Garlic – either you love it or you hate it. Much like most people’s reaction to cilantro, it seems there is no indifference to it. For most Eastern and Southern European as well as Asian cultures and elsewhere, it is unthinkable without it. Use a little or use it a lot, it always brings some magic into the end result, that is if you are a lover of it.
Allium sativum – it’s botanical name – is a species in the onion genus, making it an important member of the lily family and this ‘lily’ has amazing health benefits. The most commonly known one is for lowering blood pressure. But there is so much more which you will discover further down this article.
A Very Short History
Most likely one of the oldest, most cultivated plants since thousands of years, it is native to Central Asia where it spread East and West, revered wherever it spread. So much so, that the ancient Egyptians placed it in the tombs of the pharaohs. It was also given to the workers who build the pyramids to ward off illnesses, giving them more strength and endurance for the laborious work.
European folklore abounds with tales of garlic, the most commonly known one is for fending off vampires, demons and werewolves. And an old Welsh saying says: “Eat leeks in March and garlic in May, Then the rest of the year, your doctor can play.” It may very well be true, the Welsh saying, that is!
There is much scientific and anecdotal evidence of the health benefits of fresh garlic. Many scientific studies and medical abstracts have shown its positive effects on blood and heart related conditions. According to the National Library of Medicine (NIH) it is used for hypertension, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), coronary heart disease, heart attack and high cholesterol.
Anecdotal evidence shows its use also for the prevention of lung, prostate, and breast cancer as well as stomach, rectal and colon cancers. According to the NIH “Some of these uses are supported by science”.
Cooks know that the longer chopped or crushed garlic is exposed to air, the stronger it tastes. This is due to cutting or crushing the garlic cells causing the reaction of the alliinase enzyme on the chemical alliin converting it into allicin. Together, both are known to be a cancer inhibitor – but it must be fresh, not cooked. By the way, slicing garlic is better than crushing it as this drastically reduces the active span of allicin.
Here are 10 benefits of eating fresh garlic regularly:
Cardiovascular disease – Raw garlic helps lower LDL cholesterol. It aids to protect the body from oxidative stress as well as reduces inflammation that could lead to heart attacks and atherosclerosis. Garlic also prevents clotting inside the arterial blood vessels. It can also help lower blood pressure and helps maintain it. In general, it helps to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. (Some earlier studies from 2007 claimed garlic was not effective in cholesterol control and high blood pressure. However those studies used forms of garlic that either had the allicin deactivated or not present – as in many supplements. More recent studies 2013, 2016 have shown the importance of allicin. See references further down.)
Antiviral and anti-bacterial properties – Helps to stop or at least control infections. Rinse insect bites and minor cuts or animal bites with garlic water. Dilute crushed garlic with a hot water, allow to sit 5 minutes before applying the water directly to the skin. Soaking an infected area with garlic water and a gauze is said to prevent or stop infection. Taken internally, garlic is excellent for stomach and intestinal health.
Cancer prevention – The allyl sulfides in garlic activate the molecule “nuclear erythroid factor”(Nrf2). Once activated, Nrf2 moves from within the cell into the nucleus. Here, a series of metabolic functions are triggered which work to ensure that cells function properly. This helps prevent the formation of potentially cancerous cells..
Iron absorption – Diallyl sulfides found in garlic help the body to produce the protein ferroportin which provides the gateway for stored iron to go where it is needed.
Physical performance – Probably the first ‘performance enhancer‘ used since the first Olympics, garlic allows the body to endure strenuous phases and reduces fatigue thus enabling the body to withstand greater physical endurance for longer periods of time.
Improved bone health – The vitamins and minerals in garlic such as vitamin B6, C, manganese, and zinc as well as enzymes and antioxidants are vital to the formation of healthy bone structure and connective tissues. Garlic also aids the absorption of calcium and enhances bone metabolism.
Neutralizes Free Radicals – Allicin in garlic is a very powerful neutralizer of free radicals. Garlic has good levels of selenium. Several studies have shown selenium can reduce cancer by 20%. It also has good levels of tryptophan, not only important for the biosynthesis of protein but it is also an essential amino acid and precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin.
Immune system – The allicin in garlic strengthens the immune system, helps against simple colds and flu or prevents them from getting worse.
Babies – Not only for adults but for prenatal care as well. Mothers consuming garlic help babies gain weight before they are born.
Hyperthyroidism – The high levels of iodine in garlic effectively helps any conditions associated with the thyroid.
Garlic Oil Capsules
If you just can’t tolerate the taste and smell of fresh garlic and consider taking the capsule form, then be sure that they contain allicin and that it is stated clearly what the percentage or quantity is. Most supplements are a waste of money. Remember that garlic does not contain allicin. Allicin is produced through a series of events, i.e. cutting the garlic which starts a two step reaction which then produces the allicin. So supplements with fantasy names in the ingredient list such as Garlicin or Allirich are misleading and purely invented to relieve you of your money.
Researching for this article, I ran across this excellent site all about allicin with charts on how to read the labels and suggested supplement types such as allicin powder instead.
If you are in the UK or Europe, then have a look at this site. It is the only one I highly recommend for quality, speed and efficient posting (supplements come in ziplock packets). They have two types of garlic supplements. Notice the mention of allicin and quantity. All international orders, even outside of Europe, are just 4 GBP.
The next time you hold a plump garlic head in your hand, consider the many health benefits of this humble herb. Enjoy it with reverence!
Small selection of references:
- WebMd Garlic
- Allicin Fact
Nutr Rev. 2013 May;71(5):282-99. doi: 10.1111/nure.12012. Epub 2013 Mar 7.Effect of garlic on serum lipids: an updated meta-analysis. Ried K1, Toben C, Fakler P.
- Lissiman, E.; Bhasale, A.L.; Cohen, M. (November 2014). “Garlic for the common cold”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 11: CD006206.
- Zhou XF, Ding ZS, Liu NB (2013). “Allium vegetables and risk of prostate cancer: evidence from 132,192 subjects” (PDF). Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention
J Nutr Biochem. Allicin inhibits lymphangiogenesis through suppressing activation of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) receptor.2016 Mar;29:83-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2015.11.004.Epub 2015 Nov 24. Wang W1, Du Z1, Nimiya Y2, Sukamtoh E1, Kim D3, Zhang G4.
Southeast Asian J Trop Med Public Health. A comparative assessment of the antimicrobial effects of garlic (Allium sativum) and antibiotics 2007 Mar;38(2):343-8.
J Nutr. Garlic and Heart Disease 2016 Feb;146(2):416S-21S. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.202333. Epub 2016 Jan 13.