An analysis of raw ginger root, it’s compounds and the symbiosis of gut microbiota

raw ginger root

A look at the Zingiber officinale Roscoe cultigen and some of the 400 hundred different compounds of ginger

A bit of background & history

Whether you love or hate herbs and spices, it turns out that for most of us their use can be exceedingly good for our health. One spice, in particular, ginger, or ginger ‘root or rhizome’, has over 5000 research papers and studies to its name, of which, include 50k+ citations.

english botanist William Roscoe

Ginger was given the name Zingiber officinale by an English botanist William Roscoe in 1807. The name ‘Zingiber’ is via the Greek word ‘zingiberis’ derived from the Sanskrit word ‘shringavera’, which means ‘shaped like a deer’s antlers’ and ‘officinale’ is Latin denoting medicinal properties of the plant.

Traders have been moving it around the world since at least the 13th century from places around South East Asia and some evidence that it is has been used in both Chinese and Indian traditional medicine for a lot longer, maybe several thousands of years. I’m sure there is a scroll somewhere with it written down.

turmeric root

Ginger is in the family Zingiberaceae, which includes turmeric (Curcuma longa), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), and galangal for which there are few variations. All used in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine for its aroma and distinct flavours.

It has also been classed as a ‘Cultigen’, or a plant created via selective breeding by people over many thousands of years. To be honest, the majority of the vegetables that we eat today have no common wild version that would be recognisable by our ancestors. One of the problems of trying to imagine an ancient diet.

1896 color plate of Zingiber officinale

An important thing to note is exploring why plants such as ginger would endure the longevity of time. This is something plants really have on their side, often thousands of years of human testing. If there are side-effects involved, we usually know about them. Information passed from generation to generation. Well, that show it used to be.

Luckily we now have science on our side to validate if all those claims are actually true. We have become truly sceptical of literally anything that was previously said to be good for us. “We know better”, “all that old mumbo jumbo” and “what did they know”. True, some of it likely is pushing a theory or two too far. But, again, this is why we have the benefit of some science to wade through.

The health claims

raw ginger root and the powdered form

The health claims for ginger root across all its various forms of raw, dried, powdered, extract and oils are impressive. Whether applied topical, ingested or even used as aromatherapy.

This is where we need to look at the cross-over of similar medical complaints compared with more dubious treatments. For the purpose of this article, I am interested in why ingesting ginger in any of its various forms would have an impact on our health.

There are 3 methods commonly used the most, I will hold back on the sweetened or crystallized ginger, it’s a little contradictory, plus there are very few reputable studies of its effects. Although, never say never.

cup of lemon tea
  • Fragrant herbal teas, brewed and drunk either on its own or with other ingredients, lemon and honey for example;
  • cooking and food, whether it be in soups or stir-fries. Sliced, grated or pureed
  • pill form, for those who just feel they can’t stand the taste but are convinced of its benefits.

And from those methods, we achieve various claims of;

  1. antiemetic, a treatment for nausea and vomiting,
  2. analgesic, reducing pain of various types, particularly muscle or joint pain and used as an anti-inflammatory aid,
  3. ergogenic, enhancing physical performance for athletic use,
  4. sedative, and a focus on reducing anxiety,
  5. antipyresis, for the lowering of fever,
  6. antiallergic, potentially, relieving hay fever and other allergic reactions,
  7. antibacterial, the active compounds, tested against various bacteria and fungi,
  8. anti-fungal, the active compounds, tested against various fungi, particularly Candida albicans connected to yeast infections,
  9. antiviral, a newer area, very difficult to test but methods are now being used with some success.

Some background research

ginger powder moving through the air

Chemical analysis of the ginger rhizome shows that it contains over 400 different compounds. Many of these produce the pungent and active ingredients that are extracted and used in the various research studies to test if the theories are actually facts, and which of these compounds are the so-called active ones that make a difference depending on the application. Together with traditional human trials, it’s a considerable amount of information to plough through, to be honest, you can see why most of the information is simply recycled by journalists and bloggers.

Early testing was often focused on showing compounds in ginger inhibited various bacteria without knowledge of what would now be classified as beneficial. More recent studies have been more conclusive and specifically focused on answering these questions. Does ginger suppress specific so-called ‘pathogenic’ bacteria? or at least keep the gut in balance.

This has been another concern when it is confirmed that in the lab, various substances like sweeteners will affect the microbiome but doesn’t conclude what the population shifts are. Good or bad. One minute you are being told, don’t eat sugar, use ‘artificial’ sweeteners, and then there are individual studies, whether or not funded by the food industry, that these could be either toxic in some way or disrupt our microbiota in some way. More confusion, I’m sure you will agree, I will leave that for another post.

Certainly topically, many of the compounds found in ginger are proven to be antibacterial, relatively easy to do in the lab with some Petri dishes, but then again so are many natural plant-based compounds, antibacterial. you could also include a certain famous insect-derived compound, known for its wound-healing abilities.

Staphylococcus aureus
Staphylococcus aureus

Apparently Staphylococcus aureus is a common cause for wound infections, and a few studies have shown specifically Manuka honey healed wounds faster the higher the UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) rating, ranges between 5 and 20 UMF were tested against normal ‘generic’ honey which had little effect. You need ‘real’ honey, not over-processed and excessively heat treated.

Interestingly Staphylococcus aureus is one of the species also tested against the compounds in ginger and I’m sure there will be many more plant compounds if you dig a bit further.

Chemical analysis

gingerol chemical compound

The ginger rhizome contains many potentially beneficial ingredients, the oils contained naturally within ginger contain active compounds such as terpenes, made famous by cannabis oils (you won’t get high sucking on ginger root), oleoresin, zingiberol, zingiberone, and zingiberene.

The more pungent compounds such as gingerol, shogaol, zingerone, and paradol are the major constituents of ginger root. Gingerol appears to be responsible for its characteristic taste and is the compound found in all members of the Zingiberaceae family plant and is high in concentrations in the grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta), a peppery spice, as well as the more traditional ginger root.

grains of paradise aframomum melegueta

6-gingerol (there are many variations, 8, 10..) seems to be the most tested compound out of the list (although 6-Shogoals is right up there with it), and it is gingerol that is the reason it can taste hot on the tongues, as the taste receptors react in a similar way to capsaicin found in chilli peppers.

Interestingly If gingerol is dehydrated, the compound turns into another compound called shogaol, which can taste around 2-3 times “hotter” than fresh ginger. This is because shogaol is a similar structure of capsaicin. Shogaol is also about twice as intense as gingerol and explains why dried ginger is more pungent than fresh ginger.

Cooking ginger is the reverse and transforms gingerol via another reaction into zingerone, which is less pungent and has a spicy-sweet aroma (Use your chemical knowledge of gingerols down the pub).

top of a pineapple

Another hidden benefit and little known compound is Zingibain, classed as a protease and a member of the papain family, of which the now-infamous pineapple bromelain belongs, and is the home of the enzyme used to help digestion. Zingibain is the main component that tenderizes meat, raw shredded ginger will start to break down those meat fibres as soon as it comes in contact. Another use is as a substitute for rennet to curdle milk to make ginger milk curd, traditionally made for over a century in parts of China.

Talking of capsaicin and gingerols, in animal models, a study looked at how they affect biological pathways, the results indicated that used on their own they were less effective than when used together. This seems to be a bit of trend appearing, including studies on insulin response when eating two types of macronutrient. Eat animal protein on its own and the effect of the insulin spike can be significantly less than eating together with carbohydrates. Weird and wonderful!

But how does it work?

picture of the intestinal gut wall

This can not be understated, that research is showing, many natural compounds produce very similar outcomes, namely reducing inflammation throughout the body.

Inflammation, certainly in the more chronic forms, no matter where it appears, is a major cause of so many diseases, often contributing indirectly to autoimmune disorders. Of course, inflammation is actually a naturally occurring mechanism of the body as a result of some injury or internal immune response to say drinking infected water. The inflammatory response is to recruit immune cells to fight the infection or repair the injury. This would initially be classed as acute inflammation for the purpose of healing.

Chronic inflammation can be triggered by a threat that does not require an inflammatory response, immune cells kick into action but cannot find anything to attack. Sometimes they start attacking innocent healthy cells instead, as in the case of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

So if inflammation is the smoking gun (we can leave the bullet for another day), ginger is the Neo in the film Matrix? Somehow the ginger is disrupting the matrix. The main compounds, gingerol and shogaol, have been exhaustively tested for a variety of inflammatory problems and many were completed before the real advances and focus on the microbiome. They certainly showed complex and positive results through direct interaction with our 100’s of biological pathways, even showing changes in gene expression, with genes being switched on and off.

But real progression has only been made since the knowledge of the microbiome has been accelerated by technology advances in DNA sequencing, particularly focusing on something called RNA based analysis and 16S rRNA gene sequencing. This has allowed researchers to really home in on how what we eat affects both the balance of different types of bacteria in the gut and the different chemical compounds they produce.

Patterns are appearing and scientists seem to be coming to the same conclusions, even books are being written on the subject of SCFA’s or short-chain fatty acids. These are a collection of acids, acetate, propionate and butyrate that is the most abundantly produced by anaerobic (absence of oxygen) fermentation of dietary fibres in the intestine.

The amount of research in SCFA’s has exploded in the area of how these acids produced by bacteria interact with our immune system and in doing so reduce inflammation in different parts of the body. Literally, all types of foods we eat are being tested in this manner, and it is clear that no matter whether it is ginger, chilli peppers or a bowl of rice, it affects us some way, good or bad.

red bacteria swimming

To say this is complex is an understatement, there are so many factors involved. But often the common denominator is the SCFA’s and often the lack thereof if the diet is poor. Ginger root, of course, does contain fibre in small quantities but the results seem to point more towards many natural compounds like gingerol etc. affecting the compositions and balances of beneficial bacteria and reducing the pathogenic.

We are very early days, but already enough research has been done to show that x+y=l and the l is lowering inflammation. How this is done requires much more documented science. There are only so many scientists and they only focus on their own interests (nothing wrong in that). Often we need to look at other comparable foods for studies for clues. Turmeric root might be another and curcumin.

So how should we consume ginger for its benefits?

pottage recipe

Considering the evidence, different methods consumption of ginger root should result in some form of beneficial result, most of the time. How you consume, whether through a hot tea, thrown in a stir-fry or soup, or even shredded in a salad will determine which compounds are available metabolically, whether directly or indirectly through our microbiome.

As I would always say, do your research, trying a ginger tea for a few days and expecting amazing results is not really how it works, it takes time, doing the right things even at the right time to make, see and feel change. But rest assured, the important thing to note is real food, does produce real results. It’s not ‘fake news’, buy some ginger.

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Useful links:

Researchers show just how effective manuka honey is in healing wounds (Actual study above)

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