Garlic’s distinctive odor is sweet to your cardiovascular system.
Despite centuries of popularity with chefs around the world, garlic has always suffered from an image problem engendered by its, uh, unique aroma. “Eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath,” as one of Shakespeare’s characters put it. Plenty of people who’ve shared close quarters with garlic aficionados—without also sharing an affinity for the bulb itself—would agree.
But where the nose takes offense the rest of the body sees healing, which is why garlic has long been as valued in the medicine chest as in the pantry. And while the heart may be the most famous beneficiary of “the stinking rose,” it certainly isn’t the only one. Cancer prevention, infection fighting and even fatigue relief are also featured on garlic’s résumé.
The Bulb with Heart
Maintaining blood flow is not as simple as the usual pipes-and-plumbing analogy makes it sound. That’s because proper circulation depends on a subtle chemical interplay designed to keep arteries, including those that feed the heart itself, clean and flexible, and to prevent blood from clotting needlessly. The fact that 1.2 million heart attacks occur in the United States every year indicates that this vital function often goes horribly awry.
That’s where garlic steps in. “Garlic works simultaneously on several levels,” says researcher Stephen Fulder, PhD, author of The Garlic Book (Avery), who notes that the herb helps to lower both cholesterol (particularly the problematic LDL type) and triglycerides. It also encourages blood pressure to drop, most likely by keeping arteries from becoming stiff and narrowed, while making blood less likely to clot.
Typing “garlic” into the search function of a medical database yields a wealth of studies from around the world. A team of Indian scientists found that garlic slows down lipid peroxidation, a fancy term for the kind of blood-fat rancidity linked to arterial plaque development. And Russian researchers have weighed in with the latest news: Garlic supplements have helped people with diabetes, a major heart disease risk factor, control their blood sugar (Acta Diabetologica 9/6/07, epub ahead of print).
Given garlic’s long-term status as a kitchen superstar it seems fitting that garlic consumption has been linked to reduced risk for digestive system tumors, including those of the esophagus and stomach. In one Journal of Nutrition (10/07) analysis of 10 years’ worth of studies, the authors uncovered “consistent scientific evidence” of garlic’s protective effects against colorectal cancer, a common malignancy in the US.
One of garlic’s oldest uses is as a microbe killer—in World War II it was called “Russian penicillin” throughout the Eastern Front. Today it’s often employed to ease fungal disorders and may even help battle staph infections that resist antibiotics (Journal of Medical Microbiology 6/07). Modern science has also verified the ancient belief that garlic can help fight fatigue and increase endurance.
Garlic’s only drawback seems to be the amount required to enjoy its advantages, which brings us back to the odor issue. If both you and your significant other love the stuff, great—neither of you will notice anything amiss. But remember that there are a number of products, including aged garlic, designed to let you get your garlicky benefits and keep your friends.