Grandmother was right: Ginger can actually be used as a home remedy for colds and other illnesses, as scientists have now discovered. According to this, a certain pungent substance in ginger docks onto the white blood cells of the immune system and puts them on increased alertness. This gets the infection under control all the faster. One liter of freshly brewed ginger tea is enough to achieve this effect, as the scientists report.
With its natural spiciness, ginger is not only considered to be that special something in the kitchen, but also has a reputation as a medicinal plant. For example, its essential oils and pungent compounds are said to help relieve nausea, reduce pain, and reduce inflammation . Ginger tea is also a popular home remedy for colds. So far, however, there has been a lack of definitive scientific evidence that confirms this effect and the mechanisms behind it.
“Hotness receptors” also on white blood cells
Researchers led by Gaby Andersen from the Technical University of Munich have now investigated whether and how ginger actually helps our body fight colds. They were based on the results of a previous study. It had already shown that by drinking ginger tea, significant amounts of ginger-pungent substances get into the blood. This is especially true for the pungent substance  gingerol.
It is known that this docks to a special ion channel, the TRPV1 receptor. This sits on the surface of our nerve cells and, in addition to heat and pain stimuli, also detects the hot taste of ginger and chili. In their new study, Andersen and her team have now been able to demonstrate that these TRPV1 receptors are also located on two-thirds of the white blood cells in our immune system, the so-called neutrophilic granulocytes. Thus, at least in theory, -gingerol could influence the behavior of the immune cells.
-gingerol mobilizes defense cells
In practice, too, this hypothesis is apparently correct: under laboratory conditions, the -gingerol actually interacted with the white blood cells by putting them on increased alertness, as the researchers report. In detail, they determined that the immune cells, under the influence of the ginger ingredient, formed the messenger substance interleukin-8 (CXCL8), as well as so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS), aggressive forms of oxygen that help fight pathogens.
Additional tests showed that the cells stimulated by the ginger subsequently reacted about 30 percent more strongly to a fake bacterial infection than control cells that had not come into contact with ginger. The researchers therefore assume that the -gingerol contained in ginger actually supports our immune system in the fight against pathogens.
A liter of ginger tea is enough
Also positive: In order to achieve the immune-stimulating effect, the low concentration of almost 15 micrograms of -gingerol per liter of culture medium was already sufficient. “Theoretically, such concentrations in the blood could be achieved by consuming a good one liter of ginger tea,” explains Andersen. If you want to give your immune system a boost the next time you have a cold, you can try ginger tea as long as you don’t have any allergies or intolerances.
In the experiments, however, the scientists did not use ginger tea from the bag, but poured boiling water over 100 grams of fresh ginger root, which they had previously peeled and chopped up. They let the mixture steep for a quarter of an hour and then strained it. (Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, 2023; doi:10.1002/mnfr.202200434 )