Garlic — known to some as the stinking rose — is used by many cuisines around the world to add flavour to food, but it's also been used as a natural medicinal ingredient for centuries, both in its fresh plant form and as a supplement.
Peter McClusky, founder of the Toronto Garlic Festival, moved back to Ontario from New York in 2009 and started growing garlic, which is actually part of the onion family. Today he's an expert, sharing his love of the bulb with Torontonians. Five thousand people came out for the city's first garlic festival, McClusky said, so there's got to be some shared affection there.
So aside from the fact that it's delicious, why add garlic to your dishes? "Research shows that garlic is responsible for lipid-lowering, anti-blood coagulation, anti-hypertension, anti-cancer, antioxidant and anti-microbial effects," McClusky said.
Sounds pretty good to us! Here are 11 ways to enjoy garlic's many health benefits and some other lesser known facts:
Immune System Boost: Garlic was used to fight gangrene during the world wars—probably not a concern of yours, but it may be able to help you fight off a more modern-day ailment. This herb could help keep those cold-weather colds and flus at bay. The food's antioxidants can help your immune system run well; in addition to simply eating it, you could also try steeping garlic into a tea by steeping chopped garlic in hot water. Add a bit of natural honey to soothe your throat and cut some of the intense garlic taste.
Get Those Antioxidants: Here's a reason to crush a few garlic cloves into your next meal — garlic is a great source of antioxidants, which we know play an important role for our health. The evidence is varied, but there is some research supporting garlic's potential benefits. One of those benefits might be beating bad skin: those antioxidants can kill the bacteria that are sometimes a cause of acne. Next time you have a pimple, try rubbing on a sliced clove of raw garlic.
Get Heart Healthy: Studies have shown that garlic can benefit the health of your respiratory and circulatory system in several different ways. Let's count them: it could help with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease and artery hardening. The research on each condition and how garlic can help is varied, but research into what it can do for atherosclerosis and blood pressure is promising. These benefits may come from the production of hydrogen sulfide gas, which is produced when red blood cells take the sulphuric compounds from garlic. The gas can help expand our blood vessels, which can help keep your blood pressure steady.
Beat Inflammation: Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties — one study identified four sulphuric compounds in garlic that helped cut inflammation. People who suffer from auto-immune diseases might be helped by including garlic in their diets — Dr. Andrew Weil includes it in his Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid. As well, if you have psoriasis — a skin condition related to inflammation — try rubbing garlic oil directly on the affected area for relief.
Prevent Food Poisoning: Some research indicates that garlic's anti-bacterial properties might help to prevent food poisoning by killing bacteria like E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Salmonella enteritidis.(The affect would only apply with fresh garlic, not aged.) One study found that garlic was better at treating Campylobacter than two kinds of antibiotics (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9238912/Garlic-fights-food-poisoning-bacteria.html). That said, the addition of garlic to a dish is in no way a substitute for proper sanitation and safe cooking and food handling.
Remove a Splinter: OK, this isn't as serious a medical concern as some of the others we'll address — but everyone knows a deep splinter is really annoying! Garlic is involved in an old folk remedy for splinters that involves placing a slice of garlic over the splinter, then securing it to your skin with tape or a bandage. Try it and let us know if it works!
Beat Athlete's Foot: Along with its anti-inflammatory properties, garlic has anti-fungal properties as well. Give those itchy feet a soak in garlic water to cut the fungus that causes athlete's foot (otherwise known as ringworm of the foot). Or you can use this approach and rub raw garlic straight on your feet.
Repel Mosquitoes: One study from India found that mosquitoes apparently hate garlic — great news for people who are fans of natural bug repellents and not fans of pesky nippers. You can either apply the garlic directly to your skin, or just keep some nearby to try to keep the bugs out of your general vicinity.
Banish Cold Sores: Here's another folk tale that might have something to it — if you get cold sores, try applying some crushed garlic directly to the affected area. The anti-inflammatory properties may help you feel better by cutting the sore's swelling. Some say that taking garlic supplements can also help to prevent them and get rid of them more quickly.
Allicin: Allicin is a sulphur compound similar to the one found in onions, and it could offer a host of health benefits. Onions have similar compounds that were found to treat hair loss in one study. (It's also what gives garlic that unmistakable smell!)
Botulism In Garlic Oil: Garlic-infused oils are a great way to add that flavour to your dishes, but you have to be careful if you're making them at home. Botulism can spread when it in foods that aren't exposed to oxygen, and garlic is one of them — there have been several documented cases of people becoming ill after consuming homemade garlic oils. Botulism can lead to paralysis or even death, and it's not obvious if your oil contains it. The safest way to use homemade garlic oil is to make it in small quantities and use it fresh.
Let It Sit: If you know you'll be adding garlic to a dish, crush or mince it a bit before you plan to add it. It gives the alliinase enzymes in the food a chance to get working. Changing the temperature or pH of the garlic by putting it in food or heating it prevents this from happening, so you might not be getting the full health benefits of garlic if you toss it in the pot right away.
Supplements or Food? Is it better to get garlic's health benefits from supplements or food? "Supplements deliver a concentrated form of allicin, which is the organosulphur compound responsible for the medicinal benefits of garlic," McClusky said. "Some claims state that an allicin powder extract is the best form of supplement. Pay attention to the quantity of allicin on the package."
Allicin is an unstable compound so it can change very quickly once outside of garlic's fresh form. Some supplement manufacturers age garlic to make it odourless, but this reduces the amount of allicin available, making the product less effective. Talk to a natural-health professional about choosing a quality supplement for garlic or supplement, if you'd like to try one.
How to Cook Garlic: The best way to enjoy garlic's health benefits is to eat it raw, or close to raw. "A temperature above 140F destroys the allicin," McClusky said. "If you wish to add it to a meal, try to add it at the very end of the cooking process after you’ve removed the dish from the source of heat."
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