Ginger holds an almost mythical place among natural remedies, particularly with digestive disorders. And science backs up ginger's effectiveness for some of these digestive issues, including morning sickness in pregnancy, nausea and motion sickness. Whether ginger helps acid reflux, a common digestive problem, is yet unclear. Although ginger has not been extensively studied as a remedy for acid reflux, it does have some properties that bring plausibility to ginger’s enlistment against this condition. Whether or not ginger proves in time to be effective for acid reflux, its known digestive health benefits may play a role in symptom relief.
The Melatonin Connection
Ginger is high in melatonin, an antioxidant hormone produced naturally by the body and produced synthetically for use as a sleep aid supplement. There is mounting evidence of a melatonin and acid reflux connection. Low levels of melatonin are associated with chronic acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Melatonin reduces stomach acid and also prevents the loosening of the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, which is the band of muscles that keeps stomach contents from leaking into the esophagus. This is important because weakness of the LES is a major contributing factor to acid reflux. Despite these intriguing benefits, the lack of research about ginger and acid reflux makes it difficult to determine if ginger supplementation would convey these same benefits.
Ginger is known to relieve morning sickness, nausea associated with chemotherapy and nausea after some types of surgery. Because nausea may accompany acid reflux, ginger may impart a soothing effect on both symptoms. Ginger's ability to speed up stomach emptying and minimize and expel gas not only reduces nausea but might improve acid reflux symptoms -- as bloating and slow gastric emptying can aggravate acid reflux by making the stomach contents more likely to back up into the esophagus. Other compounds in ginger may influence the rate of stomach emptying by affecting serotonin levels, an important signalizing molecule in the gastrointestinal tract.
Other Potential Benefits
Ginger has been used to treat digestive complaints for centuries within the Asian, Indian and Arabic cultures. The touted benefits of ginger include decreased pain and inflammation, which could make ginger useful in soothing inflamed esophageal tissue caused by acid reflux. Gingerol, shogaol and other compounds found in ginger inhibit prostaglandins -- substances released by injured tissue that cause inflammation. Ginger is also very rich in antioxidants, surpassed only by pomegranate and certain berries, and antioxidants can function to reduce esophageal damage caused by acid reflux. However, quality research is needed to fully understand how ginger's compounds affect the management of acid reflux.
Mainstream medical research is taking an increased interest in alternative remedies and herbal medicine, but the lack of standardization in herbal products and their ingredients has severely limited research. Therefore, the evidence for ginger's effectiveness for acid reflux is mostly based on historical use, presumptions or observations instead of rigorous scientific research. A good deal of science supports ginger’s usefulness for gastrointestinal upsets, potentially aiding acid reflux sufferers, but more research is needed in this area. While ginger is generally thought to be safe, those considering ginger as a therapy needs to consult with their doctor, particularly if pregnant, breastfeeding, diagnosed with any health condition or taking any prescription medications. In addition, people with more than occasional heartburn need to see a doctor as they may have GERD. Left untreated, GERD can lead to serious health problems.
Medical advisor: Jonathan E. Aviv, M.D., FACS