The secret: Garlic
The person: Susan Seideman Brown
Fifty-one-year-old Susan Brown, who has lived most of her life near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is preparing to move off the grid. She and her 34-year-old boyfriend have decided that they've had enough of the world as it is and intend to stop paying for electricity and water, take care of their own sewage, and rely on solar and wind power and a wood-burning stove. Their goal is to avoid harming the environment while detaching themselves from a political and social system they feel has grown too large and unwieldy.
To do this, Susan's boyfriend will build a log cabin somewhere in the Northeast, then make a living building them for other people. Susan will continue in her present career as a shiatsu massage therapist. (Previously, she ran a health food store, until she decided she couldn't simultaneously manage the business and raise her two children.) "I can't think of anything we will miss," she says. "We both like a simple life."
However simple their new life, garlic will be a part of it.
Susan was exposed to the idea that food was important when she was young. Her mother is a "vegan with a mission—she makes sourpuss faces at anyone who eats anything else." Seventy-four (and healthy), Susan's mother now runs an alternative health center in Delaware.
Susan herself got into thinking about food when she was fifteen and suffering from bad mood swings, irritability, and exhaustion. She stopped eating sugars and drinking sodas—and felt better. Some years later, while having terrible stomachaches, she determined the cause was a gall-bladder issue, and stopped eating creamy, rich, fried foods. Again, she felt better.
She also came down with the flu every year. Then her boyfriend told her about garlic.
"He said that garlic cures everything. So one night, when I thought I was getting sick, I cut off a clove of raw garlic, let it dissolve in my mouth, and the cold was gone. Now, anytime I think I'm getting sick, I start with the garlic three times a day, and within twenty-four hours I feel fine."
Susan also takes garlic "preventatively." She cooks with it each day, putting it in every dinner, which tends to include vegetables, onions, and some kind of starch, such as rice or pasta. And she squeezes raw garlic on top of the dish as well.
Although some people notice that garlic gives them body odor or bad breath, she denies it. "If you have kids, you know they'd be the first to tell you. And mine don't." Nor do her outspoken massage clients, who experience her breath often, and close up.
The Facts On Garlic
A member of the lily, or Allium, family, which also includes onions, leeks, and chives, garlic, a.k.a. "the stinking rose," originated in central Asia in Neolithic times. Though historians continue to debate its primary function in ancient times, we know it was used to flavor food and for medicinal purposes.
Many early civilizations used garlic for the latter. Tablets dating from 3000 B.C. show the Assyrians and Sumerians employing garlic to treat fevers, inflammation, and injuries. Clay sculptures of garlic bulbs and paintings of garlic dating to about 3200 B.C. have been found in Egyptian tombs, along with a papyrus from 1500 B.C. recommending garlic as a cure for more than twenty medical conditions. The pyramid builders fed it to laborers to increase their strength (a fact inscribed on the Great Pyramid of Cheops), and the only Egyptian slave revolt was fomented by a lack of garlic (an overflowing Nile had destroyed that year's crop).
The ancient Israelites also used garlic, before and after leaving Egypt: In the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions incorporated into the Talmud, ancient Hebrew writers call themselves "the garlic eaters," and in Numbers 11:5, Jews traveling to the Promised Land bemoan the absence of garlic.
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) recommended garlic to repel serpents, soothe animal bites and toothache, and as an aphrodisiac. Hippocrates thought garlic could cure cancer. In the Middle Ages, the German nun St. Hildegard of Bingen recommended garlic to heal the sick, and in 1665 the London College of Physicians recommended garlic to treat the great plague.
By the nineteenth century, researchers investigating the medicinal effects of garlic were finding corroborative support. In 1858, for example, French biologist Louis Pasteur discovered that garlic kills bacteria: One milliliter of raw garlic juice was as effective as 60 milligrams of penicillin.
Public awareness about the health benefits of garlic has been increasing—which helps explain why garlic is now second only to echinacea in sales of herbal supplements—probably because of the enormous quantity of favorable research. The primary focus has been its cardiovascular benefits. For example, India's Tagore Medical College performed a study showing that test subjects who consumed garlic experienced a drop in blood pressure of about 10 percent; a Czech study found that garlic supplementation reduced accumulation of cholesterol on animals' vascular walls.
Garlic's most potent active constituent, allicin, has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and triglyceride and cholesterol levels. And garlic may stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the lining of the blood vessel walls, which can relax and therefore tk them.
A recent study published in Preventive Medicine showed that garlic can inhibit coronary artery calcification, helping to reduce formation of plaque; also, research presented at the Sixth Annual Conference on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology suggests that garlic can help prevent and potentially reverse atherosclerotic plaque formation. (Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis, or degenerative changes of the arteries; plaque is a fatty substance that form deposits on the inner lining of arterial walls.)
Garlic is apparently an antioxidant as well, killing free radicals in the bloodstream. (Free radicals are unstable molecules in the body that have been widely implicated in disease formation.) According to a study in Life Sciences, a daily dose of 1 ml/kg of body weight of garlic extract taken for six months resulted in a significant reduction in free-radical stress in the blood of patients with atherosclerosis.
In laboratory animals, garlic has been shown not only to lower blood pressure, insulin, and triglycerides, but also to prevent weight gain, according to a study published in the American Journal of Hypertension.
Results of two other studies suggest that garlic is a potent antibiotic, even against bacterial strains that have become drug resistant. One study, conducted at the University of California Irvine Medical Center and published in Nutrition, showed that garlic juice demonstrated significant antibacterial activity against a spectrum of pathogens including staphylococci, the bug that causes staph infections.
Garlic even has antiviral and antifungal activity and may play a role in preventing diabetes. Still other researched claims for garlic include a role in successful weight control, protection against the effects of asbestos, anti-inflammatory properties, and more.
And yes, as Susan experienced, garlic is helpful in fighting the common cold. In 2007, the BBC reported that garlic can help prevent and fight colds, and a recent University of Western Australia study showed that people taking garlic reduced by more than half the number of days they were sick. It also found a dramatic reduction in the number of colds caught.
However, for all the goods news, there have been a few setbacks in garlic's reputation. Some studies were unable to show its efficacy in treating various conditions, and there is also the question of just how much it helps ease such afflictions. A 2007 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, for example, raised questions about the cholesterol-reducing and cardiological benefits of garlic, concluding that garlic has no impact on LDL cholesterol levels.
It's also possible to take too much garlic, or to take it at the wrong time. For hemophiliacs and others with blood-clotting problems, garlic can cause problems. Used medicinally—that is, in high doses—garlic has a thinning effect on the blood, which can be dangerous for these patients. Also, if garlic is applied externally, its caustic oils can irritate the skin.
Some people suffer from allergies to plants in the allium family. Symptoms can include irritable bowels, diarrhea, mouth and throat ulcerations, nausea, breathing difficulties and, in rare cases, anaphylaxis (shock). Even if garlic is present in a very small amount, it can lead to an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.
Finally, garlic can interact with prescription medications, so if you intend to add large amounts of garlic to your diet, as is often the case, talk to your doctor first.
Share in the Secret
Garlic can be ingested in many ways. Some people cook it and some eat it raw—which is fine if you can abide the taste and the resulting pungent breath. (Current research doesn't indicate whether one form is more healthful than the other.) Garlic also comes in many liquid forms, such as teas and syrups.
It also is available in pill form. Many garlic experts disparage the pills, however, claiming that the process of making them may destroy the flower's power. For example, garlic researcher Dr. David Kraus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that much of garlic's medical value is related to its odor. When the active ingredient in garlic, allinin, is converted to allicin (as when a bulb is crushed or damaged), garlic gives off hydrogen sulfide, its gassy smell. He warns against odorless supplements, saying that if the release of hydrogen sulfide is sacrificed, you won't be getting garlic's full benefits.
Others point out that allicin isn't present in raw garlic per se: Instead, it forms in your mouth within seconds as you eat it, when an enzyme known as allinase turns allinin into allicin. If you take a garlic pill, the stomach's acidic environment can prevent the necessary conversion from taking place.
If you do decide to eat garlic, the most potent form is fresh. Store it in a loosely covered container away from heat and sunlight. It need not be refrigerated, and will keep for up to two months.
Do not store garlic in oil at room temperature, however. Such mixtures provide the perfect conditions for producing dangerous botulism, regardless of whether the garlic is fresh or has been roasted first.
Susan Brown's favorite way to add garlic into her diet is what she calls zug: "You use enough parsley (or cilantro) to fill up the Cuisinart—about two cups—plus about four cloves of garlic, three hot peppers, half of a small onion, half a mango, salt and black pepper to taste, and a third of a cup of olive oil—or any combination of these items to taste." Blend, then spread the mixture on toast or use it as seasoning in anything from a stir fry to pasta dishes.
To make her "healing soup," Susan brings a medium saucepan of water to a boil with five cloves of garlic, a halved onion, a couple of carrots, a handful of shiitake mushrooms, and a few strips of wakame seaweed, then covers and simmers the mixture for a couple of hours. She then adds a couple of tablespoons of organic miso and a pound of small cubes of organic tofu, and simmers the soup for fifteen more minutes.
NOTE: Garlic and the Undead
The belief that garlic can ward off vampires originated in Romania, home of Vlad the Impaler, aka Prince Dracula. Whenever medieval Romanians feared a corpse might become undead, they'd stuff garlic into its orifices and smear the body with rendered fat, oil, and more garlic.
Oddly, it wasn't just Romania where this custom flourished. According to British vampire expert Montague Summers, the Chinese and Malaysians rubbed their children's foreheads with garlic to protect them from vampires; in the West Indies, garlic is used to protect against the evil practices of witches and sorcerers.
As to why garlic was used, no one seems to know, although French occult expert Robert Ambelain wrote that it may have originated with Carpathian shepherds who hired alchemists to protect their sheep from vampires. The alchemists complied by burning arsenic, which smells like garlic; that is, until the resourceful and frugal shepherds fired the alchemists and began using actual garlic, which was much cheaper.
More recently, scientists have taken a look at the connection between garlic and bloodsuckers. No experiments with actual vampires have been conducted, but a number of tests involving garlic and blood have shown that garlic, when ingested, enters the bloodstream far less adulterated than average food. When viruses come across it in a creature's veins, they flee. So garlic can repel blood-borne viruses. Viruses. Vampires. Not so different.
Conversely, two molecular and cell biology students at the University of California at Berkley discovered that garlic might have an unwanted effect on Dracula. Substituting for vampires in their informal study were blood-sucking leeches that, when given a choice between garlic-smeared and clean flesh, chose the garlicky flesh two times out of three. The garlic-loving hermaphroditic annelids also attached themselves and set to sucking the flesh thirty-five seconds faster than the garlic-avoiding ones.