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THE HEALING POWERS OF GARLIC

In the ever-changing world of magic foods and miracle cures, garlic has maintained its status as a virtual panacea of the herbal kingdom. The so-called "stinking rose" has a history of more than 5,000 years of culinary and medicinal use among cultures throughout the world, and new research has confirmed its medicinal uses. Few other culinary herbs can boast the impressive array of healing benefits-from anti-bacterial properties to prevention of heart disease-provided by garlic.

Ancient healer for modern ills

The use of garlic as a healing agent dates back to 1550 B.C., when ancient Egyptians used the pungent herb for everything from dental hygiene to epidemic control. Macerated garlic cloves were pressed into decaying teeth by early Egyptian dentists, and royal architects fed raw garlic cloves to the Hebrew slave crews who toiled on the pyramids, to control the spread of disease from crowded living conditions.

Ancient Greek physicians furthered the uses and reputation of garlic as a healing herb by using wine-soaked garlic cloves to treat infections. Opium from ripe poppy capsules was combined with garlic juice and wine as an early anesthetic before surgery. Roman legion soldiers drank crushed and fermented garlic, barley, pomegranate, and wine to increase their stamina. And in Asian cultures, the aromatic herb has been used for a variety of applications, rivaled only by ginseng.

Culinary uses of garlic date back to Old Testament times, when such dubious delicacies as oven-roasted locust and garlic abounded, and salads were dressed with the first version of vinaigrette-a combination of olive oil, vinegar, and copious quantities of garlic.

Hippocrates was the earliest physician to validate the use of garlic as a healing agent. Later luminaries in the world of medicine, including Albert Schweitzer and Louis Pasteur, documented its efficacy in killing bacteria. Modern science has continued to confirm early anecdotal claims for the healing benefits of garlic, with numerous studies that have borne out garlic's usefulness in treating a vast array of ailments. Garlic has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties, enhances immunity, improves circulation, acts as a topical antibiotic, helps reduce blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol levels.

Perhaps the two most important modern applications of garlic include its use in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. The aromatic clove has a documented ability to help prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol, reducing overall blood lipids, and decreasing blood pressure. Certain compounds in garlic have been shown to have a vast range of heart-protective effects, including lowering blood cholesterol and reducing blood clotting. In high doses-about 8 cloves a day-garlic can lower blood cholesterol levels by as much as 20 percent.

Other promising research points to the possible anti-cancer effects of garlic. In one epidemiological study, referred to as the Iowa Women's Study, researchers found that the risk of esophageal, colon, and stomach cancer dropped by 35 percent in women who consumed one or more servings of garlic weekly, and that garlic was a greater deterrent to colon cancer than dietary fiber. Additional studies have suggested that garlic inhibits cancers of the prostate and cervix, and may reduce the growth of breast cancer cells.

Allicin wonderland?

While garlic is unarguably one of the best researched plants in history, some controversy remains regarding the compounds that yield its potent health benefits. At the center of this controversy is allicin, the compound that many researchers believe is the primary active constituent. It's been a long held belief that allicin is the active ingredient in garlic, but some say the allicin theory is more myth than reality.

In its raw state, garlic doesn't actually contain allicin-rather, it contains a precursor called alliin and an enzyme called allinase. When a garlic clove is cut, cooked or otherwise processed, a reaction begins between alliin and allinase to create allicin. Some researchers believe that allicin itself is the beneficial component that renders garlic so healing in nature. Still others insist that because allicin is a highly unstable compound with a half life of less than three hours, it's not biologically possible for it to be of any great benefit.

When allicin is absorbed by the body, it begins to be transformed into a myriad of different components that may be responsible for the health benefits of garlic. Some theories hold that these allicin transformation products, including ajoenes, dithiins, and diallyl sulfides, have many of the same beneficial effects attributed to allicin. Other healing constituents of garlic include various sulfur compounds such as thiosulfanates and gamma glutamyl cysteines, precursor compounds from which the biologically active products of garlic are derived.

Despite the controversy, one fact remains true: because garlic contains literally hundreds of compounds, there's just not a lot of knowledge about what makes the magic clove work. Most research has been based on epidemiological studies of populations that have a high consumption of garlic in whole food form, making it virtually impossible to isolate the actions of individual constituents. Additionally, most clinical garlic research is based on compounds besides allicin, mainly water-soluble sulfur compounds, oil-soluble sulfur compounds, and sulfur-containing amino acids. The general consensus is that the healing actions of garlic are based on a variety of compounds that work synergistically, rather than one single agent.

Making no scents

In spite of its seemingly perfect profile, garlic does have one obvious drawback-it wasn't dubbed the "stinking rose" for nothing. In some cultures this distinctive aroma may range from commonplace to desirable, but reeking of garlic is rarely socially acceptable in the Western world. Healthy as garlic is, some concession must still be made for close encounters and crowded elevators. Certain supplements can boost garlic consumption without casting you as a cocktail-party pariah.

The pungent odor of garlic is subdued in a number of ways in garlic supplements, the most common being enteric coating-a process which allows allicin, the compound responsible for garlic's smell, to remain intact until it reaches the intestinal tract. When garlic tablets break down in the stomach and allicin is formed, garlic breath follows. If odor is a big issue, look for enteric coated capsules and tablets which remain intact in the stomach, preventing the release of allicin and the resulting offensive breath.

There's some evidence that taking garlic in small doses throughout the day is beneficial. Since this isn't generally practical, unless you crave garlic at your morning meals, slow-release supplements offer a continuous release of the beneficial constituents of garlic into the blood stream all day long.

Cooking garlic helps to lessen its pungent smell, and contrary to popular opinion, doesn't appear to diminish its health benefits. To prevent morning-after garlic smell, squeeze fresh lemon juice liberally over your hands after preparation. Some garlic presses have cylindrical tubes that keep fingers away from pungent smells and crush garlic with less mess. The best advice? If you're in a close relationship with another garlic lover, pile it on. Since it's said that misery loves company, you can happily munch away on roasted garlic cloves all night long. Written by: Lisa Turner.


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