Science of Food column: Ginger is a gift to your gut | VailDaily.com

Science of Food column: Ginger is a gift to your gut

Lisa Julian, Ph.D.
Science of Food

Ginger root is part of the Zingiberacae family of plants, same as turmeric root, and has been used in herbal medicine to treat nausea and digestive disorders for more than 4,000 years. India is the top producer and consumer of ginger. Its name is believed to come from the Sanskrit word singabera, meaning "horn-shaped," as the roots appear knotted and curved, resembling an animal's horn. The part of the plant that we eat is called the rhizome, the subterranean stem of the plant that is now commonly found in markets across the country.

Like most plants, ginger contains hundreds to thousands of molecules. It is especially high in vitamin B3 and minerals such as iron and manganese but it also has protein, fiber and its own special array of phytonutrients. These diverse phytonutrients are what I like to call "nature's pharmacy," and in ginger, nature's pharmacy includes molecules such as the gingerol or shogaol family of compounds, or more commonly known ones such as beta-carotene, limonene and curcumin. They are biologically-active constituents that have potent medicinal effects in humans that work together in synergy to heal the body and cure disease.

Your stomach will thank you

Have you ever used ginger ale to ease an upset stomach? Ginger is a carminative, defined generally as a substance that increases gastric secretion, aiding with symptoms such as intestinal gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and indigestion. It does this in part by increasing the secretion of our bodies' own natural enzymes to assist in digestion. The processes begins right at the mouth, being also a sialagogue — another fun word that means it increases the production of saliva and salivary enzymes, thus initiating specific molecular mechanisms downstream to prepare the body for food and absorption of nutrients.

Ginger promotes food breakdown and intestinal movement. It contains its own digestive enzymes such as zingibain, for example, that help break down protein, which is perhaps why in many cultures ginger is used in marinades to tenderize meats. Ginger can increase the muscle contractions that occur in the intestines to help move food along but can also relax and soothe the intestinal tract. These combined processes help to promote gastric secretion and ultimately increase the removal of toxins from our bodies. Because ginger also has anti-nausea effects (it's clinically proven as an effective treatment for morning sickness, motion sickness and chemotherapy), it has an overall soothing effect for the mind and the body.

It also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-cancer properties. Thus, in addition to its effects on the digestive system, it has found use as a treatment for inflammatory diseases. For example, in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, consumption of 2 grams of raw or heated ginger showed significant reduction of joint pain.

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Buying and eating ginger

Avoid ginger supplements and eat real ginger root with all that nature's pharmacy has to offer. Remember, it is important for the compounds in ginger to touch the receptors in the tongue, which allows for the secretion of saliva and its enzymes to start breaking down the food while further initiating the rest of the digestive tract as discussed above. At the market, look for ginger root in the produce section that is firm and smooth (not shriveled) and without any mold.

Processing Ginger for use at home

Peel, finely grate and add fresh ginger to a variety of dishes at home. It is also available in a powder form if you cannot find the fresh root, although fresh is better. Spice up your rice or quinoa with ginger, or blend it raw in smoothies. Add it to a saute with some garlic, onion, olive oil and fresh vegetables to make a stir-fry. Cooking ginger attenuates the spicy taste, but it still retains most of its biological activity, so if you enjoy the spice, then finish off your dishes with the fresh stuff.

To remedy a cold or to aid in digestive disorders, try making a tea. A typical dose for a tea uses a 1-inch piece of root (about 15 grams, peeled and grated) and 1 to 2 cups of hot water that can also be flavored with lemon or honey. Add turmeric to the tea, as ginger goes well with its sister root, which has a strikingly similar chemical make-up but lacks the spicy flavors present in fresh ginger.

So instead of grabbing a bottle of Pepto or a pill for nausea or digestive relief, experiment with ginger. You'll spend significantly less money and you'll see why ginger is nature's gift for your gut.

Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry, the "molecules of life," and its application to food and health. She's the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches science and nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver and Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 or ldjulian@gmail.com. For more information about services offered at her studio, visit http://www.elevatedyogacolorado.com.

IF YOU GO …

What: “Cooking with Turmeric,” with Lisa Julian, Ph.D.

When: 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4.

Where: Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge.

Cost: $49; advanced registration required.

More information: coloradomtn.edu/event/cooking-with-turmeric.