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Health benefits of garlic

Siski Green / 16 July 2020

Garlic is a familiar cooking ingredient known for its flavour, but it also contains antioxidants and is a natural antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral.

Garlic bulbs
Garlic contains antioxidants and is a natural antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral

Warding off vampires isn’t the only thing garlic is good for, but that’s the only unproven benefit of this delicious vegetable. In the family of other strong-smelling and tasting bulb-like vegetables such as onions, leeks and chives, garlic is possibly the most powerful of them all.

What is garlic used for?

While garlic is mainly used to add flavour to dishes, it provides a wide range of health benefits including improving the cardiovasculatory system, preventing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease, lowering cholesterol as well as easing hypertension. It has powerful antiinflammatory properties and can also be used to help prevent various cancers, along with osteoarthritis.

What’s the history of garlic?

It’s thought that garlic first grew naturally in Siberia and spread across the globe from there. There is, of course, wild garlic a plant that grows in Europe and Asia. And then there is the garlic that most of us buy in supermarkets and markets, or grow in our gardens. Garlic is one of the most widely used ‘spices’ worldwide and there’s evidence of its use in Egypt when the Giza pyramids were being built, around 5000 years ago, when it was used, as now, for its curative and disease-preventing benefits.

What’s the best way to take garlic?

Although garlic is a vegetable it’s not often eaten as one. Very large cloves of garlic can be roasted and then eaten whole (delicious as the strong flavour disippates leaving an unctuous garlicky buttery flavour) but most people add crushed, grated or chopped garlic to dishes rather than eating it whole.

Crushed and raw is the ideal way as this activates the allicin, an ingredient in garlic that has been proven to beneficial for various health issues. Research published in Food and Chemical Toxicology reveals that heating garlic reduces the activity of the allicin, so if you’re looking to get the most anti-inflammatory effect out of your garlic it’s ideal to eat it raw.

Allicin is also what gives garlic its strong smell, so be careful when taking products that have no smell (often aged garlic has a less powerful smell) as they may not be as effective. Remove a clove from the bulb of cloves, smash one end with the blunt end of a wooden spoon or simply the spoon itself and then peel off the outer papery skin.

But if you don’t like the taste of raw garlic, you can sauté it in a little oil, add it to soups, mix it with butter and smear it on bread, or even take it in supplement form so you don’t have to taste it at all. If you do choose a supplement, find one that is coated so it dissolves in your intestine and not the stomach, otherwise you may find yourself burping garlic odours which could be unpleasant especially if you don’t like the smell!

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Does garlic really work?

There is a great deal of evidence showing garlic’s beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. Allicin relaxes muscles in your blood vessels allowing them to dilate which then helps bring your blood pressure down. As yet, there is no solid evidence of garlic’s effects on cholesterol. There is, however, also evidence that garlic may help heal heart damage after attack, although the research, from Emory University, USA, was undertaken on mice. Finally, there is evidence that garlic has a protective effect for those with diabetes, helping reduce risk of cardiomyopathy.

While research is ongoing with regard many cancers, there is reasonable evidence that regular intake of garlic helps to reduce risk of lung cancer. Research published by the American Association for Cancer Research revealed that those who ate garlic at least twice a week saw a 44% reduction in risk of lung cancer over a seven year period.There is also evidence that garlic, or substances within it, are effective in destroying brain tumour cells.

As an anti-viral (colds/flu) the evidence is limited. Taking ginger in hot tea may help alleviate symptoms but there is no concrete evidence of it impeding the virus itself. But there has been research showing that garlic is a powerful antibacterial – killing Campylobacter, a bacteria that causes intestinal infections, more effectively than some antibiotics.

Where can I get garlic?

While bulbs of garlic are readily available in supermarkets, you may also like to get pre-prepared garlic (chopped and still wet, in jars; or dried and in jars), or buy supplements which are available in healthfood shops or online.

How long does garlic take to work?

The benefits of garlic are seen over years of eating it, but that’s simply because most studies have been long-term rather than assessing the effects within months, for example. It may be that garlic’s effects are ongoing, so while you might seen small changes in the first few months, over years, those benefits will increase.

What are the side effects of taking garlic?

Side effects include heartburn or indigestion in those sensitive to garlic. And, of course, there’s the smell. Your breath and even your sweat may smell of garlic after eating it.

If you are taking blood thinners or medications for your cardiovascular system in general consult your doctor before taking garlic supplements. There are also some medications for HIV with which garlic may interfere, so see your GP if you’re uncertain.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.