Garlic for What Ails You: The Time-Tested Medicinal Bulb is Getting Modern-Day Respect

Homegrown garlic is the best, and fall is the time to plant it in Iowa. (photo by Jocelyn Engman)

Oh, I can feel something coming on,” I said. “This is not good. There’s a jackhammer in my head. If I don’t make it home alive, tell my husband I love him.”

It was late summer, and my friend Marie and I were working in the garden. Marie, who was studying naturopathic medicine, said quite calmly, “You should eat some raw garlic now and some more at dinner, and you’ll feel a lot better a lot faster. Just trust me.”

I ate the raw garlic, and Marie was right. What promised to be a doozy of cold went on its merry way a couple days later as nothing more than a minor annoyance. Now whenever I feel the least bit poorish, I eat some garlic.

Garlic As Medicine

Though the idea of garlic as medicine was new to me, I was in fact engaging in a tradition a few thousand years in the making. Garlic has been in use since the beginning of recorded history and is one of the earliest documented examples of a plant used for medicine. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who originated the phrase “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” prescribed garlic to his patients. Ancient medical texts from Egypt, Rome, China, and India also prescribed garlic for various ailments.

The other day I asked an older friend if she remembered her parents or grandparents using garlic for medicinal purposes. “Oh, yes,” my friend said. “Whenever my grandmother had a cold or the flu, she would mix raw garlic with herbs and wear it in a handkerchief around her neck. I was just a little girl then, but I still remember Grandma with her garlic poultice.”

Today, we’re starting to see modern clinical research take on the question of garlic as medicine. The studies conducted so far are finding that garlic does indeed have measurable effects on human health. We’re just now beginning to build an exciting understanding of what ancient cultures have always known.

What’s in a Bulb

The garlic plant (Allium sativum) is a member of the onion (Allium) genus. Like the other members of this genus, garlic is a root crop. Crushing or chewing raw garlic cloves releases a number of sulfur-containing compounds, of which the best known is allicin. These sulfur-containing compounds give garlic its characteristic odor and flavor as well as bestow numerous and varied health benefits.

Garlic for What Ails You

Though garlic is a traditional remedy for the common cold or flu, there’s not a lot of modern research on using garlic for infection prevention or treatment. However, one 2001 study found that daily garlic supplementation reduced the number of colds and cut down on the average length of cold symptoms (from 5 days to just 1.5 days). In addition, one 2012 study found that garlic extract reduced the number of days sick with cold or flu. Garlic boosts immune function and is a natural antiviral, so common sense says it is probably useful in fighting off cold and flu bugs. We await more research.

garlic, garlic harvest

Garlic is easy to grow in your garden.

Hearty Garlic

Garlic is currently hailed as a heart-healthy food. Studies are showing that garlic benefits the cardiovascular system both by lowering cholesterol levels and by controlling high blood pressure. A 2013 meta-analysis concluded that garlic preparations may lower total cholesterol by 11 to 23 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol by 3 to 5 mg/dL in adults who have high cholesterol. A different 2013 study found that aged garlic extract was just as effective as the beta-blocker drug Atenolol in reducing blood pressure.

In addition, garlic may reduce levels of inflammation in the cardiovascular system. More and more studies are pointing to inflammation as the major culprit in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Garlic compounds are known to reduce inflammation, and high doses of garlic have been shown to reduce oxidative stress in people with heart disease.

An Ounce of Garlic Prevention

Garlic’s role in cancer prevention is a relatively popular area of study when compared with other areas of garlic research. Garlic has been found to be toxic to 14 kinds of cancer cells. A 2013 meta-analysis found a possible association between higher garlic consumption and a lower risk of prostate cancer. Another study found that women who regularly ate garlic had a 35 percent lower risk of colon cancer. In yet another study, people who consumed high amounts of raw garlic appeared to have a lower risk of stomach and colorectal cancers. Research definitely suggests that garlic is an important ingredient in a cancer-free life.

Basic Good Health and Nutrition

If nothing else, garlic is a good, old-fashioned, nutrient-dense food. A 1-ounce serving (3 or 4 good-sized cloves) contains just 42 calories but packs in plenty of vitamins and minerals, including manganese (23% RDA), vitamin B6 (17% RDA), vitamin C (15% RDA), and calcium (5% RDA). In addition, garlic is a seleniferous plant, taking up selenium from the soil even when soil concentrations are low. Thus garlic provides 6% of the RDA for selenium.

And then there’s sulfur. Research suggests that the average U.S. diet is deficient in sulfur, and garlic is an excellent source of this vital element.

Perhaps the best healthful property of garlic lies in its antioxidant power. Garlic compounds are well-known antioxidants that fight off free radicals and oxidative stress. In fact, upon digestion, garlic produces sulfenic acid, a compound that reacts more quickly with free radicals than any other compound currently known.

A Daily Dose of Garlic

Luckily, enjoying the health benefits of garlic is tasty and easy: Just eat one good-size clove two or three times a day. Garlic releases its therapeutic sulfur-containing compounds only when its cells are broken by chopping, crushing, or chewing, which means that you should chop raw garlic and then let it sit for about 15 minutes before consuming or cooking it. You can add the raw garlic to vegetable juices or salad dressings, or you can add it to sauteed dishes or simmering sauces just a few minutes before they come off the heat.

To get the most out of your garlic, go for fresh rather than jarred, powdered, or dried. If you decide to go the dietary supplement route, be sure to do your research, as the efficacy and safety of these supplements are largely dependent on the processing methods employed.

If you’d like to eat more raw garlic but are worried about having garlic breath, try drinking milk while eating your garlic. Studies have shown that it can neutralize bad breath. Another trick is to combine garlic with fresh parsley.

However you go about it, give garlic a try!

Jocelyn Engman is the proprietor of Pickle Creek Herbs, makes of herb-infused oils, vinegars, soaps, salves, and lip balms. See their products at