shown it’s effective at controlling nausea related to motion sickness, post-operative recovery and pregnancy.

Controlling nausea

Nausea is often a side effect of standard cancer treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Whatever its cause, nausea can prevent you from getting enough food and nutrients in your diet. Follow these dos and don’ts when faced with an unsettled stomach:

Do:

  • Toast or crackers
  • Sherbet
  • Pretzels
  • Oatmeal
  • Soft, bland fruits and vegetables, such as canned peaches
  • Clear liquids
  • Small amounts of food often and slowly

Don’t:

  • Fatty, greasy or fried foods
  • Very sweet foods, such as candy or cake
  • Spicy or hot foods
  • Foods with strong odors
  • Liquids with meals

For more information, visit these Web sites:
National Cancer Institute: Ginger treatment for cancer-related nausea and vomiting (study details) www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials/ft-CCUM-0201

University of Maryland Medical Center: Ginger overview
www.umm.edu/altmed/ConsHerbs/Gingerch.html

American Cancer Society: Ginger and cancer
www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Ginger.asp?sitearea=ETO

U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center: A guide to chemotherapy
www.cancer.med.umich.edu/learn/chemo03.htm

National Cancer Institute: Nausea and vomiting
www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/nausea/Patient/page2

For information about the ginger trial or other cancer research at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, call the Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.

Written by Nicole Fawcett

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