Taking ginger supplements with standard anti-vomiting drugs beforehand can reduce the nausea that often accompanies chemotherapy treatment by 40 per cent according to a new US study.

The phaseII/III study was done at the University of Rochester Medical Center and is to be presented on 30 May in the Patient and Survivor Care Session at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Lead author Dr Julie Ryan, assistant professor of Dermatology and Radiation Oncology in the James P Wilmot Cancer Center at Rochester told the press that:

“There are effective drugs to control vomiting, but the nausea is often worse because it lingers.”

Estimates suggest about 70 per cent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experience nausea and vomiting.

Ryan said nausea is a major problem for patients and a challenge for doctors and scientists working to try and find ways to understand and control it.

While other studies have looked at the effect of ginger supplements on easing nausea they have been small and the results inconsistent: this is the largest randomized study to show the effectiveness of ginger and the first to focus on taking the supplement before the chemotherapy.

For the placebo-controlled, double blind study (that is neither the patients nor the doctors knew who had the active ingredient and who had the placebo), the researchers recruited 644 cancer patients who were scheduled to have at least 3 chemotherapy treatments.

The patients were randomly assigned to one of four groups: one group took placebo, another took 0.5 grams of ginger, a third took 1 gram of ginger, and the fourth group took 1.5 grams of ginger. Everyone on the trial also took anti-vomiting drugs (eg Zofran, Kytril, Novaban, or Anzemet).

The patients took the supplements in capsule form once a day for six days, starting 3 days before their first cycle of chemotherapy. They were asked to report their levels of nausea four times a day for the first four days after their chemotherapy finished.

They reported their nausea level on a 7-point scale where 1 was no nausea and 7 was the the worst possible nausea.

The researchers found that at the end of the first day, the patients on the lowest two doses of ginger supplement scored their nausea level at 1 or 2, whereas the patients on placebo were scoring it at level 4 or 5. This was a 40 per cent reduction in nausea level on the lowest doses, which was maintained for the four days of the study.

The higher dose of ginger did not show as good a result.

Ryan told WebMD that she expects the effects will last longer than the four days they studied. People are less likely to have bad nausea on subsequent days if their first day is not so bad, she said.

Ryan said in theory food or drink that has one quarter to one half teaspoon of fresh or dry ginger should have the same effect.

“But if it’s ginger flavoring, that wouldn’t work,” she told WebMD.

Ginger is readily absorbed in the body and has long been considered a natural remedy for stomach aches, although scientists don’t know how it works.

“By taking the ginger prior to chemotherapy treatment, the National Cancer Institute-funded study suggests its earlier absorption into the body may have anti-inflammatory properties,” said Ryan in a press statement.

Sources: University of Rochester Medical Center, WebMD.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD