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The Health Benefits of Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a plant used in cooking and medicine, best known for its distinctive flavor and aroma. While frequently used as a seasoning, garlic is technically a vegetable. A member of the Allium family, it’s a close relative of onions, shallots, leeks, and chives. The benefits of garlic don’t end with adding flavor to food, it’s a legitimate superfood that has been used for an astounding variety of medical applications for thousands of years.

History of Garlic

Humans have consumed garlic as both cuisine and cure for over 7,000 years. The plant is native to central Asia, but its use and cultivation has spread around the world. Ancient Egyptians gave garlic to the laborers building the pyramids to boost stamina and prevent disease. In Ancient Greece, Olympic athletes would chew garlic before participating in the games. References to garlic can be found in Homer’s Odyssey, 5,000-year-old Indian medical texts, and the Bible. Garlic was used as food and medicine in the cultures of the ancient Romans, Chinese, Vikings, Phoenicians, Israelites, and Persians.

Now, garlic remains a popular food and flavoring. It’s a staple of Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Southeast Asian cuisine. The potential medical applications of garlic are even receiving renewed interest from researchers.

Garlic’s Nutritional Profile

At first glance, the nutritional capabilities of garlic may seem puzzling. If you look at the official nutrition facts for garlic, a typical serving of garlic (3-9 grams), provides no significant amount of the typically listed essential nutrients. It provides no noteworthy amount of fiber, protein, iron, potassium or vitamins A, D, E, or most of the B vitamins.

It’s a good source of selenium and contains small amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamins C and B6, but there are better sources of these nutrients. You’d have to eat a lot of raw garlic to receive a substantial amount of these nutrients, and even though it’s delicious, I think very few of us are up to that challenge.

So what exactly is in garlic that makes it such a prized health-supporting tool in so many different cultures? Garlic owes its healing properties to the presence of several sulfurous phytochemical compounds. Fresh garlic contains a sulfoxide compound called alliin. When fresh garlic is chopped, crushed, or damaged, alliin is converted into allicin by an enzyme called alliinase. Allicin is responsible for much of the pungent scent of garlic. Its actual purpose is to act as a defense mechanism, protecting the plant from pests.

Allicin is unstable and further breaks down into other sulfurous compounds including diallyl disulfide, diallyl trisulfide, and diallyl tetrasulfide. Inside the human body, diallyl disulfide breaks down into allyl methyl sulfide, the chief cause of garlic breath. (Sidenote: for a natural way to reduce garlic breath, try sucking a lemon wedge, drinking green tea, or eating spinach or an apple. These foods all contain substances that mask or break down the garlicky odor.)

It’s these sulfurous compounds that give garlic its healing abilities. The pest-resistant properties of allicin still work when the compound is in the human body. This makes garlic a surprisingly good defense against harmful organisms like bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungus.

Diallyl disulfide also possesses antimicrobial abilities, as well as anti-cancer and heart healthy properties. The exact mechanisms behind the health benefits of garlic are not yet fully understood, but research is ongoing. We do know that garlic can be a powerful tool for supporting a healthy lifestyle. Here are a few ways garlic can help.

Health Benefits of Garlic

1. Garlic Supports Cardiovascular Health

Garlic is among the best foods for heart health. Studies have found that garlic reduces cholesterol and lowers lipid content in the blood. Experimental and clinical studies on the cardiovascular benefits of garlic have found it to have a positive effect on atherosclerosis, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and thrombosis.[1] Garlic also seems to possess the ability to prevent blood clots. Tests are currently underway to examine the mechanism of this effect.

2. Garlic May Help with Hypertension

Researchers have found that oral administration of garlic can lower blood pressure in both human and animal studies. Amazingly, there was a measurable response after just a single dose. Chronic oral administration of garlic has a long-term positive effect. Allicin seems to have a relaxing effect on the smooth muscle cells of the pulmonary artery, allowing the artery to open more fully.[1] This doesn’t mean that you can switch to an all-bacon diet and expect to “garlic away” the consequences, but when combined with a balanced diet, garlic can substantially improve blood pressure.

3. Garlic Is Nutritional Support Against Cancer

Around the world, studies have found a correlation between a high intake of garlic and a lowered cancer risk. An increased consumption of garlic is associated with a reduction in cancers of the stomach, colon, esophagus, pancreas, prostate, and breast.[2] The United States National Cancer Institute has said that garlic may be the most effective food for cancer prevention.[3]

4. Garlic and Diabetes

Garlic may also provide significant benefits to those suffering from diabetes. Experimental studies have shown that garlic lowers blood glucose levels and this hypoglycemic effect has been replicated in animal studies. Treatment for humans is less studied but looks promising. Garlic has been reported to lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce insulin resistance. However, further study is needed to fully understand the effect garlic has on human blood glucose levels.[3]

5. Garlic Offers Liver Protection

Garlic is one of the best foods to help cleanse your liver. It can help mitigate the effects of fatty liver disease[4] and provides hepatoprotective effects from certain toxic agents. Studies have found that garlic can protect liver cells from acetaminophen, gentamycin, and nitrates.[3]

6. Antimicrobial Properties of Garlic

For centuries, traditional medicine has used garlic for its antimicrobial properties. Modern studies have found that the antibacterial properties of garlic are effective on salmonella, staph infections, clostridium (the cause of botulism), proteus, mycobacterium, and H. pylori. Garlic has even been suggested as a treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis.[3]

Garlic’s action against harmful organisms doesn’t stop with bacteria. It’s antiprotozoal, antifungal, and even antiviral. In vitro studies have found that garlic is effective against influenza, cytomegalovirus, rhinovirus (the cause of the common cold), viral pneumonia, rotavirus, herpes simplex 1 and 2, and even HIV.[3] Unfortunately, these results are only confirmed in test tube studies. How the active substances of garlic react to viruses inside the human system remains to be seen.

Studies of cold sufferers have found that those who consumed garlic extract experienced milder symptoms and shorter illness duration than placebo groups, but the exact mechanism behind this phenomena is still unclear.[5] Further research is necessary to more fully understand the healing power of garlic.

7. Garlic Is a Powerful Antioxidant

Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage DNA and lead to poor health. Garlic contains potent antioxidants that fight these free radicals. When allicin breaks down, it produces an acid that reacts with and traps the free radicals. Researchers at Queens University in Ontario believe this may be the most powerful dietary antioxidant ever discovered.[6]

Ways to Consume Garlic

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes that include garlic. However, the best way to absorb garlic’s health benefits is to consume it raw. Raw garlic can be a little intense for some, but there are several ways to dull the piquancy while retaining the full health benefits. My favorite is to add raw garlic to a dressing like the lemon garlic dressing used in this cabbage wedge recipe or the balsamic vinaigrette of this green bean salad.