Garlic-Good Health

Will a clove a day keep the doctor away? Garlic stimulates the body's immune system, boosting the ability of the body's natural germ killer cells. Garlic has long been a folk-remedy favorite--ancient manuscripts from Sumer, Egypt, China, and Greece describe the use of garlic for treating everything from snakebites to epilepsy. During World War I, garlic was used to treat typhus and dysentery and to clean wounds. Today researchers are finding that garlic does indeed appear to possess some antimicrobial properties. There is now scientific evidence that the bulbous herb is effective against cancer. Garlic (Allium sativum, a member of the lily family) may even help reduce the incidence of breast cancer. Epidemiological studies have found that in areas of the world where people eat a lot of garlic and onions, there is decreased incidence of cancer. Compounds in garlic have antioxidant properties, which may play a role in inhibiting cancer by protecting against cellular damage from free radicals.

Garlic also works against heart disease and strokes by lowering cholesterol levels and blood pressure. As an anticancer agent, John A. Milner, head of the department of nutrition at The Pennsylvania State University College of Health and Human Development, believes that garlic slows tumor growth and protects against potential damage from oxidation, free radicals, and nuclear radiation.

Garlic contains many elements and compounds including vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur (including 75 different sulfur compounds), selenium and a number of amino acids. Among the most important of the compounds seems to be allicin, a sulfur-containing compound (formed when garlic is cut or crushed). It's allicin that gives garlic its characteristic pungent aroma and flavor. Garlic's close relatives, onions and leeks, contain similar sulfur compounds and are also being studied for possible health benefits.

Garlic also may help prevent and even reverse atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty deposits on and in artery walls). One study found less aortic stiffening among older adults taking standardized garlic powder for at least 2 years.

For those who have decided to increase their garlic consumption, the best way to do that isn't clear either. Questions remain about what is a safe and effective "dose" and in what form the garlic should be consumed. Eating garlic as a food may reduce its effectiveness because it appears that the stomach breaks down allicin. Fresh garlic also may lose its effectiveness quickly after cutting or crushing, and cooking may either decrease or increase the potency of various compounds in garlic. However, if the garlic is minced or crushed and allowed to stand for at least 10 minutes before heating, there is little or no loss of benefits. The 10-minute standing period allows the enzyme alliinase in the garlic to begin producing allyl sulfur compounds--the compounds with the cancer-fighting properties. If the garlic is cooked immediately after chopping, the heating process deactivates the enzyme and the anticarcinogenic effects of the garlic are lost.

If fresh garlic is not for you I recommend the use of enteric-coated garlic tablets. These coatings allow the tablet to pass through the stomach intact so that the garlic can be absorbed by the small intestine. Garlic tablets are generally odorless. Some researchers use aged garlic extract (AGE) which contains a possibly more effective sulfur compound than fresh garlic.

A Cautionary Note: Garlic may slow blood clotting, so you should not take large amounts of it with aspirin or other anticoagulants. Garlic is one of a number of widely used herbal remedies and food supplements -- ginger, gingko, garlic, feverfew, and vitamin E -- that can promote bleeding. Taken together with certain prescription medications such as warfarin and aspirin, these supplements can lead to bleeding problems, including stroke.

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