Ginger root shows promise in treating certain autoimmune diseases

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Herbal medicine and science don’t always overlap, but a new study finds ginger root may be an effective supplemental treatment option for certain autoimmune diseases. Researchers from the University of Michigan report the main bioactive ingredient in ginger (6-gingerol) therapeutically counters the mechanism responsible for some autoimmune diseases in mice.

Researchers focused on two diseases in their study, lupus and a closely linked condition called antiphospholipid syndrome (AS). Lupus causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue and patients with AS usually develop blood clots. Both conditions can result in excessive inflammation and organ damage.

When a group of mice afflicted with at least one of these two diseases received 6-gingerol, the release of neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) stopped. NETs are released by the autoantibodies that these diseases produce.

“Neutrophil extracellular traps, or NETs, come from white blood cells called neutrophils,” says lead author Ramadan Ali, Ph.D. in a university release. “These sticky spider-web like structures are formed when autoantibodies interact with receptors on the neutrophil’s surface.”

Can ginger stop harmful inflammation?

Researchers say NETs play a big role in the progression of these autoimmune diseases; they trigger autoantibody formation and contribute to blood vessel damage and clotting.

So, the main question they set out to answer with this study was “will the anti-inflammatory properties of ginger extend to neutrophils, and specifically, can this natural medicine stop neutrophils from making NETs that contribute to disease progression?”

“This pre-clinical study in mice offers a surprising and exciting, ‘yes’,” Ali reports.

After receiving 6-gingerol, all the mice showed lower NET levels and clotting decreased. The 6-gingerol also appeared to inhibit neutrophil enzymes called phosphodiesterases, which consequently reduced the activation of neutrophils.

Study authors say they were most surprised to observe that all the mice, regardless of whether they had lupus or AS, showed reduced numbers of autoantibodies. This strongly suggests the ginger ingredient breaks the “inflammatory cycle.”

“Through my years of medical training I wasn’t taught much about supplements, but it’s something that so many patients ask me about,” adds study author and rheumatologist Jason Knight, M.D. “When Ramadan brought the concept to me, I was enthusiastic to pursue it in my lab, as I knew it would matter to them. Sometimes our patients give us really good ideas!”

Natural supplement in the future?

While these findings only apply to mice at the moment, researchers say they believe their work justifies moving onto human trials to see if ginger can help with human autoimmune diseases as well.

“As for basically all treatments in our field, one size does not fit all. But, I wonder if there is a subgroup of autoimmune patients with hyperactive neutrophils who might benefit from increased intake of 6-gingerol,” Knight continues. “It will be important to study neutrophils before and after treatment so we can determine the subgroup most likely to see benefit.”

They clarify that ginger isn’t going to be the main treatment method for any of these autoimmune diseases. It may prove, however, to be very useful at preventing the onset of diseases among high-risk patients.

“Those that have autoantibodies, but don’t have activated disease, may benefit from this treatment if 6-gingerol proves to be a protective agent in humans as it does in mice,” Ali concludes. “Patients with active disease take blood thinners, but what if there was also a natural supplement that helped reduce the amount of clots they produce? And what if we could decrease their autoantibodies?”

The study is published in JCI Insight.