Garlic is a bulbous relative of leeks and onions whose roots in natural healing go as far back as recorded history. Along with ginger, no plant has been used therapeutically by more cultures on more continents for so long. If food is your medicine, garlic should definitely be a staple.

Garlic-loving cultures have learned to cope with the pungent herb’s chief drawback by chewing fresh parsley leaves or drinking a drop of peppermint oil in water to help mask the offensive breath odour.

Traditionally, sources such as the Chinese Pharmacopeia have recommended garlic for indigestion due to overeating, cold pains in the stomach, lack of appetite, amoebic and bacillus dysentery, colds, and tuberculosis. Externally, garlic has been used to treat pinworms, carbuncles, deep-rooted ulcers and swellings, snake bites, and fungal skin diseases. In modern China, garlic in still commonly used to prevent colds. The root is crushed, and one part of the juice is placed in ten parts of water, then used as a nose drop.

As a folk treatment for bacillus dysentery, as much as 9-15g of the crushed bulb is mixed with sugar water to make a cold infusion. A dose of 5-20 ml of the liquid is drunk at one time. Another method calls for 1 part of the juice of garlic bulb to be added to 20-part water. This is used as an enema. A garlic enema is also used for the treatment of pinworm. Another method involves crushing 90 g of garlic (about three bulbs) and soaking it in water that has been boiled and sterilized. Before going to bed, an enema of 20 to 30 ml of the solution is given. The treatment is repeated for seven days.

Garlic is well known for its antibacterial activity, first recognized by Pasteur in 1858. Today we know the herb has broad-spectrum activity against gram-negative bacteria. Furthermore, a 1984 study India found garlic was a promising antibacterial agent in eight out of nine clinical bacteria that were highly resistant to antibiotics.

Garlic’s primary antibacterial component is allicin, which is produced from allin (a sulfur containing amino acid) when garlic is bruised or crushed. Allicin is also the primary reason for garlic’s flavour and fragrance. Ajoene is another active component. Derived from allicin, it has both antibiotic and antiplatelet activity.

Research on garlic has largely been driven by cultural needs. Thus, in developing countries like India and China, research has focused on garlic’s potential to treat amoebic and bacillus dysentery, epilepsy, tuberculosis, and intestinal disorders; on its contraceptive properties; on its detoxifying properties (e.g., industrial lead poisoning); and even as a supplemental treatment for leprosy. In India, clinical studies have shown that controlled dosages of garlic improve the bacteria index and the general clinical picture of patients with leprosy.

In the West, garlic has been studied for its antibacterial, antifungal, antithrombotic, cholesterol and triglyceride lowering, and blood sugar-regulating activity; for high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, and atherosclerosis; and for treating colds and flu, digestive ailments, and bronchitis.

All cultures are interested in the aforementioned effects of garlic on cardiovascular risk factors. For example, like aspirin, garlic’s antiplatelet activity prevents internal blood clots that cause heart attacks, stokes and vascular dementia. A clinical trial has also linked garlic to preventing stiffening of the aorta. After two years, the aortas of 70-year-olds assigned to the garlic group were as supple as those of the 55-year-olds who did not take the supplement. A flexible aorta may reduce age-related heart damage.

Despite hundreds of studies, and at least five thousand years of human exposure to garlic, we have only begun to “scratch the surface of garlic.“ Clinically, the smell is sweet.

Copyright (c) 2005-2010 by Rand Smith.
Originally published in The Aquarian , Fall 2005