Many successful herbal treatments start like this: Some doctor learns that some plant has been used in some ancient medical tradition, like ginger for headaches. The physician has patients with headaches and tries advising one with migraines to give it a try since it’s just some safe, common spice. At the first sign of a migraine coming on, the patient mixed a quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger in some water, drank it down, and poof! Within a half-hour, the migraine went away.
This is what’s called a case report, which is really just a glorified anecdote. But case reports have played an important role in the history of medicine. AIDS was first discovered as a series of case reports. Some young guy walks into a clinic in Los Angeles with a bad case of thrush, and the rest is history. Reports of an unusual side effect of a failed chest pain drug led to the billion-dollar blockbuster, Viagra. Case reports may represent the weakest level of evidence, but they are often the first line of evidence, where everything starts. The ginger and migraine report isn’t helpful in itself, but it can inspire researchers to put the treatment to the test.
The problem is, who’s going to fund it? The market for migraine drugs is worth billions of dollars. A quarter teaspoon of powdered ginger costs about a penny. Who would fund a study pitting ginger versus the leading migraine drug?
No one, until now. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled, clinical trial compared the efficacy of ginger to sumatriptan, also known as Imitrex, one of the top-selling billion-dollar drugs in the world in the treatment of migraine headaches. Researchers tried using only one-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger versus a good dose of the drug.
They both worked just as well and just as fast.
Most patients started out in moderate or severe pain but, after taking the ginger or the drug, ended up in mild pain or completely pain-free. The same proportion of migraine sufferers reported satisfaction with the results either way. As far as I’m concerned, ginger won—not only because it’s a few billion dollars cheaper than the drug, but because there were significantly fewer side effects in the ginger group. People taking sumatriptan reported dizziness, a sedative effect, vertigo and heartburn. The only thing reported for ginger was an upset tummy in about 1 out of 25 people. (As a note of caution, taking awhole tablespoon of ginger powder at one time on an empty stomach could irritate anyone’s tummy.)
An eighth of a teaspoon of ginger is not only up to 3000-times cheaper than the drug, but you’re also less likely to end up as a case report yourself of someone who had a heart attack or died after taking the drug—tragedies that have occurred.