Garlic: Nature's Medicine

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Few people are as much in love with garlic as I am. My infatuation is so intense I like to rub it on my wrists like a perfume as I crush it and cook with it. I wonder who could possibly resist the rich smell of garlic bread warming in the oven. 

What is it about this glorious herb that brings such delight to my nose and makes my salivary glands go positively Pavlovian? The answer is to be found in its thiosulfinates - those volatile sulphur compounds that give garlic its pungent aroma. 

But my delight in garlic goes beyond its flavor and aroma. It is among the oldest plants cultivated for both food and medicine, and is used heavily in the Mediterranean diet known for its many health benefits. 

Garlic has been studied for the treatment and prevention of many disorders, yet this odoriferous bulb is far from having revealed all of its secrets. It contains at least a dozen active compounds identified so far as having disease preventive properties. 

Its thioallyl constituents, for example, have been found to block cancer formation through at least three mechanisms. First, they enhance the breakdown of carcinogens (cancer causing compounds) before they attack cells. Then, by preventing carcinogens from binding to DNA, these compounds can keep cell mutations from occurring. Garlic also scavenges free radicals, which are known to play a role in cancer development.

Many studies have shown garlic to have antibiotic effects as well. The bacterium, H. pylori, is responsible for most cases of stomach ulcers and many cases of stomach cancer. Research done at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that those smelly thiosulfinates were able to knock out the pesky pylori, using a very low concentration of garlic extract. This, the researchers claim, could account for the lower incidence of stomach cancer among regular garlic eaters. 

Garlic inhibits a host of other microbes too, including E. coli, Salmonella and Staph. Garlic powder given in a one percent solution once daily for three days to mice even defended against Bacillus anthracis, the culprit responsible for anthrax. And what about that obnoxious perpetrator of yeast infections, Candida albicans? Yes, garlic is up to the task. 

Since 1993 hundreds of studies have explored garlic's effects on cardiovascular disease, and the results have been mixed. Drs. Rahman and Lowe, at the John Moores University School of Biomolecular Sciences in Liverpool, believe this is due to the many different types of garlic preparations used, as well as the short duration of clinical trials. In their review of the research to date, the strongest effect of various garlic preparations on cardiovascular disease markers was the reduction in platelet aggregation. Also, forty-four percent of clinical trials found a reduction in total cholesterol. 

When garlic powder was tested for its cardio-protective effects, results failed to show any lowering of blood fats. However, when allicin extracted from garlic was tested, it was found to keep these blood fats from adhering to arterial walls and forming atherosclerotic plaques. This could account for some of garlic's heart protective action. 

Aged garlic extract, also known as AGE or Kyolic, has been studied for its effects on brain health. According to researchers, AGE may help prevent the cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer's Dementia by protecting neurons from Abeta toxicity and neuronal cell death. It has also been shown to lower homocysteine levels and to inhibit the formation of inflammatory compounds, both of which have been found elevated in patients with AD. When combined with another garlic compound, S-allyl cysteine, AGE also protected against DNA fragmentation. 

If all this wasn't enough, various studies have found garlic to be beneficial for weight control, type 2 diabetes, cataracts, colic pain and dyspepsia. And I suspect that even more benefits of this amazing herb have yet to be explored. So if you're looking for a panacea to cure what ails you, give garlic a good hard look. Better yet, use it liberally in your recipes.