Crude extracts of both fresh and dry ginger induced the perfused rat hindlimb to consume oxygen in association with increases in perfusion pressure and lactate production. The principles responsible for these observations, the gingerols and shogaols, were isolated and tested for relative thermogenic activity. The gingerol homologues possessed greater molar potency than their shogaol counterparts. (6)-Gingerol was the most potent principle isolated, causing a mean maximal increase in oxygen consumption of 1.4 +/- 0.1 mumol/g/h (21%), an increase in lactate efflux of 4.7 +/- 0.6 mumol/g/h (87%) with a perfusion pressure increase of 7.7 +/- 0.7 mmHg (30%). Increases in alkyl chain length within each homologous series led to decreased molar potency. Specific nitro-vasodilation using glyceryl trinitrate demonstrated that thermogenesis was at least partly associated with vasoconstriction. Concurrent infusion of alpha or beta antagonists showed that neither adrenergic receptors nor secondary catecholamine release were responsible for the observed effects. Increasing doses of the ginger principles ultimately led to inhibition of steady state oxygen consumption, although perfusion pressure continued to increase. Removal of high ginger principle doses was followed by apparent increases in oxygen uptake unaccompanied by elevated perfusion pressure. As a consequence, the effective concentration ranges of the ginger principles were relatively narrow. The cause of high dose effects is as yet undetermined but may have been due in part to disruption of mitochondrial function.