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Eating garlic can be tough on your social life, but it's actually good for your health.
The Chinese have appreciated the medicinal powers of garlic for more than 4,000 years, using it to treat all kinds of ailments and afflictions, ranging from indigestion to infection.
Modern-day Americans have watched enough television to know that garlic is unsurpassed in its ability to ward off vampires, and we're starting to catch on to the fact that the stinky little herb can protect us from a number of other evils.
One of garlic's greatest virtues may lie in its ability to prevent heart disease. Several studies have demonstrated that regular consumption of the root can lower your total blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while increasing levels of heart-healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. In one study, people with high cholesterol who took daily garlic supplements for as little as two months lowered their cholesterol levels by an average of 9 to 14 percent. Not bad for a stinky herb.
Garlic also protects your heart by hindering the clotting ability of your blood. Not only does it promote the formation of clot- busting enzymes; it also diminishes the stickiness of blood cells so that they're less likely to form clots in the first place. Both actions decrease your chances of having a heart attack.
While the anti-clotting properties of garlic are beneficial to most healthy folks, they can be dangerous in people with bleeding disorders. When it comes to preventing clot formation, hefty doses of garlic can be more potent than aspirin, so you should probably talk to your doctor before you make garlic a mainstay of your diet.
In addition to reducing cholesterol levels and blood clotting ability, garlic also protects your heart by lowering your blood pressure. With age, your blood vessels inevitably become stiffer, and this hardening of the arteries often leads to the development of high blood pressure. Regular garlic consumption seems to keep blood vessels more supple and elastic, lowering blood pressure in the process.
Some studies have demonstrated that garlic reduces the risk of many types of cancer.
Several compounds in garlic have powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants can disarm dangerous free radicals in your body, preventing them from triggering cells to mutate and turn cancerous. There's also evidence that regular consumption of garlic bolsters the cancer-fighting ability of the immune system, stimulating the production of natural killer cells in healthy people. These specialized cells help block the spread of cancers throughout the body.
Garlic is also an effective infection-fighting agent, capable of deterring or even killing many types of microbial organisms that invade the body. Its anti-fungal properties make it ideal for preventing and treating minor yeast infections, and its anti-viral properties can kill some viruses responsible for causing the common cold. Garlic has broad-spectrum antibiotic activity, and many people rely on the herb for the treatment of minor bacterial infections.
You don't have to spend a fortune on specially processed and packaged garlic pills, oils and extracts to derive its medicinal benefits. In fact, some experts believe that fresh garlic cloves are more potent than the supplements. And since fresh garlic is usually cheaper, you might have enough money left over for breath mints.
Scientists aren't in total agreement about how and why garlic works, but many suspect that a compound called allicin is the source of medicinal benefits. Allicin is definitely responsible for the distinctive odor -- it's released when raw garlic cloves are cut, crushed or chewed.
Since allicin is destroyed by heat, garlic in its raw form may have more powerful effects than the cooked varieties. Fresh garlic may give you the greatest health benefits, but it will also give you the foulest breath. If you value your relationships as much as you do your health, you may want consider buying a garlic supplement that has been rendered "odor free."
Aside from giving you breath that can clear a room, garlic has very few side effects. It has been known to trigger skin rashes in people with allergies to the herb, and some folks can't eat any amount of garlic without developing serious gastrointestinal grief.
For most folks, garlic is entirely safe and nontoxic in any amount, at least as far as your health is concerned. But when it comes to your social life, excessive garlic consumption can be absolutely lethal.
Dr. Rallie McAllister is a family physician in Kingsport, Tenn. Her column appears every other week on this page. Her Web site is www.rallieonhealth.com.
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