Ginger has the potential to help with the management of certain autoimmune diseases because of its ability to halt white blood cell activity that causes inflammation, a small study has found.
While ginger has long been used as a home remedy for a variety of ailments, there hasn’t been a lot of research in people with autoimmune conditions to explain exactly why the root has anti-inflammatory effects, says Kristen Demoruelle, MD, PhD, a senior study author of the study and an associate professor of rheumatology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.
“Sometimes supplements are given less credit for their potential health benefits because studies detailing exactly how they work are not performed rigorously or in people,” Dr. Demoruelle says. “What’s new with our study is that we demonstrate a specific pathway by which ginger exerts an anti-inflammatory effect, specifically in people, which more strongly supports the use of ginger supplements in people to lower inflammation.”
How Did Researchers Evaluate the Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ginger?
For the study, published September 22 in the journal JCI Insight, researchers conducted a series of lab tests to assess the impact of ginger supplements on the immune system, specifically looking at the activity of white blood cells known as neutrophils.
When neutrophils act normally, they help the body fight infections, according to Cleveland Clinic. But when neutrophils become overactive, they can cause the inflammation that’s at the root of many autoimmune diseases.
First, scientists gave supplements of 6-gingerol (an antioxidant chemical in ginger) to mice that had one of two autoimmune diseases: antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) or lupus. The mice had less evidence of overactive neutrophils in lab tests after they received the ginger supplements.
Then, researchers asked nine healthy human volunteers to take a daily 20 milligram (mg) ginger supplement for one week. Lab tests showed that the supplements helped the volunteers’ immune systems become better able to resist the cellular processes that lead to overactive neutrophils.
In mice and people, the ginger supplements appeared to block a process known as neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) formation, which causes white blood cells to become overactive. Many autoimmune diseases, including APS and lupus, develop when overactive white blood cells in the immune system attack healthy cells that they mistake for foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“Overactive NET formation is implicated in the inflammation associated with a range of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, antiphospholipid syndrome, lupus, and even COVID-19,” Demoruelle says. “As such, our findings can begin to zero in on exactly which people might benefit from anti-inflammatory effects of ginger.”
Don’t Load Up on Ginger Supplements Just Yet
The study was too small and too preliminary to draw broad conclusions about whether it would be safe or effective to prescribe ginger supplements to treat autoimmune diseases. It’s also not a given that ginger supplements would be beneficial for every type of autoimmune disease, says Lawrence Taw, MD, a clinical professor and the director of the Center for East-West Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles.
“Not all inflammation is the same,” says Dr. Taw, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “Ginger may not be helpful, or it can possibly aggravate other forms of inflammation, including psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and dermatitis.”
What’s more, “With ginger supplements you have to beware of increased risk of bleeding as well as potential interactions with medications, including blood thinners,” Taw says.
Anyone who wants to try ginger supplements to manage their medical issues should check with their doctor first, he advises.
Consuming More Ginger in Foods Is Worth a Try
The safest way to use ginger if you have an autoimmune disease is to add it to your diet and see if it helps with inflammation, Taw says.
There’s likely no harm in cooking with ginger, agrees Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
“Ginger has been used medicinally and in cooking for thousands of years,” says Heller, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “Ginger is known in particular for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antinausea properties. Adding ginger, whether fresh, preserved, crystalized, pickled, dried, or ground to dishes may offer some health benefits and an added flavor dimension.”