Carsten column: Ginger, a holiday favorite spice with many health benefits
Integrative Pet Vet
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a fascinating spice long associated with the Christmas holidays. The historical country of origin for its focus as a holiday treat is unclear and may be buried in German folktales or with Queen Elizabeth I.
Some feel that the focus on using ginger during the holiday season is rooted in the idea that eating a spicy food increases body warmth. Others feel that the aromatic rhizome is part of an enjoyable eating experience. By the 15th century ginger was in wide use in Europe. Its use in gingerbread houses and cookies started in the 16th century. Prior to its popularity in Europe, ginger was prized in ancient times as a spice and medicinal herb contributing to widespread trading beyond its origin in Southeast Asia. Today ginger is found world wide and valued for its unique properties. Ginger can be consumed fresh, dried, as a tea, crystallized and candied.
Clearly over the millennia, ginger has shown itself to be a valuable medicinal herb and culinary spice. This has created ongoing interest in its use and stimulated efforts to understand how ginger’s health effects are achieved. The ginger rhizome contains over 400 different compounds including numerous volatile and nonvolatile compounds.
As with all herbs, concentrations of the various compounds are impacted by cultivation conditions, harvesting, processing, and storage. Some of the active compounds of interest include the volatile oils like gingerols and shogaols which contribute to the pungent flavor and medicinal properties. Compounds like zingiberene contribute to the odor. Basic knowledge of the names of the important compounds aids understanding of products labels and research reports.
Many of the traditional uses for ginger have been verified with modern research including the warming effect, treatment for nausea, vomiting and stomach ulcers, lowering fasting blood glucose, improving cognitive function, blocking bacterial and fungal infections, antitumor effects, and reducing inflammation and pain.
Ginger has direct effects on the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines) that promote increased motility (i.e. more effective stomach contractions), improved stomach emptying, and decreased nausea. Additional studies demonstrated that the anti-nausea effect was equal or better than that provided by some anti-nausea medication. Use against nausea induced by motion sickness and chemotherapy have been beneficial. In addition to effects on motility, ginger has the ability to reduce inflammation in the stomach and reduce or prevent ulcers caused by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Anti-inflammatory effects of ginger also benefit management of joint degeneration like osteoarthritis. Ginger reduces the joint swelling, damage and pain associated with injury and osteoarthritis. Interestingly, the pain reducing effects may not be as rapid as an NSAID but are slower to manifest. This is important when evaluating response to therapy. Like more recent NSAIDs, ginger has been shown to be a relatively specific inhibitory of COX-2 having minimal effect on COX-1.
Improvement in cognitive function has been shown in humans and other species. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of ginger are thought to play a role. But more recent research has identified beneficial effects on secretion of certain brain related signaling compounds and nerve growth factors.
While it is considered a safe herb, it can induce stomach discomfort when given in high doses and there is concern, in some situations, about its ability to reduce blood platelet function (clotting). Ginger may also increase absorption of certain drugs.
The appropriate herb dosage varies based on the health problem and the form of herb used (i.e. dried herb vs. an extract). Heating can impact some compounds. For example, within certain parameters, heat decreases gingerols and increases shogaols leading to improved anti-inflammatory effects. It is important to note that the properly processed whole herb contains the entire range of active compounds and is felt by many to be most effective. However, use of the whole herb may not be most convenient for administration.
Uses in companion pets have focused on gastrointestinal disorders and management of osteoarthritis. However, there may be benefits for cognitive dysfunction.
If you have questions about ginger for your pet, consult a veterinary herbalist.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs. Dr. Carsten is the 2022 Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Distinguished Service Award recipient.
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