Study: Ginger curbs nausea from cancer treatment

Consumer Reports News: May 18, 2009 10:51 AM

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years back and endured eight cycles of chemotherapy to rid her body (fingers crossed) of cancer cells. It was a difficult time, to put it mildly, with my mom weathering many of the hardships that can accompany this treatment—hair loss, bone pain, fatigue, general malaise, and waves of nausea and vomiting. Eating ginger candy helped with the last of these, taking the edge off her queasiness.

So it was with some interest this week that I read early findings from the first large study on using ginger to treat post-chemo nausea. The verdict? Taking ginger both before and after chemotherapy can reduce nausea by up to 40 percent.

The study looked at ginger in capsule form, which is more concentrated and doesn't have the intense taste that some people find objectionable. The researchers decided to give people ginger before chemotherapy as well as after, as research on motion sickness suggests that preemptive treatment with ginger can maximize its effects later on. Scientists don’t yet know for sure how ginger might reduce nausea, but it may help relax the muscles in the stomach and prevent them from going into spasm.

More than 600 people with various types of cancer took part in the study. All had felt nauseated after previous cycles of chemotherapy and were scheduled to have at least three more cycles. Researchers gave them one of four treatments to take both three days before chemotherapy and three days after: 0.5 grams of ginger, 1 gram of ginger, 1.5 grams of ginger, or a placebo. The treatments came in capsules that looked and smelled similar, so people wouldn't know which treatment they were taking. Participants were also given anti-vomiting drugs when they had their chemotherapy, as is standard.

Using a seven-point scale, participants rated the severity of their nausea throughout the day. Overall, people who had ginger at any dose had less nausea after chemotherapy than those who had the placebo. Interestingly, those who had the smallest daily doses (0.5 grams or 1 gram) had the biggest improvement—their nausea was 40 percent less severe than those having the placebo.

The researchers' findings have not yet been published in a medical journal, but are due to be presented at a conference. So, at this point, we have to rely on what the researchers tell us, rather than checking all the figures ourselves, or looking at the study to see how well it was carried out. That said, the overall design of the study appears to be good, as researchers used a placebo for comparison, and took steps to conceal which treatment each person received. (You can read background on the study here*.) The study's findings may open the door to ginger treatment for more cancer patients.

What you need to know. As its name implies, chemotherapy is all about infusing the body with powerful chemicals to kill cancer cells. This was somewhat distressing for my mom, who rarely takes any medication. So using a natural remedy for nausea appealed to her, and eating ginger candy did seem to help. I now wonder whether taking ginger capsules might have curbed her queasiness even more.

If you are having chemotherapy, you might talk to your doctor about this research and about taking a low dose of ginger for a few days before and after your next cycle of treatment. Ginger is generally regarded as safe, and side effects are uncommon, especially at low doses, but it's important that your doctor knows about all the treatments you're using.

Sophie Ramsey, patient editor has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Read more on ginger for treating nausea, and to find out if ginger interacts with your medications, see our Natural Medicine Ratings (subscribers only).

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