Medical, culinary benefits to ancient herb

Our thinking about food has changed over the years. In an age gone by, food was simply fuel, sustenance to keep your belly full. With scientific advances, we have learned of the dangers of poor food choices, and the health hazards of processed, fast food.

Along with this increasing understanding, we have (only just) begun to gain an appreciation for the benefits to health and well-being that certain food sources provide. So how many food items are medicinal, carrying with them specific attributes leading to good health? We have some idea, but guesswork remains.

Looking back to ages past, certain foods were consistently praised, even “prescribed,” for their benefits in combating various maladies or performing specific tasks. Numerous examples can be found throughout recorded history, such as ginger, turmeric, coffee and tobacco. Another mentioned by many cultures is garlic, that pungent herb feared by many Americans due to its easy detection when eaten. Garlic has been revered as an offering for the gods, whilst being despised by other societies, suitable only as feed for hogs. For over 5,000 years garlic has been used as food, medicine, aphrodisiac, money, even for making magic potions. There must be something to this small, white bulb, one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops.

Various theories exist concerning the origin of garlic, the most common one claiming it originated in West China. The Egyptians were familiar with many medicinal, aromatic, spicy and poisonous plants and garlic was one of their favorites. Garlic was thought to ward off evil. It was hung over doors to protect the occupants from evil during the medieval era, while the Greeks believed it gave strength and courage to athletes. The original Olympic athletes in ancient Greece were given garlic prior to competitions (the first example of a “performance enhancing drug” in sports?).

Garlic was rubbed on door frames to keep out blood thirsty vampires in Transylvania. One resident of that region interviewed for this article knew nothing of this particular use but recalled its frequent use in the cuisine of that region. Apparently, many older cultures, including Romanian, revered the herb for its benefits in fighting disease and ill-health.

Predictably, many supposed uses of garlic seem patently ridiculous, at least to most Americans. Cloves, hung around the neck, warded off local witches or kept away the black plague. From a financial perspective, garlic was used to pay and feed workers and slaves when they were working on the great pyramids. The bulb was so popular with these people that garlic shortages caused work stoppages. A flood of the Nile caused a crop failure, leading to one of the only two recorded Egyptian slave revolts.

Garlic belongs to the genus Allium and is technically termed Allium sativum. The name garlic comes from garleac, an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spear leek.” Garlic is believed to be descended from Allium longicuspis, a wild strain of Asian garlic but its origins remain in doubt. It is from the lily (Liliaceae) family and is closely related to the onion, scallion, chive, leek, and shallot. Each segment of a garlic bulb is called a clove, with about 10-20 cloves in a single bulb.

Garlic consumption in the U.S. has tripled in the last few decades, with more people discovering the delightful properties of this ancient herb. Worldwide, estimates claim over 2.5 million acres are devoted to garlic cultivation. When chopped, garlic releases a mix of chemicals called sulfides. These volatile molecules are what give garlic its distinctive, pungent smell. When cooked, the sulfide molecules rise into the air and fill the room with that characteristic aroma.

There are many medicinal claims about garlic. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known as “the father of Western medicine,” prescribed garlic for a wide range of conditions and illnesses, promoting it for the treatment of respiratory problems, parasites, poor digestion, and fatigue. Aids to lung function apparently include a reduction in lung cancer risk. People who ate raw garlic at least twice a week during a seven year Chinese study had a 44 percent lower risk of developing lung cancer.

Prevention of other forms of cancer may also be a product of regular garlic consumption. The organic sulfur compounds found in garlic have been identified as effective in destroying the cells seen with a type of deadly brain tumor. The consumption of allium vegetables, especially garlic, are related to a decreased risk of prostate cancer. Various studies of the health benefits of garlic compounds hints at the potential for controlling malignant cell growth.

Osteoarthritis, a tremendously common problem, appears to be less common in those consuming higher levels of allium vegetables. Other possible positives associated with regular consumption include apparent repair of liver damage. The benefits of garlic compounds in reducing the risk of various infections has also been commonly reported.

The Romanian interviewed, a regular consumer of garlic in various forms, did state they have not had a flu in well over a decade and rarely get a cold. Prophylactic use of garlic may decrease the frequency of colds in adults, but appears to have no effect on the duration of symptoms. However, one review concluded that the evidence is insufficient to say with any certainty. As always, and in all things, more research is needed.

In another study, scientists found that garlic oil may help protect diabetes patients from heart muscle damage, which is the leading cause of death among diabetes patients. This is a chronic disease of the heart muscle, which becomes abnormally thickened, enlarged, or stiffened. In fact, human studies have found garlic supplements to have a significant impact on a variety of cardio-vascular conditions. It also seems able to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension.

Other heart-protective effects are also believed to exist due to the presence of various components of garlic. Diallyl trisulfide, a component of garlic oil, helps protect the heart during cardiac surgery and after a heart attack. Physicians involved in a particular study on garlic believed this compound could be used as a treatment for heart failure. Additionally, it appears to reduce high cholesterol levels.

Although there is some research to suggest that raw garlic has the most benefits, other studies have looked at overall allium intake, both raw and cooked, and have found benefits. Therefore, you can enjoy garlic in a variety of ways to reap its advantages. As to the negatives associated with garlic consumption, one expert recommends the use of basil or parsley leaves should you want to minimize the dreaded garlic breath. In summary, many agree, once given the opportunity, garlic is delicious and easy to add to your diet. It can be used in a great variety of savory dishes, soups, and sauces. And apparently, for thousands of years, garlic has been believed to have medicinal properties. Finally, science has confirmed it.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments atdrcmclean@outlook.com.