According to folk medicine, garlic has the potential to cure everything from the common cold to the plague. While many of the old sayings are doubtful, prevailing scientific theories and research support numerous others. The main compounds that lend garlic its medicinal value are allicin and diallyl sulphides. The sulfur found in the garlic gives it the distinctive taste and medicinal value. Generally speaking, it has been found that the stronger the taste the greater the sulfur content, and consequently the greater the medicinal worth.
Garlic is perennial plant that was originally found in central Asia, but now cultivated throughout the world. It is a bulb-based vegetable belonging to the Allium class of plants, whose other members include leeks, onions, scallions and chives. The garlic plant can grow as tall as two feet or more, but it is the bulb part that is used in cooking and for medicinal purposes. The plant produces pink-purple flowers which bloom in the Northern Hemisphere from July to September. The bulb’s outer layers contain a thin sheathing and the inner sheath holds the cloves. Each bulb consists of 4 to 20 segments, in a fully developed bulb.
The distinguishing flavour of garlic is due to the sulfuric content of the spice. This flavour is formed when the bioactive compound allicin is cut up or damaged. Garlic is a rich source of antioxidants, which help to remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals accumulate in the body with age and are a contributing factor to illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Garlic has held significance for almost every major society in the world. Its use has been noted in Egyptian and Chinese medicine for more than five thousand years. In fact, ancient Egyptians considered the herb so sacred that they even placed it in Pharaohs’ tombs. The general concept is that garlic has the capacity to provide endurance and strength while offering protection from evil spirits. Greek and Roman athletes used garlic prior to taking part in a sports event, while soldiers took it before going off to battle. In fact it was even given to slaves building the Pyramids to help increase their stamina and strength.
In 1858, Louis Pasteur confirmed garlic’s antiseptic characteristics and ‘the father of medicine,’ the Hippocrates, integrated garlic in treating cancerous tumours.
Garlic was valued for its antimicrobial results, long before the discovery of microbes. During the Middle Ages, French priests used garlic as protection against the bubonic plague, which we now know to be a bacterial infection. During World War I, garlic was applied directly to wounds by the European soldiers as a way to prevent infection. Today, garlic is recognized as an effective and safe preventive medicine in Europe. It is accepted by medical authorities as well as concerned government officials.
The bioactive components that make garlic valuable for health include arginine, oligosaccharides, selenium and flavonoids. It has especially low concentrations of saturated fats, sodium, natural sugars, and cholesterol. It has almost no calories (roughly four in each clove), and is loaded with vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, D and E. The water soluble vitamin C and the fat soluble vitamin E are the two antioxidants responsible for the removal of free radicals from the body. Additional micronutrients that provide garlic with its healing usefulness, besides proteins and enzymes, include manganese, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and iron.
Historically, garlic has been used to kill a wide range of microbes like viruses, fungi, parasites, and bacteria. Garlic is a good remedy against athlete’s foot, viral diarrhoea, thrush (mouth infection caused by a fungus), and Helicobacter pylori, which is the bacteria responsible for causing ulcers. Other traditional applications of garlic include colds, flu, earaches, yeast infections, and elevated blood pressure.
Current research is focusing on four basic areas where garlic can be of benefit; heart disease, cancer, antioxidant properties, and infectious diseases. Studies involving cardiovascular issues and garlic have been conducted for more than three decades. Garlic lowers the LDL cholesterol levels by stopping the liver from producing excessive amounts of LDL. It does so without affecting the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. It also plays the role of a blood thinner by decreasing the stickiness of platelets, thus preventing them from forming clots. This is vital for averting atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and stroke. Garlic slightly lowers blood pressure by dilating (widening) blood vessels. A critical review published in The Journal of Nutrition published in 2006 states that it has been established by scientists that cardiovascular disease benefits from garlic consumption.
Garlic is roughly 1% as powerful an antibiotic as penicillin, yet it is more successful against gram negative bacteria and without any of the side effects. Additionally, garlic seems to have immune stimulating, antioxidant, and liver protecting properties, but these properties have not as yet been that well investigated. Garlic has also shown promise when it comes to reducing pain related to rheumatoid arthritis, and has shown a reduction in the size of select cancerous tumours, but again further studies are required.
How to Use Garlic
There is plenty of evidence to indicate that garlic is beneficial as a preventive medicine. Including a minimum of half a clove to your food portion can yield positive results. If it is being cooked then 2-3 cloves should be used. For the majority of medicinal ailments, garlic is most beneficial when eaten raw. If eating it fresh is not acceptable, then add it to food towards the end of the cooking process, just before removing the heat, as this will help to retain the garlic's maximum amount of nutrients and flavour.
To eliminate the obvious odours associated with garlic it is possible to make tincture. Just peel one quarter pound of garlic cloves and allow seeping in half a quart of brandy. Seal and store for two weeks, not forgetting to shake thoroughly on a daily basis. Strain and take about thirty drops of the mixture daily.
When garlic is cooked, dried, or in the oil form, it loses a large portion of its potency. Peeled, chopped garlic, sold in stores has also lost a lot of its potency. Medicinal preparations should have at least 6,000 mcg of allicin to have the desired effect. While the supplements do not actually contain the allicin (as it is highly unstable and degenerates quickly), good supplements actually contain allin (allicin’s precursor), which releases allicin upon digestion.
To use garlic as a cough syrup, and for relief from respiratory disorders, peel and slice one pound of garlic and submerge it in one quart of boiling water. Let the mixture stand for twelve hours. Add sugar or honey for a better taste until it reaches the consistency of syrup. Garlic tea, made by steeping a few cloves in a cup of water and left to stand overnight, is a great for sore throat.
Ointments for external wounds can also be prepared using garlic. Simply mash the clove into a fine paste and apply directly to the affected area. For ear aches, chop up a clove and lightly heat in a tablespoon of virgin olive oil. Allow the mixture to cool and strain. Add two to three drops of the solution in the affected ear three to four times a day.
Besides causing bad breath, no major side effects of garlic are known. Some minor reactions like nausea, flatulence, and bloating have been reported, and consuming a dose of 25ml of fresh garlic can produce a burning sensation in the mouth, stomach and esophagus. A few people are allergic to the herb. Finally, taking garlic simultaneously with certain types of medicine, such as those used to treat HIV/AIDS, carries potential risks to health. Also, consuming garlic in large doses carries the danger of postoperative bleeding. Hence, before embarking on a garlic regiment it is important to talk to your doctor and discuss all potential issues that may arise in your case.
Many studies involving medicinal properties of garlic are being carried out around the world. A number of population studies linking increased garlic consumption and a decrease in the possibility of developing cancers like colon, stomach, pancreas, breast, and oesophagus, have been carried out. An analysis of the results from seven such studies indicates the higher the quantity of raw and cooked garlic eaten, the lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
A number of studies carried out in China concentrated on the use of garlic and the risk of cancer. In one of these studies, it was found that oesophageal and stomach cancers had a lower risk of developing the cancer with greater consumption of garlic. In another study, taking more than ten grams of allium vegetables like garlic reduced the risk of prostate cancer by roughly 50%.
A randomised, placebo controlled study involving 146 subjects, tried to test whether garlic could actually prevent the common cold. Participants taking garlic every day for three months experienced fewer colds than those in the placebo group.