Harvesting the Health Benefits of Garlic
A half clove a day can keep the doctor — and Dracula — away
If like vampires you shy away from garlic, you’re missing out. Not only is the “stinking rose” a flavorful addition to savory foods, it provides a host of health benefits.
“Garlic has gotten a lot of attention in the past ten years because of its ability to lower triglycerides and total cholesterol by five to fifteen percent,” says Libby Mills, RDN, a nutritionist and cooking coach in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition.
Lab studies have found some of garlic’s sulfur compounds — the ones responsible for “garlic breath” — interfere with the production of cholesterol and blood clotting (which can trigger a heart attack or stroke). Sulfur compounds also help keep blood vessels flexible so they’re less likely to become blocked.
Related: 6 Heart Attack Symptoms Women Ignore
That’s not all. Garlic is the Swiss army knife of produce. Among its other qualities:
It fights inflammation. When inflammation, an immune system response to an injury or foreign invader, becomes chronic, plaque can build up in arteries — a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. This is another way garlic can help prevent cardiovascular disease, says Mills.
Garlic’s anti-inflammatory properties may be why a British study found women who eat a diet high in alliums, which includes garlic, onions and leeks, have lower levels of hip osteoarthritis, an inflammatory disease. A specific sulfur component of alliums, diallyl disulphide, may get the credit. Lab studies have found it limits cartilage-damaging enzymes.
It takes down nasty germs. Allicin, a chemical produced when a garlic clove is crushed, is so effective against bacteria researchers in the United Kingdom have suggested allicin-containing compounds “merit investigation as adjuncts to existing antibiotics.” Other research has found garlic to be effective against even antibiotic-resistant organisms, at least in a test tube.
Garlic also may help prevent viral infections, or at least reduce the severity of colds and flu, according to research published in the journal Clinical Nutrition looking at certain substances in aged garlic extract. These findings were based on a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study of 120 people, the gold standard for scientific research.
Adds Mills: There’s evidence garlic also may help treat candida, a yeast infection.
It may short-circuit cancer. Population studies — which look at the relationship of diet to the incidence of disease in large groups — have found an association between eating garlic and a reduced risk of several types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, stomach, esophagus and pancreas, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Although there haven’t been many human trials looking at garlic in relation to cancer, one study of 5,000 people in China found those who took garlic extract along with the mineral selenium, an antioxidant, every other day had a significantly reduced risk of gastric cancer — 33 percent lower for all tumors and 52 percent lower for stomach cancer — than those in a placebo group.
There are many theories why compounds in garlic might be effective against cancer. The most provocative comes from a September 2015 laboratory study in the Journal of Nutrition that reported a single meal containing raw garlic influences the expression of genes in human blood that may help block cancer and at least one that controls cell death.
Related: The Anti-Cancer Diet
How to get your garlic fix
Wondering how much garlic you have to eat to garner its many health benefits? “Just half a clove,” says Mills, “but for cancer, frequency is important — you have to eat it every day.”
Studies have found health benefits in raw, cooked and extracts of garlic. But, says Mills, it’s important to remember one of the bulb’s most beneficial compounds is allicin, which is only released when garlic is chopped or crushed and allowed to rest for five minutes before you cook or eat it.
“Garlic also isn’t as effective when it's cooked, so put it in towards the end of cooking and cook on low heat, about 200 to 225 degrees, to preserve the active ingredients,” she recommends.
Which brings up garlic’s notorious downside: Eating one tiny sliver of a clove can make your breath, and your skin, reek. If you want the health benefits of garlic without smelling like you’ve been working in a pizzeria all day, there are ways to counter this side-effect, says Mills.
“The chlorophyll in foods like parsley can help reduce the odor of sulfur compounds,” according to Mills. “It also can help to chew on fennel seeds, cardamom, anise or mint. Sugar-free gum can help remove particles of garlic that stick to teeth. And the fat in milk helps neutralize garlic compounds, but you may need to drink it while you’re eating the garlic.”