The many health benefits of garlic.

What is Garlic?

Garlic (Allium sativum) is an Asian plant related to lilies, shallots, leeks and onions. The cultivated varieties are grown from bulbs and have been used throughout history for a wide range of culinary and medicinal purposes.

From the earliest times, it was used very widely in a range of national dishes, and legend has it that it was fed to the labourers who built Egypt’s pyramids, and consumed by the Romans as they set about conquering large regions of the world.

Garlic has a famously pungent aroma and flavour, particularly when it’s uncooked. It’s only really noticeable when the plant’s cells are damaged, such as by chopping or chewing, when the cell’s enzymes trigger the release of compounds containing sulphur.

Its smell developed as a defense mechanism to protect the plant from predators such as birds, worms and insects, and in fact, among the members of the onion family, garlic has by far the highest concentrations of initial reaction products, making it far more potent than shallots, leeks, or onions.

The sulphur compound most responsible for garlic’s spiciness is called allicin. This chemical is the one that gives us the burning sensation, or ‘heat’ flavour, we get from certain foods. It’s destroyed by cooking, which is why that way of preparing food always tempers the strength of its flavour.

Garlic and infections

There’s a large body of research which shows that garlic has numerous health benefits. Not only has it been used successfully as a natural remedy for thousands of years, but science is now proving its effectiveness, too.

Among the myriad medicinal talents of garlic, we find an apparent ability to fight infections such as the common cold, and especially to help clear up respiratory infections and lung congestion.

It keeps the delicate mucous membranes of the digestive and respiratory system healthy and can be soothing for sore throats. Early in the 20th century, it was sometimes used in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Garlic and the heart

Garlic cloves are claimed to be an effective long-term remedy for heart problems, to prevent unhealthy blood clotting, to lower “bad” cholesterol, and to keep the heart healthy by sweeping out its arteries. It’s particularly good for older people, because it keeps the heart muscles elastic.

Garlic and Diabetes

It’s also been shown to improve many of the symptoms of diabetes mellitus. Many people swear by garlic as a way to help regulate blood sugar levels, although people taking insulin shouldn’t consume medicinal amounts of garlic without first talking to a doctor.

Can Garlic do all this and help with cancer?

Garlic extracts that are left to set overnight are very effective in healing wounds. In 1858, Louis Pasteur noticed garlic's antibacterial properties, and it was later used as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene during both World Wars.

It’s also used as a natural remedy to clear out intestinal worms and other parasites, such as Helicobactor pylori. Some people have used it successfully to treat yeast infections such as thrush (Candidiasis).

As if all that wasn’t enough, garlic looks likely to have cancer-fighting properties as well.

It’s high in diallyl sulphide (DADs), believed to be anticarcinogenic.

Tests are also underway to find out whether it can help prevent the spread of malaria: in one study, malaria sporozoites were treated with allicin before injection into mice, and malaria infection was completely prevented.

In conjunction with a high-protein diet, it might even boost testosterone levels in men: it certainly does in rats!

So you want get the garlic goodness without the smell!

So, consuming a diet high in garlic, and taking a garlic supplement seems to be a particularly good move in the direction of better health.

There’s just one proviso: the garlic must always be fresh and uncooked, or its allicin component will be lost.

The difficulty with that centers on its strong smell and flavour, which is where supplements can help. They provide the benefits, without any of the ‘antisocial’ qualities associated with fresh garlic cloves!

Garlic dietary supplements in pill form are widely available, but as per usual, it’s incredibly important to choose a high-quality variety. For a start, the supplement should have an enteric coating. ‘Enteric’ refers to the small intestine, and enteric coating is a barrier applied to some oral medication that controls the location in the digestive system where it’s absorbed.

Most enteric coatings work by presenting a surface that is stable at acidic pH, but breaks down rapidly at higher pH. Substances that can have an irritating effect on the lining of the stomach, or (like garlic) that produce a smell when they digest, can be coated so that they will only dissolve in the small intestine.

Most importantly, the coating also helps to prevent the acidic environment of the stomach from destroying some or all of the allicin.

If a supplement comes as a tablet, it should be freeze-dried and nitrogen packed to preserve its allicin potential until the time of manufacturing.

Allicin liquid is stable for at least 12 months, but allicin powder can be kept for up to 2 years under cool conditions.

Garlic oil supplements are produced by distilling fresh garlic, then diluting its oil and putting it into a capsule. Unfortunately, this destroys most, if not all of the available allicin. Choose carefully! Your health most probably depends on it.

Medical references: 27,28,29,30,31,32,33

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