Call on this herbal superstar to cure most anything that ails you.
The list of fruits and vegetables claiming "superfood" status seems to grow daily, as marketers rush to cash in on our quest for long-lasting health, happiness and youth. Many exotic (and often high-priced) foods seem to qualify, judging by their labels and ads.
But if we apply a stricter standard, the list of real superfoods shrinks considerably. Let’s say a superfood is a plant au naturel—a gift from nature, pure and simple—imbued with an array of health benefits. A true superfood also should be loaded with flavor (so you want to eat lots of it). And, it should be abundantly available, growing easily everywhere and costing little to buy.
Garlic—perhaps more than any other food—rates such superlatives. Garlic is not new, exotic or difficult to find. But, as many cultures throughout the world have known for thousands of years, this humble underground allium is a powerhouse of good flavor and good health.
Ethnobotanist James Duke, Ph.D., who has researched plant compounds for more than 35 years, considers garlic among the best all-around plant medicines. According to Duke’s Multiple Activities Menu (www.ars-grin.gov/duke/dev/all.html) and Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible (CRC Press, 2007), garlic compounds have the potential to help more than 200 conditions, ranging from AIDS to yeast infections. Duke considers garlic the best all-around plant stimulant for the immune system; the best anti-clotting herb; one of the best antifungal herbs; and a potent ally for preventing heart disease and cancer.
Garlic’s broad antibiotic properties—which are effective against food poisoning (including salmonella), tuberculosis, bladder and other infections—have been confirmed by dozens of studies. Garlic also has been shown effective against fungal infections, including yeast infections; and there is evidence that it could be effective against some viruses. In a 2001 study conducted with 146 volunteers, those who took one garlic capsule daily over 12 weeks had fewer colds and recovered faster than those who received a placebo.
Garlic has reduced levels of toxic heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium and arsenic, in animal studies. For more about garlic’s effectiveness against arsenic, see Page 13. Researchers believe this is due to the antioxidants in garlic, as well as to garlic’s ability to boost the activity of several liver enzymes.
Helps prevent cancer
Garlic’s antioxidants help prevent the cell damage that can lead to cancer. Garlic seems especially protective against colon and stomach cancers. Lab studies have shown that a garlic compound inhibits the growth of human stomach cancer cells, and a 2005 analysis of the diets of 1,900 people in China showed a negative association between garlic consumption and stomach cancer. A preliminary (2006) analysis of a European study of 519,978 subjects also showed that eating garlic and onions appears to reduce the risk of stomach and intestinal cancers.
Keeps the heart healthy
Many studies have suggested that garlic can help lower blood pressure and prevent blood clotting, which can trigger strokes and heart attacks. And although a 2007 study showed that neither fresh garlic nor garlic supplements helped lower cholesterol, other studies indicated that garlic can reduce cholesterol for at least one to three months.
To take full advantage of garlic’s powerful health benefits, try to consume at least one fresh, raw (or slightly cooked) clove daily. Mince or crush the cloves to unleash disease-fighting compounds, including the sulfur compound allicin.
For those of us who love the subtle heat and pungency of garlic, eating a clove a day comes naturally. You’ll find some of the tastiest sources of fresh raw garlic among classic Mediterranean dishes, such as Caesar salad, scampi, linguine with garlicky clam sauce, pesto and hummus. Or, choose garlic supplements, such as Kyolic or Kwai, if you dislike garlic’s flavor or have trouble digesting it.
Long before modern scientists began studying garlic, cultures throughout the world recognized this allium’s potent healing abilities. Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman historian, cited dozens of garlic recipes for treating diverse ailments, including snakebites, dizziness and intestinal parasites. In China, garlic was used to treat colds, digestive ailments and fungal infections of the skin as early as A.D.500. And although the 19th-century English physician Nicholas Culpeper found "its heat very vehement, and all vehement hot things send up ill-favoured vapours to the brain," the good doctor prescribed garlic for snakebites, earache and "any plague, sore or foul ulcer."
Caution: Because garlic is a powerful anticoagulant (prevents blood clotting), you should not take it in large amounts if you have a clotting disorder. Also, check with your health practitioner about the safety of combining garlic with other anti-clotting substances, such as aspirin. Stop using garlic two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
— Vicki Mattern is editor of The Herb Companion.