The Health Benefits of Garlic

The Health Benefits of Garlic

You have to hand it to garlic for it’s sheer audacity, showboating through the kitchen, loving the attention it gets as its aroma permeates everything whether being cooked or chopped. It may be the creamy sweetness it exudes upon roasting and popping out of it's paper coat or the earthy tones it adds to ginger and chili in a simple stir fry but either way it’s versatility cannot be underestimated. Garlic sits comfortably with so many things, as long as it’s getting a bit of the spotlight it’s quite happy. The pungency of garlic is more acutely observed by the non eaters so if you find yourself overwhelmed by the whiff from your friends, the only answer may be to indulge in it yourself. If you can't beat them, you may as well join them.

Health benefits of garlic

For some of us however, eating garlic can cause our stomachs to grumble and complain. This because garlic is part of the fructans group of carbohydrates which are sugars that can sometimes cause irritation in the gut. Any of those following a low FODMAP diet for IBS should be wary of large quantities of garlic and it’s cousins leek, fennel, onion and also cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli.

Garlic, ‘the stinking rose’ or ‘Camphor of the Poor’ has a history of medicinal use back to Egyptian times but what is it about garlic that makes it so useful? Garlic contains the phytonutrient Alliin which, when chopped or crushed is converted to Allicin and this is where the magic begins. Allicin is a sulfur, anti microbial compound that is the garlic plant’s defense mechanism against attack and is released when garlic cells are damaged. Allicin is good for you because of it's antibacterial, antifungal and it's vasodilatory qualities.

garlic chopping baord

Here’s the catch though, Allicin is only released to maximum benefit by leaving the crushed garlic for up to 10mins before heating or the addition of an acidic element like garlic and lemon on courgettes, which is a favourite in my house. If you are super organised, you will promptly crush your 3-4 cloves of garlic before you’ve taken anything else out of the cupboard, but if you are like me you will probably forget. I tend to prepare two batches, one for cooking in the pot and a second lot into the dish at the very end (which has had the benefit of sitting on the chopping board while I’ve been stirring, singing etc). Adding the raw garlic to olive oil for salad dressing really packs a delicious punch while you can be very smug in the knowledge that you are ingesting all the good stuff!

Onions contain selinium

Garlic is also a good and reliable source of selenium. Plants contain a wide range of strongly pigmented antioxidant compounds, produced as part of the plant’s own defense system to defend against pathogens. Garlic along with onions are what scientists call "seleniferous" plants, which are able to uptake and transport inorganic selenium from the soil and while doing so, convert it to a fully bio-available source. Selenium is a potent anti-oxidant for the liver and enhances liver function and may also help in thyroid function. This little white bulb really does work like a demon to become the most amazing edible medicine.

Concentrated garlic supplement

So, the evidence? Although most studies have been carried out using very high doses of aged garlic supplementation, they do give a clear picture that there are significant benefits to preventative health by just eating garlic cloves daily. A review of 11 studies concluded that garlic preparations are superior to placebo in reducing blood pressure particularly in individuals with hypertension.This is reported to be due to the Allicin content being a vasodilator (it widens up the blood vessels, thus lowering the pressure). Although garlic can have altering effects for those of you on blood thinning medication so caution should be observed and consultation with your GP should be made before any attempt to radically increase your consumption of garlic.

There are very significant results based on cancer prevention, in 1990, the U.S. National Cancer Institute initiated the Designer Food Program to determine which foods played an important role in cancer prevention. They concluded that 'garlic may be the most potent food having cancer preventive properties'. This is likely to be due to the Allicin and selenium content.

Garlic in socks cold cure

There are also a number of studies showing the antimicrobial qualities of garlic and benefits for cold and flu prevention; the presence of sulfur-containing compounds mobilizes the body’s immune system against infectious agents like that pesky cold. Any sniff of a sore throat at home and I start thinly slicing a couple of cloves. I have to mix it in butter and spread it on a cracker, as it’s hard to handle solo but if you are feeling brave you can chew on a couple of slivers. It does the trick every time (although no one wants to talk to me for a while). Another good therapy, although I haven’t tried it, is a peeled garlic clove in each sock, (especially with children at night). The sole of the foot absorbs the allicin through the skin and it’s anti-microbial properties get to work. You might have a stinky bedroom but will have a much happier child in the morning.

Recent research has also shown that garlic may be able to improve our use of iron. Ferroportin is a protein used by iron to help it leave the cell and give us the energy we need. Garlic may be able to increase our body's production of ferroportin, and in this way, help keep iron in circulation. I wonder is this the reason why in Roman times, athletes were given garlic at the Olympics to give them extra energy?

Asparagus stems

We all know about pro-biotics these days and the benefits on the tummies by reinocculating the gut with beneficial bacteria, but there are also pre-biotics which are active in feeding the good bacteria already present in the gut and helping it grow. Garlic is one of these pre-biotics. Other foods include bananas, live natural plain yoghurt and asparagus. High dose garlic has been shown to be an effective anti-bacterial compound in treating lots of nasty bacteria like E Coli in the digestive tract . So a daily dose is good food for you and your gut. As with anything new, if you’re a bit shy of garlic, start slowly with small amounts so you don’t have a reaction. Garlic allergic reactions have been known to happen (but are very rare), so proceed with care if you are trying it for the first time.

Garlic improves liver function

Just one last, but by no means the least thing garlic is good for; it is a sulfur containing food. Sulfur is essential in getting the liver to work efficiently, as it’s not only alcohol that has to be processed and got rid of. Toxins from exhaust fumes and chemicals we use in our everyday life like medications, cosmetics and pesticides all have to be cleared out by this efficient filter without which we couldn’t function. There are a host of things that optimise liver function; the obvious fresh fruit and vegetables, but also good quality protein/fat combinations from almonds, walnuts and brazil nuts, flaxseeds, organic meat or fish, avocados, and specific sulfur rich foods which include onions, eggs, cruciferous vegetables and of course garlic. You are what you eat, absorb and don’t eliminate. It is essential to get rid of that rubbish that you no longer want in your body so eat your Garlic!

Planting garlic cloves

Start growing and eating your own garlic, I am sure many of you do already, obviously organic is best with your own homegrown garden/allotment garlic being the 5 star version. If, like me, you have a partner who gets carried away and plants too many rows, things can get hectic in Spring trying to use up the white bulbs before they sprout and become inedible, hence a lot (and I mean a LOT) of garlic butter in the freezer. When you do grow your own, you also get to plait the dried stems into the prettiest displays and make believe your kitchen is a lovely Italian deli’, Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out!

One of my favourite recipes with our garlic is the following, I don’t know if you can call it a recipe as such, as it involves just a few bits thrown in a pan but it’s way too tasty not to share:

Kale and garlic stir fry

Grab some mixed leaves, chop kale, chard, spinach, flower sprouts (whatever is available in the ground), a knob of ginger chopped, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic crushed, (of course 10 mins before if you’re organised), and a few sun dried tomatoes. Throw it all together with coconut oil or some ghee, salt and pepper in a saute pan with a lid. I also add a bit of chopped dried seaweed seasoning (sounds weird I know) ,which doesn’t have that strong taste of seaweed (which I can’t stand), but does have all the really good stuff like iodine and minerals that seaweed contains. Add maybe a ladle full of stock if it starts sticking. Shake about a bit for 2 minutes on a medium heat and job done. Fab fast food!

Disclaimer: The Content is for information purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice for any questions regarding a medical condition.

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Dahanukar SA, Thatte UM. Current status of ayurveda in phytomedicine. Phytomedicine.(1997);4:359–368

Ried, Karin, et al. "Effect of garlic on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta- analysis." BMC cardiovascular disorders 8.1 (2008): 1.

Sasaki J, Kita T, Ishita K, Uchisawa H, Matsue H. Antibacterial activity of garlic powder against Escherichia coli O-157. J Nutr Sci Vitamin (Tokyo) 1999; 45:785-9. Pubmed.

Tanaka, Shinji, et al. "Aged garlic extract has potential suppressive effect on colorectal adenomas in humans." The Journal of nutrition 136.3 (2006): 821S-826S.

The Link between Selenium and Chemoprevention: A Case for Selenoproteins J.Nutr. (2004) 134: 2899-2902

Casella S., Leonardi M., Melai B., Fratini F., Pistelli L.: The role of diallyl sulfides and dipropyl sulfides in the in vitro antimicrobial activity of the essential oil of garlic, Allium sativum L., and leek, Allium porrum L. Phytother Res 2013;27(3):380-383.