Garlic — a plant closely related to the leek and onion — has long been touted as a natural remedy for elevated LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Yet there are conflicting studies that show the cholesterol-lowering effect of garlic may be only temporary. While there is no definitive answer on which form of garlic is most effective (powder, extract, oil, tablet, raw), some studies show that garlic powder may have the lowest amount of allicin, one of the active ingredients in garlic. That said, garlic has numerous other health benefits that make it well worth adding to your diet.
More Than Just a Myth
We all know the lore of garlic’s vampire-repelling abilities, but humans should take garlic's cardiovascular health benefits to heart. Studies show that regular consumption of garlic can inhibit coronary artery calcification and decrease platelet aggregation, thereby reducing the risk of stroke and thrombosis. Though garlic may not lower cholesterol as much as previously thought, it can prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the blood stream and inhibit the formation of atherosclerotic plaques, which lead to heart disease.
Odor that Kills
Garlic owes its reputation as a folk remedy — and as a breath killer — to its variety of organosulfur compounds. Allicin and dialyl disulphide are thought to relax and enlarge blood vessels, promoting better blood flow. Allicin is also a powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal capable of killing harmful microbes — even those that have become resistant to pharmaceuticals — making garlic a natural antidote to colds, flu and infections. Ajoene has been shown to shrink the tumors of skin cancer patients. Garlic’s stink may even make you smarter: researchers in China demonstrated that the sulfur compound sallylcystein prevents degeneration of the brain’s frontal lobes.
In addition to these odiferous compounds, garlic is chock full of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C teams up with allicin to protect against cholesterol oxidation, bad bacteria, and colon cancer. In fact, research has shown that eating as few as two servings of garlic a week reduces the risk of colon cancer significantly. Garlic is also a good source of selenium, which guards against heavy metal toxicity, and manganese, an antioxidant defense enzyme.
Potent for a Reason
It is believed that the Egyptians gave garlic to the slaves who built the pyramids to fortify their strength and endurance. Greek and Roman athletes ate garlic before competitions, while soldiers consumed it before battle. No wonder: garlic contains anti-inflammatory enzymes that reduce the symptoms associated with a host of inflammatory conditions, from arthritis to asthma — not to mention the pain and swelling that might result from hurling a javelin or carrying blocks of limestone up the face of a pyramid.
Digestion and Diet
From the reign of the Pharaohs to the present, cooks have savored garlic as a marinade for meat. Beyond the sweet-hot flavor it imparts, garlic may also make grilled meats healthier by reducing the carcinogens produced as a result of exposing meat to high temperatures. Perhaps this is part of why regular garlic consumption is correlated with a reduced risk of a range of cancers, including oral, ovarian, breast, prostate and renal. Garlic also promotes healthy digestion by warding off intestinal worms and parasites and stopping the H. pylori bacterium, which causes ulcers, from doing excessive damage. Although garlic may not be able to lower cholesterol levels all by itself, the mighty bulb has certainly proven it has many other healthful benefits.