Garlic — I just can’t live without it in my pantry. Maybe it’s my love of Italian food, but I’ve always considered garlic a culinary staple. So, imagine how thrilled I was to learn about all of the health benefits associated with the savory vegetable? (Weird, I know. But it is a vegetable.) From antimicrobial to anti-inflammatory properties, curbing your risk of heart disease and lowering your blood pressure, garlic has proven itself to be well worth the bad breath. Keep reading to find out the many health benefits of garlic and garlic oil below.
Free Radical Fighters
Considering that the anti-aging market in America is a $17 billion industry, you might be tempted to write off garlic as yet another useless beauty trend. Actually, that’s not the case. Garlic (Allium sativum) — along with onions, shallots, and leeks — has actually been used to fight age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and osteoarthritis for centuries, and science is now catching up to explain why.
According to a 2003 article reviewing two decades of scientific research on the health benefits of garlic, it’s thanks to garlic’s strong antioxidant properties that the common spice can slow — or even prevent altogether — common age-related diseases such as colon cancer, arthritis, cataract formation, cardiovascular disease, and skin aging. I’ll trade that for smelly breath (and delicious flavors) in a heartbeat.
The secret to garlic’s fountain of youth-like properties is caffeic acid, an antioxidant also found in caffeine and fruit. According to the Mayo Clinic, antioxidants are important for protecting us against free radicals — unstable atoms or molecules that can damage our cells. Some free radicals are produced by our own bodies when digesting and breaking down food. Others can come from radiation, tobacco smoke, and other air pollutants that cause oxidative stress. Certain free radicals are most worrisome for their ability to cause serious disease, but some can also cause wrinkles. Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants like garlic is one way to help slow the clock, both internally and on your skin. So, don’t just say yes to retinol serum: help is on the way, in the form of Earth’s most versatile seasoning!
Caffeic acid isn’t just an antioxidant, it’s also anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic — meaning it can decrease your risk of developing cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, compounds in garlic can decrease inflammation and help with DNA repair, both key in preventing cancer.
Garlic is also rich in phytochemicals, including allicin, which can prevent uncontrolled cell proliferation (read: cancer cells) and also fight off fungi and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. While scientists are still working to understand the chemistry behind all of allicin’s amazing properties, they’ve figured out that chopping or crushing garlic is key to getting the maximum health benefits of this superstar chemical.
So, next time the recipe calls for a clove of garlic, chop it or mince it, and keep it away from heat for at least 10 minutes before adding it to the recipe — studies show significant reduction in the medicinal properties of garlic when exposed to heat right away. Also, don’t be afraid to add double the amount of garlic that the recipe calls for. Or triple — I won’t judge. After learning about all these amazing health benefits, I’ll be doing the same!
A Natural Antibiotic
We mentioned above that the allicin found in garlic can help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern, so this is definitely cause to celebrate. But garlic’s antimicrobial properties don’t stop there; increasing garlic intake has also been found to be 100 times more effective than antibiotics at fighting one of the most common disease-causing bacteria. Researchers at Washington State University recently discovered that when it comes to fighting Campylobacter bacterium, a bacteria that impacts 2.4 million Americans every year, garlic has traditional antibiotics beat by a mile. Campylobacter often causes intestinal illness, and in some cases, Guillain-Barre disease, a rare but serious disease.
As with many of its natural health benefits, garlic’s antimicrobial properties go back to my favorite phytochemical, allicin. Allicin is made up of sulfur compounds, which target specific enzymes critical in bacteria cells. These same sulfur compounds are harmless to mammalian cells, so we humans can go on enjoying fresh garlic every day of the week if we so choose! (Okay, that might be a little overkill.)
Say goodbye to high blood pressure.
Garlic truly is the gift that keeps giving. Not only have recent studies shown that the vegetable-herb can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but it actually can do so at a similar rate as medications for lower blood pressure — with next to zero side effects. Garlic can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, the top and bottom numbers in a blood pressure reading, respectively. The benefits of this are especially important for women over 55, who are 90 percent more likely to develop hypertension than their younger counterparts.
Hypertension and high cholesterol levels can both contribute to our risk of developing cardiovascular disease, so the fact that just adding this simple spice to a dish can cut down our risk factors is a big deal. Maybe garlic doesn’t actually ward off vampires, but it could ward off a heart attack — and I like the sound of that even better. Of course, speak with your dietitian or doctor before supplementing with garlic for high blood pressure.
Give your immunity a boost.
I’ve been thinking about my immunity more than ever in the past couple of years. You might already be supplementing with vitamin C for immunity, and lucky for us, our favorite vegetable/herb can help with that, too. I’ve talked about garlic’s immuno-modulatory and anti-inflammatory properties, both of which are key for boosting your immune system and fighting off both the common cold and the flu. Well, one of the reasons garlic boasts these particular health benefits is because of how it promotes the growth of important immune cells, including lymphocytes, natural killer (NK) cells, and T-cells.
Any type of garlic consumption will give your immune system a boost, but aged garlic extract is especially effective for kicking the common cold and flu. Aged garlic extract can be found in liquid or supplement form, similar to fish oil supplements. Incorporate aged garlic extract into your diet, and watch those sick days disappear.
How can I consume garlic to maximize health benefits?
If you spend any amount of time in the supplement aisle, you’ve probably noticed an increasing amount of garlic pills and supplements next to the potassium and manganese. But are garlic supplements really the way to go? According to the Cleveland Clinic, maybe not. Out of the many ways to consume it, you’ll get the most health benefits from eating raw garlic, preferably chopped, diced, or minced. As I mentioned earlier, exposing garlic to heat can reduce the antioxidant power of allicin, so be sure to let that chopped garlic sit for a while before cooking.
If you don’t want to wait 10 minutes before cooking it and can’t stand the smell or taste of raw garlic, a garlic supplement may be your best option — just be sure to consult your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet, as always. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a garlic supplement may have unexpected interactions with other medications or medical conditions.
It seems that there are as many health benefits associated with garlic consumption as there are garlic recipes. I’d never have guessed that such a humble-looking plant could do everything from prevent wrinkles to fight off aggressive antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the science doesn’t lie: The use of garlic in our diets could significantly improve our health.
And for those of us navigating life’s back half, any natural healthcare remedy with minimal side effects is a win. So, gobble up that garlic — fresh garlic, garlic supplements, cooked or raw garlic, they all have health benefits! In fact, it seems like possibly the ONLY downside to garlic consumption is that trademark bad breath. I think that’s pretty worth it.
Note: Your doctor may advise you not to eat garlic with certain medications, including blood-thinning prescriptions. Talk to your doctor before increasing your garlic intake.