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Glorious garlic: How this pungent bulb protects your heart and more

Glorious garlic: How this pungent bulb protects your heart and more

Where would we be without garlic?  This flavorful little bulb - revered by gourmet chefs and home cooks alike - imparts its distinctive taste and mouth-watering aroma to countless recipes in cuisines around the globe.  But, even more important, garlic’s virtues aren’t limited to the culinary world.

Botanically known as Allium sativa, garlic is a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and has been prized for millennia in the herbal, Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese healing systems.  While garlic provides a wealth of benefits for the whole body, it is particularly well-suited to supporting cardiovascular function.  Find out why - in the case of garlic, at least - hearty flavor equals heart health.

Powerful organic sulfur compounds in garlic have antioxidant properties

Garlic’s most effective “secret weapon” - and the key to its characteristic aroma and taste - is a sulfur compound known as allicin. Researchers have found that a second sulfur compound known as S-allyl-cysteine also contributes potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.  Allicin is believed to protect against heart attacks and strokes by suppressing platelet aggregation (the tendency of blood to form into abnormal clots).  It may also inhibit the formation of artery-clogging atherosclerotic plaque while supporting the health and flexibility of the arterial linings.

For decades, garlic has been “wowing” researchers with its potential to sustain health.  Now, a flurry of recent studies supports the earlier findings.  For example, in a review published in April 2019 in Trends in Food Science and Technology, the authors credited garlic with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects and noted its “huge potential” to benefit heart health.

An even more timely study, published in 2021 in BMJ Cardiovascular Disorders, revealed the “nuts and bolts” of allicin’s heart-protective mechanisms.  The team found that the compound can help reduce inflammation and protect the mitochondrial membranes of heart cells, thereby guarding against damage from myocardial ischemia-reperfusion injury (a technical term for what happens when blood rushes back into oxygen-starved tissues after a heart attack).  But, of course, you don’t need to be recovering from a heart attack to benefit from eating garlic - clearly, this versatile spice bolsters overall cardiovascular health.

Support healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels with garlic

When it comes to sustaining heart health, garlic has a few additional tricks up its sleeve. When used consistently for at least two months, garlic extract has been shown to lower high cholesterol and regulate high blood pressure. In one six-month study, researchers found that supplementing with 600 mg to 1500 mg of aged garlic extract daily was about as effective as the prescription hypertension drug Atenolol at reducing blood pressure in hypertensive participants! (Of course, do not discontinue any prescription medication unless your physician advises). While more study is needed, it seems likely that garlic can help ease risk factors for heart disease.

Garlic may help you say “catch you later” to colds

Garlic is a natural antimicrobial that targets a wide range of pathogens, including E. coli, S. aureus, and the viruses responsible for the common cold.  Garlic’s effectiveness against pathogens has led some researchers to hope it may help combat the growing global threat of antibiotic resistance.  In one 2020 review, authors reported that garlic enhances the antimicrobial abilities of prescription medications.  And a 12-week study showed that participants who took garlic supplements were less likely to get a cold than those who took placebo.  (Participants in the garlic group who got a cold recovered faster, too.)  Finally, allicin in garlic supports immune function by increasing levels of glutathione, the body’s most crucial disease-fighting enzyme.

By the way, garlic is also believed to support brain health, inhibit cancer, help to regulate blood sugar, and improve insulin sensitivity. 

Enhance recipes with fresh garlic

It’s easy to incorporate garlic into your daily menu.  You can add chopped cloves to salads, sauces, soups, dressings, and marinades or use them to spice up hummus and salsa.  Or, enliven whole grain pasta with minced garlic drizzled with olive oil, or give it a starring role in garlic mashed potatoes.

Incidentally, garlic must be cut or crushed before its allicin can be activated.  (Let it “rest” for a few minutes after cutting, too).  Because cooking depletes allicin, adding garlic towards the end of recipes requiring heat is best.

How much garlic should you consume?  Many integrative health experts advise eating a clove or two a day.  Supplemental garlic is also available in tinctures, capsules, and aged garlic extract, but get the go-ahead from your integrative doctor before supplementing.

Garlic is generally recognized as safe when consumed in amounts traditionally found in food.  However, excessive amounts can cause burning sensations in the mouth, indigestion, diarrhea, and gas.  In addition, because garlic reduces the tendency of blood to clot, many surgeons advise their patients to avoid it for two weeks before surgery.

Despite its beneficial effects, garlic won’t do your breath any favors.  Some garlic lovers advise nibbling on parsley sprigs to freshen your breath after meals.  Other methods include chewing on fennel seeds or sucking on cloves (not garlic cloves, but the tangy-sweet little buds used in baking).

While it may not be the best for your breath, garlic is healthy for virtually everything else. It makes a superb addition to a healthy diet.

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