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What is Garlic?

Garlic is actually the bulb of a plant closely related to onions. It has been widely used in cooking and herbal medicine for many thousands of years, and its many beneficial properties are still known and used today. It is this potency that has meant it has long been associated with many superstitious, spiritual and religious uses. Its strong taste and smell, as well as properties related to sexual health, may have led to it being associated with the devil and sexual deviancy. However, its medicinal properties have also contributed to folklore using it as a force for good, warding off many kinds of demons. (However contrary to popular belief, garlic may actually attract vampire bats!)

Where Does Garlic Come From?

Native to Central Asia, garlic has spread all over the world in a human history of 7000 years. Known to the Greek and Romans, Egyptians and Syrians, even Hippocrates made note of garlic for its medicinal properties.

Garlic Health Benefits

Garlic is an excellent supplement in terms of general well being. Its health benefits are far-reaching, extending to anti-aging properties, improved sexual vitality, mental and cognitive benefits, assisting with the immune system and is protective of your cardiovascular health.

Sulfur containing chemicals in garlic are responsible for the majority of these benefits; it is these compounds that produce the distinctive smell and taste. Probably the greatest positive effect it has is on the cardiovascular system. In this area it seems garlic can do no wrong, affecting almost all aspects to a greater or lesser degree. Taking garlic at a supplementary level can:

  • Induce a relaxation of the blood vessels – the widening and narrowing of blood vessels is important to the body to control its blood pressure, and a failure of the blood vessels to widen again is one of the features of cardiovascular disease.
  • Lower cholesterol and total lipid content in the blood – one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke is the buildup of these fats on the walls of arteries.
  • Prevent cardiac hypertrophy – this enlarging of heart cells in response to high blood pressure can lead to congestive heart failure or arrhythmia (changes in the heart beat rhythm).
  • Suppress platelet aggregation – when the walls of blood vessels are narrowed, platelets found in the blood can adhere to the inside, and further reduce the diameter of the blood vessels.
  • Prevent hyperglycemia – high blood sugar levels can contribute to numerous cardiovascular problems.

Garlic also has proven anti-cancer properties, working by scavenging up free radicals that can cause cell and DNA damage, as well as improving cells’ protection against oxidative damage. It may also directly impact tumors, by reducing the growth of cancerous cells whilst having no negative impact on healthy cells. Its anti-microbial properties have been used anecdotally for years, and have now been proven to help improve your resistance to bacteria, by inhibiting their defense mechanisms as well as neutralizing a large range of toxins they can produce. It can also have a boosting effect on the immune system, helping prevent cold and flu.

Garlic Benefits for Body Building

In addition to all the above, garlic also has reasonable fat burning properties. Its active compounds are extremely lipophilic and relatively small, meaning they can travel easily into fat cells. Once inside they draw nutrients into the cell, which allows fat burning to occur at a faster rate when combined with exercise. It can also activate the adrenal gland, producing hormones which initiate fat loss.

There is also some evidence that when on a high protein diet, very high levels of garlic can increase levels of testosterone in men. However, it is also possible to develop testicular toxicity from too much garlic, and so more research is needed in this area. Theoretically, the cardiovascular benefits garlic has should improve athletic performance. It may increase maximum oxygen consumption and assist with oxygen transport to the muscles.

Side Effects, Safety and Negatives of Garlic

Garlic can cause the well known garlicky breath and skin smell when taken even in moderate amounts. This varies from person to person, with some needing only a small amount to be noticeable and others not producing it at all. It is caused by a compound of sulfur that can only be excreted through the lungs and skin; therefore only time can completely cure the smell. Studies have shown that drinking milk can help to neutralise the distinctive odour, however best results came from mixing the garlic with the milk in the mouth, which could be impractical. Other reports tote basil or parsley as effective combatants, but this will only help weaken the odour left in the mouth and the effect wears off quite quickly.

Garlic can cause allergic reactions in some people; such individuals are often intolerant to a range of plants such as chives, leeks, ginger and lilies. Those known to be allergic to onions and shallots should definitely avoid garlic, since they are all in the same genus and closely related.

The reduction of platelet aggregation, which is responsible for clotting the blood, may increase bleeding in some people, similar to aspirin. You should therefore avoid supplementation with garlic before going in for any kind of surgery, if pregnant, or if taking blood thinners/anticoagulants such as warfarin. In addition garlic can affect the absorption of calcium in the gut, and should be avoided if on calcium channel blockers. It is known to boost the effects of the heart drugs ACE inhibitors, and although generally no negative effects are produced it is something to be aware of.

There is some anecdotal evidence that topical application of garlic will assist with anything from corns to thrush. However, applying garlic at moderate concentrations can cause severe burns, especially on sensitive areas and children, and this is not recommended.

It is possible to overdose on garlic, although not at levels for culinary use. Around 250mg/kilo of garlic is possible to be toxic to a human in some circumstances; this equates to around 20g of pure garlic for a fit adult male. Generally it is only through using the oil, which has concentrated levels of the toxic compounds that a human can take too much.

Garlic Recommended Doses and Ingredient Timing

Half to a whole clove twice a day is the minimum effective dose for garlic, this equates to around 3-6g. Cooking the garlic does not lower its effectiveness, however microwaving it should be avoided since it may destroy a portion of the active ingredients. There is no specific timing requirements in terms of meals, workouts or sleep.

Garlic Supplements

Garlic comes in a range of formulations, including fresh, dried, frozen, as an oil or as an aged product. It is unique in that it can be readily added to food either raw or cooked, but for those who want to avoid the taste and smell it can be obtained in capsule form.

Stacking Garlic

Garlic can be taken safely with most things, and in fact may work synergistically with many medicines, herbs and supplements. It can increase the absorption of calcium in the gut, so if taking any kind of calcium supplementation this is something to be aware of. It will enhance the effects of fish oil, grape seed extract and dietary fibre on the cardiovascular system, as well as the anti-oxidative properties of many supplements and foods such as magnolia bark.

Chan JYY et al. 2013. A review of the cardiovascular benefits and antioxidant properties of allicin. J Phytotherapy Res 27.
H, Parkin KL. 2002. Antioxidant functions of selected allium thiosulfinates and S-alk(en)yl-L-cysteine sulfoxides. J Agric Food Chem 50.
C, Cao F, Tang QZ, et al. 2010. Allicin protects against cardiac hypertrophy and fibrosis via attenuating reactive oxygen species-dependent signaling pathways. J Nutr Biochem 21.
W, Ha M, Gong Y, Xu Y, Dong N, Yuan Y. 2010. Allicin induces apoptosis in gastric cancer cells through activation of both extrinsic and intrinsic pathways. Oncol Rep 24.
K, Frank OR, Stocks NP, Fakler P, Sullivan T. 2008. Effect of garlic on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Cardiovasc Disord 8.
Oestraicher Y, Rabinkov A, et al. 1995. Alteration of lipid profile in hyperlipidemic rabbits by allicin, an active constituent of garlic. Coron Artery Dis 6.

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