In the 1960s, the world was awash in the promise of a miraculous remedy: a chemical concoction made from ginger, cinnamon and other spices.
Today, ginger, ginger ale and other herbal remedies are used for everything from colds and flu to skin conditions.
But what about the long-held belief that the medicine is actually something more dangerous?
Is there really something more deadly than a simple cocktail of ginger, spices and sugar?
“It is the most widely used spice in Africa and it is a significant component of the traditional African medicinal brew,” says Dr. Robert Pape, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
Pape says the spice is used as a treatment for a range of illnesses, including the common cold, but it also has been used in traditional medicine for more than 3,000 years.
In a sense, it’s the ancient medicine of choice in Africa today, says Dr Jonathan Brown, who runs the University College London Centre for African Medicines.
The roots of ginger and its traditional use dates back as far as the 4th century BC in Ethiopia, where it was known as a stimulant and as a cure for many diseases, including diarrhea and malaria.
In Egypt, it was used to treat tuberculosis and malaria, and later for coughs, fevers, arthritis, and more.
The spice was also used as an aphrodisiac, says Brown, but in recent decades, more people have begun to use it as a treat for mental health and mental disorders.
“Many people who have tried ginger in traditional herbal medicine are using it as an appetite suppressant, which may be why the use of ginger in these areas is increasing,” says Brown.
But in some ways, there’s little evidence that ginger is a better medicine than other common remedies, he says.
A study published in the Lancet Psychiatry this year suggests that ginger has the potential to be just as harmful as the common medicines it replaces.
In the study, researchers found that the anti-inflammatory effects of ginger did not appear to be stronger than placebo.
In the study of patients with asthma, for example, the researchers found the anti–inflammatory effects were slightly more potent than the placebo effect, suggesting that the use more potent anti-inflammatories may help with the condition, but that ginger had no impact.
The authors suggest ginger may not have as beneficial a role in the treatment of asthma as is commonly believed.
This may explain why the study authors found a greater effect in patients who were taking the drug than in patients taking the placebo, Brown says.
In other words, while the study found that ginger’s anti-nausea and anti-fever effects were stronger than those of the other remedies, the study also found that it did not increase the effectiveness of the asthma medication, which was effective.
Dr. Papes says there are two possibilities for why ginger might be more harmful than its common name suggests.
The first is that some people are allergic to it, which could explain why it is not used as widely in traditional African medicine.
The second is that ginger may be associated with allergic reactions, or reactions that are very mild, he explains.
It’s still too early to tell whether this new study is conclusive, Brown adds.
More research is needed to see whether the study results are generalizable to other populations, or whether ginger actually causes more harm than it helps, he notes.
So what do you do if you’re sick with a cold or other cold symptoms?