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Updated: May 13, 2012 14:26 IST

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Dr. JALAJA RAMASWAMY
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Make it your principal supplement. Photo: Special Arrangement.
Make it your principal supplement. Photo: Special Arrangement.

Garlic's medicinal properties are well known; so go ahead and add it to your diet.

For centuries garlic has been used as a medicinal and culinary substance in India, China, Greece and other countries. It has been used as a salve for everything from headaches to colds to infections and healing wounds. To some, however, the strong flavour of garlic is not very appealing; in fact repelling. Therefore, although garlic is a widely available spice, it is not very popular in some households.

Garlic does not make significant nutritional contribution to the diet because the quantities added to recipes are small. But even these nano amounts make a big difference to one's health.

The biological benefits and the distinct odour of garlic are attributed to the many sulphur containing compounds; one of which is Alliin. This compound is converted to Allicin when garlic is crushed. Allicin is, perhaps, the principal bioactive compound present even in processed garlic.

Limited evidence supports an association between garlic consumption and a reduced risk of colon, prostate, oesophageal, larynx, oral, ovary and other cancers. This is due to diallylsulde, a potent bioactive component. Besides, the plant can also accumulate selenium, a trace element known to possess anti-cancer properties, from the soil.

Curtailing cardiac diseases

One inexpensive way of curtailing cardiovascular diseases is to use generous amounts of garlic in cooking. Garlic consumption inhibits the progression of cardiovascular diseases. It can bring about small reductions in blood pressure. Some studies have shown it to modestly lower cholesterol levels, which is also a protection against cardiac diseases. Animal experiments have associated garlic ingestion with reduction in triglyceride and LDL cholesterol, both of which contribute to atherosclerosis and heart diseases. Garlic, like aspirin, can reduce the tendency of blood to coagulate and form clots. Many human studies on garlic have shown it has the ability to dissolve blood clots. Pharmaceutical supplements are often used by patients with cardiac and vascular diseases.

Garlic can reduce homocysteine levels in blood. This toxic compound damages the cells that line the blood vessels, induces blood clots, loss of cognition and causes death of nerve cells. People with dementia and Alzheimer's disease have elevated blood homocysteine levels. Damage to nerve cells in Alzheimer's disease is also due to elevated oxidative stress induced by free radicals. By scavenging free radicals, garlic offers protection from neuronal death, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Garlic is also called ‘Russian penicillin'. Fresh — but not stored or cooked garlic — is an antimicrobial agent against a variety of micro-organisms, including H. Pylori, implicated in gastric cancers. Topical application of garlic is effective in treating ringworm. Many studies have shown that garlic has antifungal and antiviral effects.

Adverse effects

Are there any adverse effects associated with taking garlic? In some, it can cause mild stomach discomfort, especially when taken on an empty stomach. Add garlic to meals or sprinkle it on pasta, soups or even sambhar and chutneys. Swallow a clove of crushed garlic with water. The common side effect is “Garlicky Breath”.

Since garlic is also a blood thinner, people who take aspirin should be careful when including garlic regularly in their diets. Also discontinue garlic at least a week before any surgery.

How much? One clove of medium-sized garlic daily provides health boosting effects. Numerous over-the-counter supplements are available as are enteric-coated tablets. Those who don't like the strong flavour can try deodorised capsules. It is indeed the cornerstone of good health.

Did you know?

Garlic can inhibit changes in the DNA and scavenge free radicals; both are implicated in cancers. It can also limit the transition of a normal cell into a cancerous cell, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, and even destroy the cancer cells.

Garlic can reduce plaque formation in blood vessels and help lower blood sugar levels.

Because of its antioxidant properties, regular intake of garlic can reduce the incidence of many age-related disorders such as cataracts, arthritis, and rejuvenate skin and promote blood circulation.

Garlic also promotes liver health and protects the liver from many environmental toxins and drugs such as the commonly used analgesic agent, paracetamol (Crocin, Tylenol).

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