Now, everybody knows that garlic is delicious. We throw it in virtually everything (or at least do), and one of my favorite smells ever is chopped garlic cooking in olive oil. Crackling and sizzling, going from pale white to a rich, golden yellow. But did you know that garlic is also one of the most popular herbal supplements in the US? It sells by the truckloads, and that’s because there’s a strong belief that garlic is not only scrumptious, but also has very powerful heath benefits. Is this true? What are those health benefits, and what can you do to maximize them? Read on, fearless reader, read on!
Okay, the basics: the name of the game is organosulfur compounds, which are thought to be responsible for not only smell and taste of garlic, but also its health benefits. Crushing or chopping garlic releases an enzyme called alliinase which catalyzes the formation of allicin, which in turn breaks down to form the organosulfur compounds we’re all excited about. (Side note: cooking can inactivate alliinase, so scientists recommend you let your garlic sit for ten minutes after chopping before cooking it to get the max health benefits.)
Now, time for the disclaimers: the absorption and metabolism of allicin and organosulfur compounds are only partially understood. Research is ongoing. Neither allicin or the compounds have ever been found in human blood, urine, or stools, even after the consumption of 25g of pure garlic. This means they are metabolized very quickly in the human body, and consequently it’s hard to track whether they actually reach their target tissues. There’s a lot of positive indicators, but nothing really 100% solid yet. Just keep that in mind.
What are some of these supposed benefits? One of the most exciting is that garlic-derived organosulfur compounds have been found to decrease the synthesis of cholesterol by liver cells. They’ve also been shown to inhibit the activity of inflammatory enzymes, and to decrease the production of inflammatory signaling molecules in cultured macrophages and human whole blood. Since inflammation appears to play a huge role in the development of cardiovascular disease, this is very exciting. Organosulfur compounds have also been found to have strong antioxidant activity.
In the realm of cancer, garlic seems to do a host of complex things that are good for us. They seem to induce apoptosis in cancer cells, which is when damaged or unnecessary cells self-destruct, something cancer cells do not do. They also slow cancer cells from rapidly replicating themselves, and interfere with complex processes that turn chemical carcinogens into active carcinogens in the body. It is believed that high intakes of garlic may help protect against gastric and colorectal cancer, and may possibly inhibit the development of other cancers.
So there you have it. Cut and crush your garlic, and then let it stand for ten minutes so the allicin can form out of the alliinase, and become organosulfur compounds in your body. The benefits are wide ranging, from helping lower cholesterol to preventing the formation of blood clots, and can be of serious help with preventing the development of different cancers. Is garlic therefore a miracle supplement that everybody should take to ensure long life, joy and prosperity? No, not really; these benefits can be subtle or mild. But everything helps, so enjoy your garlic, and reap what benefits come your way!