Fried, roasted, or raw—there is no doubt that garlic can add flavor to most of the savory dishes we cook and make them extra delicious. Garlic has more than earned its place as a foundational flavoring element in cuisines around the world, but it’s more than just an irreplaceable ally in the kitchen—it is also a potent means of enhancing your health and well-being.
High-quality scientific studies show that garlic has impressive anti-inflammatory effects in the body. This makes garlic a promising method for tackling cardiovascular disease risk factors. Some experts believe it could even be used as an anti-cancer agent. Read on to learn how to harness garlic’s health benefits.
The Many Uses of Garlic, Then and Now
Garlic was used by ancient civilizations for its nutritional value and also as a medicinal remedy. Legend says that Egyptian pharaohs gave garlic to the slaves who were building pyramids to keep them strong. And during World War I, garlic was used as an antiseptic to clean wounds. The tradition of using garlic as both a food ingredient as well as a medicine has continued to present time. So, what exactly are the health benefits of garlic?
8 Research-Backed Ways Garlic Can Improve Your Health
Modern testing indicates that compounds found in garlic have antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, in addition to the anti-inflammatory properties mentioned earlier. Studies show that, thanks to the powerful, natural compounds it contains, garlic can be used to prevent or treat:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Infections including the common cold
- Metabolic syndrome
- Digestive upsets and imbalances
- Exercise performance
- Post-exercise muscle soreness
- Abnormal cholesterol levels
- High blood pressure and low blood pressure
- Liver disease and associated symptoms including shortness of breath and low oxygen saturation
- Coronary heart disease
- Multiple types of cancer
Some people also use garlic oil topically to treat fungal infections on the skin or nails as well as warts and corns.
The Science Behind Garlic’s Medicinal Benefits
Garlic is a great source of vitamin B6, manganese, selenium, vitamin C, and other minerals such as calcium, potassium, and phosphorus—all powerful friends for anyone working to enhance their health and well-being. Plus, garlic contains a variety of sulfur compounds, including:
- Diallyl disulfide
- Diallyl trisulfide
- S-allyl cysteine
That last one, allicin, appears to be the secret behind many of garlic’s most impressive benefits. It’s also the source of garlic’s signature aroma.
Here are eight ways that garlic has been shown to boost your health and wellness.
1. Prevent Infections
More than one study has shown that taking garlic preventatively can reduce the likelihood that you will catch a cold.
For example, a study conducted in England over a 12-week period between November and February evaluated the effects of a garlic supplement on cold prevention. The findings revealed that the group that took garlic had fewer colds and recovered faster than the group that took a placebo.
Another study found that aged garlic extract reduced the severity of cold and flu symptoms.
Researchers believe that garlic’s ability to prevent colds comes from its impact on the immune system. It appears to supercharge cellular defenders so that they can respond more effectively to viruses and bacteria.
2. Improve Bone Health
Low bone density can easily progress to osteoporosis, a disease that greatly increases your risk of fractures. It appears that garlic can reduce bone loss, according to experiments done with rats as well as with human subjects.
According to the work of a research team at the Department of Physiology at Presidency College in Kolkata, India, oil extract of garlic can halt bone resorption, the biological process that weakens bones.
Better still, a clinical trial showed that garlic in tablet form has a positive effect on postmenopausal osteoporosis. Menopause is one of the most common causes of osteoporosis linked to estrogen deficiency. Research shows an association between increasing inflammatory cytokine activity and postmenopausal bone loss, so one reason for garlic’s beneficial effect may be its anti-inflammatory properties.
3. Lower Blood Sugar Levels
Researchers have found that garlic offers valuable benefits for individuals with diabetes. Mainly, it seems to lower post-meal blood sugar levels. The biggest benefits appear to come from long-term use—3 months, at least.
That said, an experiment done with rats found that a daily extract of raw garlic led to lower blood sugar levels over the course of just 7 weeks.
4. Regulate Blood Pressure
Heart attacks and strokes are often caused by high blood pressure, so it is crucial to keep your blood pressure levels in a healthy range. Studies show garlic supplementation can decrease both systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number) blood pressure for those with worryingly high levels.
In one study, aged garlic extract at high doses proved to be just as effective as drugs for lowering blood pressure.
Another study used aged garlic extract as a treatment for people who couldn’t control their blood pressure with medication. The results showed that taking 4 capsules of aged garlic extract daily for 3 months lowered blood pressure.
These experiments suggest that high doses of garlic supplementation or aged garlic extract can match the performance of prescription drugs used to treat blood pressure. And it appears that the use of garlic to treat high blood pressure results in fewer side effects.
5. Reduce Cholesterol Levels
Reliable evidence supports the use of garlic to lower both total cholesterol levels as well as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels—that’s the bad kind. Plus, it can raise levels of the good kind of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, according to at least one study.
Another study compared the effects of garlic powder tablets, anethum (medicinal herb) tablets, and placebo tablets in patients with a high concentration of fats or lipids in the blood. The findings showed that garlic tablets clearly reduced LDL cholesterol while anethum and placebo had no effect.
Experts believe that garlic works when taken each day for at least 2 months.
6. Lessen Your Risk of Heart Disease
There’s some indication that certain medicinal products made from garlic can reduce your risk of heart disease—specifically, sudden, fatal heart attacks.
Mainly, it does this by keeping arteries from clogging. As we grow older, our arteries stiffen. Preliminary studies show that garlic can help arteries remain more supple. This, in turn, lowers your total risk of heart disease.
7. Decrease Your Likelihood of Developing Dementia
Because of its antioxidant properties, garlic can lower oxidative stress, a chronic condition that underlies a number of serious health problems, including dementia.
According to a study done by a team from the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, aged garlic extract helps to prevent cognitive decline by protecting your brain cells from harmful changes such as elevated beta-amyloid, a signature change linked to dementia.
8. Combat Multiple Types of Cancer
Garlic, often combined with other vegetables and fruits, also seems to play a role in cancer prevention and treatment.
Studies show that garlic might help to prevent certain types of cancer, especially those that occur in the gastrointestinal tract.
A study of cancer patients showed that garlic consumption, combined with onions and cereal fibers, also reduced breast cancer risk.
Another study on pancreatic cancer found that pancreatic cancer risk was lower in people who ate larger amounts of garlic and onions.
Garlic intake might also be effective in cancer treatment by inducing cell cycle arrest when added to cancer cells.
Perhaps most thrillingly, population-based studies have shown daily garlic consumption can dramatically decrease your risk of prostate cancer. For instance, men in China who ate a clove of garlic each day lowered their risk of developing prostate cancer by 50%.
There’s also burgeoning interest in the use of garlic to prevent the growth of cancer in bone marrow cells.
How to Add More Garlic to Your Diet
In addition to all these excellent health benefits, it’s easy to include garlic in your diet because it can be incorporated into most savory recipes. Just take a clove of garlic, mince it, and sprinkle it on top of your favorite recipes. For instance, minced garlic is the perfect addition to a simple vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, honey, and pepper!
Do You Know Your Garlic Varieties?
There are many garlic varieties. Most recipes don’t call for a specific type of garlic, but becoming familiar with the basic varieties can help you experiment with the flavors that different types of garlic bring to the table. Common varieties include softneck garlic, hardneck garlic, creole garlic, and black garlic.
Softneck garlic, known botanically as Allium sativum subspecies sativum is the most common type, and likely the one you’re used to buying at the grocery store. This variety tends to have the mildest flavor (for garlic!) and is the best to consume raw or lightly cooked. Hardneck garlic has a strong, almost spicy flavor that makes it perfect for meat roasts and vinaigrettes. Creole and black garlic are rarer; the first is typical of warmer climates and appreciated for its pungent flavor; the second has a rich taste and can add a great umami flavor to your dishes.
While we’re reviewing our garlic terminology, let’s take a moment to go over scapes and ramps too. Scapes refers to the stalks that the flowers of hardneck garlic grow from. Basically, they’re garlic “greens” rather than garlic bulbs. Ramps, sometimes called wild leeks or wild onions, look like scallions but taste like a blend of very strong garlic and sweet onion.
Regardless of the variety you choose, keep in mind that scientists have found that the health-promoting compound allicin is most likely to form when garlic is crushed while raw. If you cook it before crushing it, it will lose some of its health benefits. If you consume garlic raw, then this crushing takes place while you chew. If not, you can crush raw garlic cloves in a press before cooking them or cut fresh garlic and leave it out for a while before you incorporate it into your dishes—experts suggest allowing garlic to stand for 10 minutes after chopping before cooking it.
What You Should Know About Garlic Supplements
First things first: allicin, the compound responsible for many of garlic’s health benefits, is also the compound that gives garlic its signature smell. This, unsurprisingly, means that taking garlic by mouth can give you bad breath. Other common side effects connected to the use of garlic supplements include:
Many of these side effects can be minimized if not eliminated by choosing supplements with enteric coating so they will dissolve in the intestine, not the stomach.
Garlic can interact with some prescription medications, including those used to treat HIV/AIDS, birth control pills, and medications that slow blood clotting as well as those broken down in the liver. If you have questions about how medications you take may interact with garlic, be sure to seek medical advice before trying it.