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Scientists Uncover Biological Mechanism Underpinning Ginger’s Effect on Immune Function

A piece of raw ginger, against a wooden board with some green herbs in the background.
Credit: Sentot Setyasiswanto / Unsplash.
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New research has found that whole-ginger extracts can make neutrophils – a type of white blood cell – more resistant to neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) formation. NET formation, also known as NETosis, is heavily involved in the biological processes that propel inflammation and clotting.

These findings, published in the journal JCI Insight, suggest that ginger supplementation could have a positive effect in treating autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis that are affected by NET formation.

Daily whole-ginger supplements can inhibit NETosis

Neutrophils are an important line of defense for the immune system. To protect against infection, neutrophils undergo a very specific type of cell death (NETosis) that results in the formation of NETs which can kill or immobilize incoming pathogens.

However, dysfunctional or exaggerated NETosis can go on to cause serious problems for the body. Excessive NETosis drives inflammation and thrombotic cascades that can contribute to organ damage and result in autoimmune diseases, including antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) and lupus.

“There are a lot of diseases where neutrophils are abnormally overactive,” said Kristen Demoruelle, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a senior co-author of the new study. “We found that ginger can help to restrain NETosis, and this is important because it is a natural supplement that may be helpful to treat inflammation and symptoms for people with several different autoimmune diseases.”

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In this pilot clinical trial, the researchers administered a ginger supplement to two study cohorts (made up of nine and eight healthy participants, respectively) at a dose of 100 mg of whole-ginger extract per day. This was determined to be equivalent to approximately 20 mg of gingerols – the major pungent molecules present in ginger – per day.

They found that this supplementation appeared to raise the levels of a chemical inside the neutrophil, called cAMP. In the same study, increased cAMP levels were also shown to inhibit NETosis by human neutrophils in vitro, in response to various disease-relevant stimuli.

This suggests that, in individuals with autoimmune disorders, ginger supplementation may have the potential to inhibit exaggerated NETosis and alleviate troublesome inflammation symptoms.

“Our research, for the first time, provides evidence for the biological mechanism that underlies ginger’s apparent anti-inflammatory properties in people,” said senior co-author Dr. Jason Knight, associate professor in the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Michigan.

Unpacking the benefits of natural supplements

People with long-term inflammatory conditions are likely to ask their doctors about the usefulness of natural supplements for alleviating their symptoms, the researchers say. They hope that this research, which forms the basis for future studies investigating the mechanisms behind ginger supplementation, could help to inform the conversations that are taking place between patients and their healthcare providers.

“There are not a lot of natural supplements, or prescription medications for that matter, that are known to fight overactive neutrophils,” Knight said. “We, therefore, think ginger may have a real ability to complement treatment programs that are already underway. The goal is to be more strategic and personalized in terms of helping to relieve people’s symptoms.”

This current study was limited to a relatively small pool of participants and only included healthy individuals. For future studies, the researchers say they wish to conduct trials involving individuals with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases where neutrophils are overactive, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, to assess whether ginger supplementation can have a meaningful impact on symptoms.

Reference: Ali RA, Minarchick VC, Zahavi M, et al. Ginger intake suppresses neutrophil extracellular trap formation in autoimmune mice and healthy humans. JCI Insight. 2023;8(18):e172011. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.172011

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Colorado. Material has been edited for length and content.