More than just a potent meal-time ingredient, garlic has been used for centuries to combat every aliment from sickness to hair loss. While some claimed uses are nothing more than myths, there is substantial evidence for legitimate health benefits. Studies have shown garlic to lower blood pressure, increase insulin production and work as a topical antibiotic, among other things.
History and Origins of Garlic
Garlic has been a cultivated plant for so long that it is difficult to trace its true origins.
It is most likely that it was originally native to central Asia, spreading throughout Europe and Mediterranean civilizations.
Today, it is cultivated throughout the world grows wild in Italy and southern Europe. Garlic was widely used in ancient Egypt for its healing powers.
Greek historian Herodotus wrote about inscriptions on the walls of the great pyramid of King Khufu recording the amount of garlic, onions and radishes eaten by the slaves during construction.
During this age of the Pharaohs, garlic was handed out to laborers because it was believed to increase their strength and stamina for the difficult job of constructing pyramids.
The Egyptians also accounted garlic for warding off diseases, and kept it in bountiful supply around slave camps. The Ebers Papyrus (an ancient Egyptian medical writing), cites garlic as a remedy for 22 varieties of diseases. There are even accounts of the Egyptians worshiping garlic.
Garlic is mentioned in the literature of several great ancient world kingdoms including Persia, Babylon, Greece and Rome. Discordies, Rome’s head medical officer, is reported using garlic to treat intestinal worms. Aristotle and Hippocrates also mention the use garlic as an important holistic remedy.
Historian Theophrastus records the ancient Greeks serving garlic as a supper for their god Hectate. Greek Olympic athletes used it for improved stamina. However, some Greeks, including Orace, account it as a sign vulgarity, most likely because of its smell. In later times, William Shakespeare discourages actors from eating garlic in order to keep their words sweet.
Our English word “garlic” comes from Anglo-Saxon origins from the words “gar” (meaning spear) and “lac” (meaning plant).
How Does Garlic Grow?
Garlic is classified as a part of the allium family along with onions, leeks and shallots. It grows as a bulb beneath the soil, with leaves shooting up through the ground with large, green blades. Individual cloves can be planted as seeds. If garlic is left on the counter long enough, roots and leaves will begin to appear. All that is needed is to simply place a garlic clove in the ground or in a pot to begin the growing cycle anew.
When garlic matures, the green leaves will turn brown and begin to wither. If the garlic is harvested before this time the cloves will be much too small, and it is impossible to replant the bulb once the cloves have split apart.
After garlic is harvested it must be properly dried. This is often accomplished by hanging the bulbs upside down in a cool, dry, environment. If the garlic is not allowed to dry completely, it will rot. Usual drying time is about one week.
Garlic grows in a number of climates and is easily produced in both the traditional Mediterranean environments as well as in cooler Northern conditions.
Garlic in the Kitchen:
Few common kitchen ingredients are as versatile as garlic. It can be used to flavor a wide variety of food from a number of ethnic origins. Available in most any grocery store, garlic bulbs are inexpensive and keep well.
Each bulb contains several cloves. Each clove can be separated and peeled individually, allowing the others to remain sealed in their husks, prolonging freshness.
To peal a garlic clove, most chefs recommend laying it flat on a cutting board, placing your chopping knife broad side on top of it, and then quickly smashing the garlic with one quick tap with the heal of your palm or the side of your fist.
This separates the skin from the garlic without much damage to the clove inside, and makes it very easy to peel. The clove can then be used whole, minced, chopped or pressed as an ingredient in your favorite recipe.
Fresh young bulbs are the most powerful and are in season during the summer months. After garlic has been peeled and chopped it quickly loses its potency, since the delicate chemical reaction that takes place is unstable and is destroyed within hours.
Aliments Garlic is Recommended for:
Garlic is used to treat many types of infections and health issues. Some of the most common uses for garlic include skin treatments for its antifungal, antiviral and antibiotic properties. Ingesting garlic has been cited for improving circulation, lowering blood pressure and curing a cough.
As an Antibiotic:
Garlic has been used to treat many types of infections. Add it to a foot soak to treat athlete’s foot or press a clove and add a little olive oil to help heal a middle ear infection. Crushed raw garlic is a powerful antibiotic that has the ability to kill certain strains of the staph bacteria. It can be safely applied to any open cut.
The same antibacterial properties that make garlic successful against infections are the same ones that make it a useful acne fighter. Crack open a clove to start up the chemical reaction and rub it directly on the acne-prone areas of your face. You can also crush the garlic and use the juices to rub into the skin.
Apparently, the compounds in garlic are harmful to mosquitoes and they will avoid contact with it. You can apply garlic extracts to exposed areas of skin to ward off the pests. As a natural alternative to chemicals, you can place garlic cloves around outdoor gathering areas to act as repellents.
Garlic is a powerful antibacterial agent, so it is thought to be able to sooth a sore throat and even ease a persistent cough. Try boiling one bulb of garlic in about one cup of water and drink when cooled. Garlic is also thought to help with bronchitis, allowing people to expel more of the mucus.
Some studies have found that garlic may be able to reduce lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) levels in the blood. Decreased cholesterol and triglycerides leads to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. European and American studies show garlic reducing bad cholesterol levels by an average of one tenth.
Blood Pressure Reduction:
Studies have proven that garlic relaxes the walls of arteries and veins, thereby allowing more blood to flow. With easier blood flow, platelets are less likely to accumulate within the veins and arteries, reducing the risk of stroke.
According to the latest research presented at the American Heart Association, laboratory test show garlic dramatically reducing fatty deposits in the arteries.
Garlic is said to improve the immune system by stimulating the body’s immune response. Garlic is an effective inhibitor of compounds formed by nitrates that are thought to turn into cancer-causing compounds within the intestines.
For Help with Diabetes:
Garlic has been shown to increase insulin levels in the body, helping to lower glucose levels in diabetics. However, it does not take the place of insulin, and people with diabetes may need to continue on an insulin regimen. But it makes a useful addition to the diabetic menu.
In the Bedroom:
Because garlic increases blood flow, it is possible that it may help with male performance issues.
Although garlic cannot cure the common cold, research has shown that people who consume a regular amount of garlic appear show cold symptoms less often.
Garlic is thought to protect against stomach ulcers that are commonly caused by the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori. People who eat a regular amount of garlic typically suffer from fewer ulcers.
It is possible that garlic may reduce the risk of preeclampsia (a severe condition that can cause risks to the fetus, usually characterized by extreme swelling of the face and hands).
Garlic is most likely safe for pregnant women if consumed in regular doses like those found in most recipes, however, most health officials do not recommend increased use of garlic because of the risk of bleeding. Nursing women who ingest too much garlic may have increased nursing times, milk odor and increased infant milk consumption.
Sometimes used in conjunction with cloves, garlic has been used to ease the pain from a toothache. Usually, the garlic clove is crushed and held next to the affected tooth.
How Does Garlic Work?
When crushed, garlic releases a chemical called alliin. This is also the same compound that gives garlic its pungent odor.
This enzyme then turns to allicin, which produces other sulfur compounds that are potent antimicrobials thought to be the source of garlic’s effectiveness.
Garlic is one of the most popular supplements in the United States with average sales surpassing $150 million in 2004, according to Nutrition Business Journal.
To get the most out of garlic’s amazing benefits, simply consuming a lot of garlic-packed meals may not do the trick. And because garlic is infamous for causing bad breath, it may be best to ingest this particular ingredient as a supplement.
Garlic supplements vary greatly, and many brands and types can be found in most any local grocery or pharmacy. Herbal supplements are also widely available online with reputable herbal stores. When shopping for garlic supplements be sure to check the labels. Allicin, not its precursor alliin, is the active ingredient.
Garlic supplements can work in various forms, and are most often seen as pills, powders, oil extracts, juices, and even syrup. To avoid bad breath, look for a garlic pill that is coated, and therefore is digested in the intestines as opposed to the stomach.
The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy recommends three to five milligrams of allicin daily, which is one clove or 0.5 to 1 gram of dried powder daily.
The World Health Organization recommends 2 to 5 grams of fresh garlic, 0.4 to 1.2 grams of dried powder, 2 to 5 milligrams of oil, 300 to 1000 milligrams of extract or other formulations which equal to 2 to 5 milligrams of allicin daily.
Common doses for:
Pills: 600 to 900 milligrams divided into 3 doses daily.
Powder: 0.4 to 1.2 grams dried powder, divided into 3 doses, daily.
Oil extract: 1 to 2 capsules 3 times daily.
Garlic juices: 2 to 4 milliliters 3 times daily.
Garlic syrup: 2 to 8 milliliters 3 times daily.
While normal consumption of garlic is considered safe for everyone, there are a few considerations when starting a garlic supplement regimen.
Bleeding. Garlic increases blood flow by thinning the walls of veins and arteries, therefore it is very important that you talk with your doctor before taking garlic supplements if you are taking blood thinners or are preparing for surgery.
Allergic reactions. Some people taking large amounts of garlic may develop skin rashes and swollen sinuses. Asthma has also been reported in people on garlic supplements, but it is noted that some reactions are actually caused by a mite that has infested the garlic. Skin burns can occur, especially in infants and children.
Other side effects reported: Bad breath, body odor, stomach ache, gastrointestinal irritation, diarrhea, dizziness, increased sweating, headache, itching, fever, chills and runny nose.
Scientific studies have reported the following drug reactions:
Anticoagulant drugs like Warfain (Coumadin) or antiplatelet drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavvix) may be adversely affected by the vein and artery thinning affects of garlic, and people taking these drugs should consult with their doctors before starting a garlic regimen.
Patients taking sanquinavar (Fortovase) for HIV and AIDS should not take garlic since it may have serious adverse affects on the medication.
- Anyone taking blood pressure medicine, as garlic consumption lowers blood pressure.
- Diabetics on insulin, because garlic is known to increase blood insulin levels.
- Garlic may also interact with the levels of certain drugs that are metabolized by the liver’s CYP450 enzyme.
- Always check with your doctor before starting on daily supplements.
Herb and Dietary Aid Interactions:
It is possible for garlic to increase the anticoagulant or antiplatelet effects of other herbs such as ginkgo, horse chestnut seed extract, or coleus forskolin, since garlic also acts as a blood thinner. Taking garlic in conjunction with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may increase the risk of bleeding.
Other herbs such as Black Cohosh and Hawthorn also lower blood pressure and people taking garlic supplements should consult their healthcare professional before taking these herbs together.
Bitter Melon is also thought to lower blood sugar levels and diabetics should be cautious before adding large amounts of garlic and/or bitter melon to their diet.
Unproven Claims for Garlic
Garlic provides many health benefits, but it is by no means a cure-all. Some of the claimed uses for garlic have yet to be proven. Some of these aliments are, or are potentially, very serious, and you should consult your doctor before using garlic as a treatment.
Some of the unproven claims for garlic cures include, but are not limited to:
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Digestive aid
- Hair growth
- Kidney problems
- Lung disease
- Muscle spasms
- Urinary tract infections
- Whooping cough
- Yeast infections
Garlic has long been known for its health benefits, but here are a few myths that go far beyond garlic’s natural powers.
In Europe, there is a superstition that if a piece is chewed by a man running in a race, it will prevent his competitors from passing him.
Hungarian jockeys have been known to secure a piece of garlic to their horse’s bits in the belief that other horses will avoid the offensive odor. Medieval townspeople used garlic to ward off evil spirits, vampires and werewolves. Vikings ate large quantities of garlic before raids to boost their spirits and energy.