Can Ginger Help Ulcerative Colitis?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

ulcerative colitis

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ginger, an anti-inflammatory powerhouse, has been shown to reduce disease activity in ulcerative colitis
  • In patients with ulcerative colitis, ginger was found to reduce malondialdehyde (MDA), a biomarker of oxidative stress, significantly after six and 12 weeks
  • Ginger also led to reductions in severity of disease activity and increased patients’ quality of life significantly after 12 weeks
  • Separate research showed ginger extract was beneficial in reducing markers of ulcerative colitis, likely due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Ginger’s effects were comparable to that of the highest dose of sulfasalazine, an anti-inflammatory drug often used to treat ulcerative colitis

In the U.S., about 3 million adults have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.1 IBD is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and in the case of ulcerative colitis occurs in the large intestine (colon) and rectum.2

Symptoms range from mild to severe, and while most people have periods of remission when symptoms disappear, it can be debilitating when symptoms flare up, causing frequent, urgent bowel movements, fatigue, nausea, weight loss, fever and anemia. In about 10% of cases, ulcerative colitis is severe and may lead to bloody bowel movements and severe abdominal cramping.3

There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, and many sufferers of this chronic condition take medications to relieve symptoms, while up to one-third of patients even undergo surgery to remove the colon and rectum.4 Natural treatments can be helpful, however, including ginger, an anti-inflammatory powerhouse shown to reduce disease activity in ulcerative colitis.5

Ginger Reduces Oxidative Stress in Ulcerative Colitis

The causes of ulcerative colitis remain unknown, but it’s thought to involve a mix of genetic factors, immune response, intestinal flora and environmental factors. It’s on the rise worldwide, particularly in areas where a western diet is predominant, suggesting a likely dietary component. Oxidative stress is also known to play an essential role in the onset and severity of the disease.

If the immune system is impaired, reactive oxygen species (ROS) metabolites may be excessively produced, leading to damage to the integrity of intestinal mucosa, along with delays in its repair and healing. While medications can be helpful, they are associated with serious side effects to the eyes, bones, GI tract, liver, pancreas and immune system,6 making natural therapies with fewer side effects preferable.

Ginger (Zingiberofficinale root), which has antioxidant properties, has been used since ancient times in the treatment of GI issues, including nausea and vomiting, leading researchers to assess whether it could also help improve quality of life and disease in people with ulcerative colitis.

For the study, 46 patients with active mild to moderate ulcerative colitis received either 2,000 milligrams a day of dried ginger powder in four capsules or similar placebo capsules for 12 weeks.7 Researchers used blood sampling and questionnaires to measure disease activity, quality of life and oxidative stress among the participants.

After six and 12 weeks, ginger was found to reduce malondialdehyde (MDA), a biomarker of oxidative stress, significantly. Ginger also led to reductions in severity of disease activity and increased patients’ quality of life significantly after 12 weeks.

The researchers believed that the dosage and duration of supplementation used in the study may have been too low to induce significant improvement overall, leading them to suggest further studies to determine the best dosages and duration.

“Our data indicate that ginger supplementation can improve treatment of patients with UC. Further clinical trials with different dosages and duration of ginger or its standard extract supplementation are needed to obtain firm conclusion,” they wrote.8

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Potent Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Effects of Ginger

Ginger has a range of biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cytotoxic (potential anticarcinogenic) effects.9 In an animal study of rats with ulcerative colitis, ginger extract was beneficial in reducing markers of the disease, likely due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and the effects were comparable to that of the highest dose of sulfasalazine, an anti-inflammatory drug often used to treat ulcerative colitis.10

In another animal study, researchers looked at the effects of 6-shogaol, one of the active components in ginger, on ulcerative colitis.

In this case, the researchers used nanoparticles capable of colitis tissue-targeted delivery to deliver 6-shogaol, which was intended to reduce some of the challenges often encountered with taking supplements orally, namely instability of the substances in the GI tract, low targeting of disease tissues and potential adverse effects.

Oral delivery of the nanoparticles loaded with 6-shogaol attenuated ulcerative colitis and promoted wound healing while alleviating symptoms, leading researchers to suggest, “This system may represent a promising therapeutic approach for treating inflammatory bowel disease [IBD].”11

Ginger-derived nanoparticles (GDNPs) have been studied as an attractive treatment strategy for IBD, in part because they can deliver drugs to inflamed mucosa in the GI tract over extended time periods, and, once in the colon, taken up by both intestinal epithelial cells and macrophages, offering dual cellular targeting that wasn’t seen with grape- and grapefruit-derived nanoparticles.12

What’s more, intestinal inflammation is associated with cancer, and those suffering from ulcerative colitis are at increased risk of colitis-associated cancer (CAC). “Colorectal cancer is in fact a major cause of morbidity and mortality in IBD patients,” researchers wrote in Nanomedicine.13 This is yet another area where ginger may be helpful. According to the study:

“Oral administration of GDNPs to model mice reduced acute and chronic inflammation, decreased CAC and promoted healing of the intestinal mucosa, indicating that GDNPs could prevent chronic colitis and tumor development.

GDNPs also reduced the expression levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (TNF-α, IL-6 and IL-1β) and increased the expression levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines (IL-10 and IL-22) in colitic mice, suggesting that these NPs block intestine-damaging factors and promote intestine-healing factors.”14

Probiotics Are Also Important for Ulcerative Colitis

Studies suggest alterations in the microbiota living in your gut may affect the severity of ulcerative colitis.15

Research presented at the 2011 American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) annual meeting by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland showed that people with inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome or psoriasis who took the probiotic bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis for eight weeks had lower levels of inflammation than those taking a placebo.

The simple strategy appeared to lower levels of inflammation among a wide variety of conditions. "The human immunological response to B. infantis further supports the hypothesis that manipulation of the microbiota with specific therapeutic microbes can have a significant effect on host inflammatory processes," said Dr. Eamonn M.M. Quigley, who presented the findings.

"This anti-inflammatory effect is not restricted to a specific disease state, suggesting that B.infantis induces a critical cellular response, which may include the induction of regulatory cell subsets."16 So, in addition to ginger, adding probiotics may be an important step for anyone battling ulcerative colitis.

This can be done via dietary additions as well, as naturally fermented foods are an excellent source of these anti-inflammatory microbes. Interestingly, when combined with probiotics, blueberry husks not only reduce inflammation-inducing bacteria, but also increase the amount of health-promoting Lactobacilla,17 making them a useful therapeutic addition.

Curcumin, Vitamin D and Other Options for Ulcerative Colitis

Turmeric plants (Curcuma longa L.), are a member of the ginger family and contain the active component curcumin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. There is some research that suggests curcumin may help to induce and maintain remission in ulcerative colitis patients without serious side effects.18

In fact, one study comparing curcumin with placebo found that only 4.65% of ulcerative colitis patients receiving curcumin relapsed compared to 20.51% of those receiving a placebo.19 Considering that both ginger and turmeric/curcumin are safe dietary additions for most people, adding them to your daily routine is a simple, low risk intervention for people with ulcerative colitis.

Animal-based omega-3 fats are another absolutely essential element of preventing and controlling IBD. The omega-3 fats in krill oil, EPA and DHA, have immune-boosting qualities along with anti-inflammatory properties proven to benefit disorders of the gut, including ulcerative colitis.20

Optimizing vitamin D levels is also an important and often-overlooked strategy. In vitamin D-deficient patients with ulcerative colitis, vitamin D supplementation was associated with reduced intestinal inflammation in one study.21

Further, people with ulcerative colitis are more likely to have low vitamin D levels than their healthy peers, and vitamin D levels were lowest among those with the most severe disease.22 The level you're aiming for is between 60 and 80 ng/mL, with 40 ng/mL being the low cutoff point for sufficiency to prevent a wide range of diseases, including cancer.

Research suggests it would require 9,600 IUs of vitamin D per day to get 97.5% of the population to reach 40 ng/mL,23 but individual requirements can vary widely, and you’ll need to get your levels tested to ensure you take the correct dosage required to get you into the optimal range. Regular sunlight exposure is the ideal way to optimize your vitamin D (as well as glean the other health benefits of sun exposure).

What Else Is Ginger Good For?

One of the benefits of whole food options for ulcerative colitis is that ginger offers many other benefits aside from its role in relieving ulcerative colitis. Ginger, for instance, shows promise for:

  • Degenerative disorders such as arthritis and rheumatism24
  • Digestive health such as indigestion, constipation and ulcers25
  • Cardiovascular disorders, from atherosclerosis to hypertension26
  • Nausea from pregnancy27 and motion sickness
  • Diabetes mellitus, improving glucose control, insulin sensitivity and lipid profile28

If you’re living with a serious condition like ulcerative colitis, work with a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner who can develop a comprehensive treatment protocol. However, most people can benefit from adding more fresh ginger to their meals as well as sipping it as a tea.

While you can purchase powdered ginger in teabags, you can also make ginger tea simply by boiling sliced ginger root in water. For even more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, particularly for ulcerative colitis or similar conditions, you can try turmeric-ginger tea, made as follows:29

Turmeric-Ginger Tea

Ingredients

  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon raw honey (optional)
  • 1 lemon wedge
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

Method

Mix all ingredients together and boil the water on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, then strain into a cup.