Garlic is one of those foods that elicits strong opinions. Some people can’t imagine a meal without it, others can’t stand its pungent flavor—much less the resulting garlic breath after consuming it. Either way, it’s hard to escape garlic, a ubiquitous ingredient that’s a cornerstone of food culture across the world.
A cousin of onions, shallots, scallions, leeks, and chives—garlic (Allium sativum) has long been revered for its medicinal properties. Beyond its strong flavor, this bulb is a nutritional powerhouse. It features vitamins B and C, as well as manganese, selenium, iron, copper, and potassium. It’s also a source of allicin, which is responsible for many of garlic's health benefits, according to registered dietitian Laura Jeffers, of the Cleveland Clinic.
Along with other nutrients, allicin, the oily liquid produced when garlic is chopped, gives garlic its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant features. According to a review published in Antioxidants, garlic’s health-promoting and disease-preventing effects have been demonstrated in a range of in vitro, in vivo, and clinical studies. Garlic’s bioactive compounds—which include organic sulfides, saponins, phenolic compounds, and polysaccharides—all contribute to garlic's chemopreventive, anti-angiogenic, antidiabetic, and cardioprotective properties.
Here are five health benefits that garlic offers, according to recent studies and nutrition experts.
Have you ever noticed that commercially sold “immunity shots” often feature garlic? Well, according to registered dietitian Cynthia Sass, that’s because garlic can enhance the immune system by boosting immune cell function. Studies have shown that those who consume more garlic tend to catch fewer colds and recover faster if they are infected with a virus. Research indicates garlic consumption can reduce cold or flu severity.
According to the aforementioned Antioxidants review, garlic’s compounds improve the immune system by modulating cytokine production, which increases the activity of immune cells like natural killer cells.
Read more about the antiviral properties of garlic and other foods at MDLinx.
Lower risk of cancer
Garlic’s compounds have been found to offer protection from several kinds of cancer, Sass noted, including stomach, throat, prostate, and colon cancers. According to Amanda Bakko, a nutritionist at Chesapeake Regional Healthcare in Norfolk, VA, this is due to garlic’s phytochemical content, which plays a role in both preventing cancer and slowing its progression.
In the Antioxidants review, researchers hypothesized that “Numerous mechanisms have been recommended to explain the chemo-preventive effects of garlic, including the inhibition of DNA adduct formation, the inhibition of mutagenesis by blocking metabolism, through its free-radical scavenging, or by decreasing cell proliferation and tumor growth.”
Whatever the case, evidence is mounting that garlic consumption can reduce risks of various cancers, and relieve symptoms in some cancers (including breast, colorectal, colon, gastric, lung, and pancreatic cancers) too. Learn more about garlic’s effects on cancer at MDLinx.
Anti-inflammatory properties are one of garlic’s most intriguing health benefits. According to the Antioxidants review, inflammation drives various chronic diseases, from cancer to heart disease. Fortunately, garlic consumption can lead to significant reductions in inflammatory cytokines. “Garlic has [been] shown to exert potent anti-inflammatory effects by decreasing the inflammatory biomarkers in end-stage renal disease and adult patients,” the authors wrote.
Studies show that garlic oil alleviates sore and inflamed joints and muscles, according to dietitian Jeffers, and the Arthritis Foundation recommends garlic to prevent cartilage damage in arthritis patients.
Antibiotic and antibacterial properties
According to nutritionist Amanda Bakko, garlic’s antibiotic and antibacterial properties offer a range of benefits to those who consume it. This includes some protection from the common cold and other infections, like MRSA. They can help make your skin clearer and reduce the inflammation and swelling from acne. According to Jeffers, it can even improve your hair.
Antibacterial properties in garlic also allow it to kill certain bacteria that might otherwise lead to food poisoning, including salmonella and E.coli. Of course, Jeffers notes that garlic shouldn't be used as a substitute for proper food hygiene practices.
Both Bakko and Jeffers point out that garlic provides a hefty boost to cardiovascular health. Garlic has cholesterol- and triglyceride-lowering effects, which result in lower cholesterol levels and reduced blood pressure. This happens because red blood cells turn garlic’s sulfur into hydrogen sulfide gas that expands blood vessels, which makes it easier to regulate blood pressure.
The antioxidant properties of garlic’s phenolic compounds can lead to cardiovascular risk reduction, too. Consuming garlic decreases reactive oxygen species, which in turn prevents endothelial dysfunction and improves various cardiovascular biomarkers. According to the Antioxidants review, “garlic can significantly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, myocardial infarction, and ischemic stroke.”
In order to get the most benefits from garlic, nutrition experts recommend that you eat your garlic raw. For example, try mincing it into a salad or salad dressing, add it to salsa or pesto, or incorporate it into your morning avocado toast. If raw garlic is not your cup of tea and you prefer to cook it, avoiding heating it above 140 °F— any higher, and you risk destroying its allicin.
Your method of preparation can have an impact too. Your best bet is to crush garlic and let it sit at room temperature for roughly 10 minutes. This will allow it to relieve an enzyme that enhances garlic’s health-promoting compounds.
Finally, if you’re looking to get the health benefits of garlic, but you’re worried about offending others with foul-smelling garlic breath, there are a number of plants that can help. Chewing on fresh herbs like mint or parsley, or neutralizing fruits and vegetables like apples or lettuce, can help counter the sulfur compounds that leave you with garlic breath.