GARLIC Powerful (pungent) medicine


Surprisingly enough, garlic, botanically referred as to as Allium sativa, is a member of the Liliaceae or Lily family of plants. Like its more comely cousin, garlic grows from a bulb, sending a tall green stalk up from the earth to catch sunlight and to flower. Garlic is indigenous to the Mediterranean part of the world, and is today easily cultivated during dry, sunny summers in a variety of climates. If you like to garden, you'll find garlic a fun addition to your herb patch. Its flower is round and spiky, looking a bit like a sea urchin placed in a stalk. At the season's end, harvesting the bulb, made up of many individual cloves, is a little like hunting for underground Easter eggs -- digging deep in the soil, wise farmers know that within the tan knobby clump lies the true wealth of this special plant.
Age before beauty?

Although one form of garlic is not necessarily more physically attractive than another, there certainly is a big debate over the value of age when it comes to garlic. Proponents of garlic-as-medicine generally divide themselves into two camps: the garlic extract (or aged garlic) group, and the powdered garlic group.

Research done by the powdered garlic group tells them that alliin/allicin, an important sulfur compound, is one of the key ingredients in garlic effectiveness in fighting disease. Alliin/allicin is lost in the aging process. Therefore, the powdered garlic group argues that fresh garlic is the best medicine.

The garlic extract group believes that many stable organosulfur compounds, other than alliin/allicin, provide garlic with its medicinal punch. Since these compounds are not destroyed by aging, the garlic extract group says that theirs is an equally viable medicine. Furthermore, they assert, aged garlic is preferable because with aging, garlic's harsh, irritating and odiferous qualities can be tamed.

Research has been done on both forms of garlic, and both forms seem clearly to convey health benefits. Choosing the form that is right for you is somewhat a matter of preference, and somewhat dependent on your desired health goal. Let's explore garlic's health benefits more specifically.
Cardiovascular health

When it comes to preventing heart disease, just about everyone can benefit from garlic. Without a doubt, garlic provides the body with protection against cardiovascular disease. It does this in a number of ways: lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, raising HDL (good cholesterol), reducing the formation of plaque in carotid arteries, and providing protection against aging in the all-important aorta -- the cardiac blood vessel responsible for maintaining blood flow and pressure throughout the heart pumping cycle.

Two recent powdered garlic studies are worth reviewing. In a 1997 study which appeared in the journal Circulation, Gustav Belz, M.D., worked with the hypothesis that garlic may provide cardiovascular benefit by preventing age-related stiffening of the aorta. Stiffening of the aorta is quite common in aging. The process is hastened by things like cigarette smoking, a diet high in fats and sugars and some pharmacologic medicines. Living with a less-than-flexible aorta is a risk factor for myocardial infarction and for vascular damage in arteries.

Belz's group (at the Center for Cardiovascular Pharmacology, Mainz, Germany), did a cross-sectional, observational study comparing 101 healthy, non-smoking adults, ranging in age from 50 to 80 years, who had taken a minimum of 300 mg/day of standardized garlic powder daily for at least two years against a similar sized age, health and gender-controlled group who did not use garlic. Belz found that although the blood pressures, heart rate and plasma lipid levels of each group were similar, the aortas of the garlic group were significantly more flexible than the aortas of the non-garlic group. In other words, taking garlic regularly slowed aging in a chief heart vessel.

J. P. Lash, M.D. working at the University of Illinois at Chicago, published a study in Transplantation Proceeding (1998), concluding that garlic (powdered) had "significant beneficial effects" in reducing total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in kidney transplant patients. Hyperlipidemia is a serious problem in kidney transplant patients; 40 percent of deaths in this group are due to cardiovascular disease. While Lash concluded that garlic, alone, would not be adequate in reducing cholesterol levels for some of his patients, he did surmise that garlic supplementation might well provide the benefit of lowering the necessary dose of more toxic pharmaceutical medications.
Liver help

Another priceless benefit of garlic for health and long life is liver protection. In this regard, many of the studies are on aged garlic. Scientists and nutritionally oriented physicians believe that maintaining high levels of glutathione, a powerful anti-oxidant used by cells throughout the body, may well be equated with good health. Researchers therefore set about searching for substances that help the body hang on to glutathione.

Exposure to toxic substances lowers glutathione levels. Among these toxic substances is a chemical known as bromobenzene. Scientists treated a group of laboratory rats with garlic, then measured liver glutathione levels both before and after exposing them to bromobenzene. When compared to an equivalent group of rats who were not pre-treated with garlic, the animals treated with garlic before exposure to bromobenzene maintained higher, post-exposure levels of glutathione than the untreated group.

It also seems that garlic does more than simply conserve antioxidant levels. Other animal studies have found that garlic protects against liver damage from acetaminophen, and can actually increase the intestinal activity levels of enzymes used by the body to eliminate toxins. These helpful substances, called "Phase II detoxification enzymes," specifically quinine reductase and glutathione transferase, were found in elevated numbers in animals treated with garlic.

Garlic may also help the body protect itself from heavy-metal accumulation. It's a smart idea to take garlic when you travel, when you eat fish that might be high in mercury, or whenever you are exposed to smog or heavy air pollution.
Immunity and cancer

In addition to its liver- and heart-protective activity, garlic may also provide protection against cancer by upping the effectiveness of the body's immune system. Of interest to scientists are the stable sulfur compounds found in aged garlic, in particular S-allylmercaptocysteine. Test tube and animal studies have so far been encouraging, with speculation that garlic may help slow the proliferation of cancer cells in prostate, breast and bladder cancers.

Garlic also seems to help the body in fighting other challenges to the immune system: allergies, colds, flu and even bacterial and parasitic illness. In my family practice, garlic oil is a staple amongst my pediatric patients. Their parents put a drop or two in each ear at the onset of otitis (ear infection). This external application, combined with internal doses of echinacea, vitamin C and the proper homeopathic, is usually enough to cure most cases.

Garlic is also one of my preferred medicines for the common cold. I advise patients to put lots of it in hot soup or, my personal favorite -- cut up a clove and eat it sprinkled over hot whole grain toast.

Garlic oil can be used topically against a variety of fungal infections. The powdered herb can be found combined with botanicals like Oregon grape, thyme and ginger in anti-candida and anti-parasite internal medicinal formulas. In the realm of anti-parasitic activity, fresh garlic seems to be superior to aged.
A word of caution

When it comes to maintaining long-term health, the expression really should be "a clove a day keeps the doctor away," since almost everyone can benefit from a bit of garlic daily. Nonetheless, some people should be careful when using garlic, and some people simply cannot tolerate it.

Garlic is a warming and drying herb. Folks with sensitive stomachs or "hot" constitutions are often bothered by the plant and would be better off not using it. Supplementing with garlic is also contraindicated during things like acute inflammation, dehydration and menopause with hot flashes. In a small percentage of insomnia cases, garlic is the culprit. If you suffer with insomnia and you take garlic, try avoiding the garlic for a few days. If the insomnia doesn't clear up, garlic probably isn't the problem. You can return to using garlic, and look for another cause.

Because garlic is a mild blood-thinning agent, people taking anticoagulant medication should alert their physician before taking garlic supplements. In most of these patients, one clove daily, or supplements equivalent to one clove daily, will not interfere with blood thinning medications.

Breithaupt-Grogler, K., et al. "Protective Effect of Chronic Garlic Intake on Elastic Properties of Aorta in the Elderly." Circulation 96(8):2649-2655, 1997.

Kyo, E., et al. "Anti-allergic effects of aged garlic extract." Phytomedicine 4(4):335-340, 1997.

Lash, J.P., et al. "The Effect of Garlic on Hypercholesterolemia in Renal Transplant Patients." Transplantation Proceedings 30:189-191, 1998.

Sigounas, G., "S-allylmercaptocysteine inhibits cell proliferation and reduces the viability of erythroleukemia, breast, and prostate cancer cell lines." Nutrition and Cancer 27(2):186-191, 1997.

Wang, Bo Han, et al. "Treatment with aged garlic extract protects against bromobenzene toxicity to precision cut rat liver slices." Toxicology 132:215-225, 1999.



By Jamison Starbuck, N.D., J.D.

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