I love garlic. I use it in almost everything I cook, sometimes even adding it to recipes that don’t call for it. I especially love the smell. I’ll admit that it can be unpleasantly disarming when it emanates from the breath or pores of another person, but few things warm my heart like an apartment filled with the smell of cooking garlic. Also, don’t tell anyone, but for a couple of days after chopping raw garlic, I’ll occasionally sniff my own hands, looking for the lovely garlic perfume that won’t wash away. So, I’m actually kind of a freak about garlic. I figure it can’t hurt me, and as it turns out, it may even help.
Garlic’s medicinal reputation reaches back thousands of years, and modern science is beginning to discover that some of its traditional uses are more than just folklore. In the past decade or so, garlic has received increasing scientific attention, largely thanks to the observation that cultural groups that consume a lot of garlic–particularly in Asia and the Mediterranean–enjoy lower incidences of heart disease and certain types of cancer. These ailments, as we all know, strike most other populations pretty hard, and garlic (or a lack of it) may be part of the reason.
A Few Small Warnings
Most studies on garlic’s medical applications have been limited and yielded a variety of results, including the conclusion that it simply doesn’t work. So, if you decide to use garlic medicinally, do so with the knowledge that you may not be cured of or rendered immune to whatever illness you’re trying to heal or prevent. On the other hand, garlic is unlikely to do you much, if any, harm. The most common side effects of garlic use are bad breath and body odor, and it can sometimes cause gastrointestinal upset. Less common but more serious side effects include excessive bleeding when taken orally, or burns if the garlic is applied directly to the skin or allowed to sit inside a body cavity.
Tips for Using Garlic
Because garlic supplements vary wildly, it’s a good idea to do some research before deciding on one, and you should be prepared to shell out a little extra money for a supplement that’s likely to actually work. The complicating factor is that scientists disagree on exactly what makes for a quality garlic supplement. Allicin, which is produced when garlic cells are damaged, is a good start, but because it’s easily destroyed, it rarely makes it into supplements and never makes it past our stomach acid. It’s more likely that what we need are other garlic compounds, including those formed when allicin breaks down. Some evidence shows that aged garlic extract, which is made from fermented garlic and contains S-allyl cysteine, may be more effective than other supplements.
Honestly, though, because of the variations in garlic supplements, the most reliable way to get the benefits of garlic is probably straight from the clove. Unfortunately, heating garlic deactivates some of its healthy compounds. According to experts, you can make the most of garlic’s good stuff by letting the garlic sit for about ten minutes at room temperature between chopping or crushing and cooking. Or, if you can stand it, just eat the garlic raw.
Uses of Garlic
Most of the relevant studies have shown that garlic has a positive effect on cholesterol levels, at least in the short term. However, the small reduction it causes in triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol in the first three months of use appears to subside by the sixth month. Garlic may also be more successful at lowering cholesterol in people with very high levels of LDL than in people whose cholesterol levels are closer to normal. Other research suggests that garlic may help to prevent or reverse atherosclerosis, the hardening of artery walls. This is probably due in part to its potential for removing cholesterol from the blood, since cholesterol deposits contribute to the hardening of arteries.
Garlic is often used by people hoping to lower their blood pressure. Medical science mostly supports this use and has even come up with the mechanism by which garlic probably works its magic on blood pressure. When polysulfides in garlic encounter blood cells, they prompt the cells to release hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which acts as a vasodilator, causing blood vessels to relax. This improves blood flow and is therefore important to achieving lower blood pressure. Some of the most recent studies show that garlic may be almost as effective at lowering blood pressure as drugs typically prescribed for hypertension, including beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.
Garlic is showing a lot of promise for the prevention of some cancers, especially gastric and colorectal cancer.Scientists have yet to positively identify the properties of garlic that fight cancer, but preliminary studies suggest that it works on more than one level. First, it seems to prevent cancer in a couple of ways: by aiding the body in expelling carcinogens, and also by interacting with enzymes that would otherwise help remaining carcinogenic compounds to actually cause cancer. Once cancerous growth has already begun, garlic could help stop it by prompting the body to kill off the cancer cells through the natural process of apoptosis.
Garlic has long been used as a treatment for fungal infections, including athlete’s foot and yeast infections.You can get some of garlic’s antifungal effects by eating a clove or two every day, or you can apply some form of garlic directly to the fungus in question. Spread crushed garlic or a commercially-prepared garlic cream or oil on fungus-infected skin or toenails. Oral thrush can be treated by moving half of a raw garlic clove around the mouth for several minutes every day. Garlic treatment for a yeast infection involves wrapping a clove of garlic in a piece of clean, thin cloth or gauze, then tying it off with a string so that a couple inches of cloth hang below the tie. This is inserted into the vagina, where it should be left overnight. If you decide to use any of these remedies, be extremely cautious; garlic has been known to burn the skin or mucus membranes during extended direct contact.
Another of garlic’s oldest uses is the prevention and treatment of bacterial and viral infections, including the common cold. Garlic’s main antimicrobial component is allicin, which inhibits enzymes that viruses and bacteria need to enter and harm bodily tissues, or to even survive. When taken orally in the form of a raw clove or a supplement, garlic can prevent internal infections like colds and flu, or at least shorten their duration and lessen their symptoms. Garlic seems especially effective in reducing coughs and sore throats. It can also prevent external infections when crushed and rubbed directly onto an open wound and is said to have been used exactly that way on World War I battlefields.
More Garlic Uses
Between its long history in folk medicine and the discoveries of modern medical science, garlic has accumulated almost too many uses to discuss in a single article. We hit on most of the major ones above, but a few others are worth mentioning:
- Several studies have shown garlic to be effective at reducing platelet aggregation in the bloodstream. The plain English translation is that it helps prevent blood clots that can block arteries and lead to stroke or heart attack.
- Garlic contains antioxidant compounds that destroy free radicals. This is good because free radicals are known to mess around with cell structure and DNA, possibly contributing to things like cancer, heart disease, and aging.
- Some, though not all, studies show that garlic can lower blood glucose. If this is the case, garlic could be a helpful supplementary treatment for diabetes.
- The strong smell of garlic is reported to repel insects, including mosquitoes. There are two ways to use garlic against bugs: you can keep them out of your yard by spraying a commercially-prepared garlic oil over the grass, or simply keep them from biting you by eating so much garlic that it seeps out through your skin.