By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
It’s a kitchen staple that’s been used for centuries as medicinal aid; and if you believe ancient folklore, it can even keep vampires away. I’m talking about garlic, of course – a superfood extraordinaire, one of the healthiest (and possibly sexiest) foods known to man.
Part of the Allium family, garlic is a pungent herb that owes its medicinal properties not only to its robust amino acids (17 of them to be exact!), antioxidants such as selenium, vitamins like C and B6, and trace minerals like manganese, but to its 30+ sulfur compounds as well. In fact, you can thank these sulfur compounds—specifically the one called allicin—for garlic’s distinctive smell and taste. It’s what makes you either love or hate garlic!
Some of garlic’s health benefits are pretty well known. One of the most important is its role in cardiovascular health. Allicin helps to keep the blood thin and flowing smoothly, as well as regulate blood pressure and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Another benefit garlic offers is excellent protection from infection and illness. Allicin is a powerful antimicrobial, meaning it fights off bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and other unwanted invaders that can make you sick. But the more research that’s conducted, the more exciting garlic’s health benefits become.
Here are three little-known ways garlic can improve your health (and even sex life)…
Garlic Benefit #1 – Defense Against Cancer
Early research suggests that garlic and other vegetables in the Allium family, including onions, leeks, and shallots, may help prevent several forms of cancer, including esophageal, breast, ovarian, and prostate. Some of the strongest evidence, though, can be seen with cancers of the digestive tract.
In a meta-analysis of 21 studies, those who ate the most Allium vegetables had a significantly reduced risk of gastric cancer compared to those who ate less or none at all. And it didn’t take much to see positive effects—20 grams per day, or the equivalent of one garlic clove. Research on colorectal cancer is a bit more mixed, but one study found that garlic and onions were both protective against cancers of the large bowel. Those who ate the most of both had far less incidence of colorectal cancer compared to those who ate none at all.
While I’m not saying garlic is the magic bullet when it comes to cancer prevention, why not add a clove or two to your dinner every night? It certainly can’t hurt.
Garlic Benefit #2 – Better Sex and Fertility
Gentlemen, if your lady can get past your pungent garlic breath, you may be happy to hear that garlic can improve your sex life in several ways!
First, the allicin in garlic promotes the healthy flow of blood throughout the body. This is obviously a boon for the heart, but it also helps to stimulate circulation to the penis. In fact, garlic has been dubbed the “vegetable Viagra” for its ability to improve and sustain erections!
Studies in mice that had diabetes-related erectile dysfunction found that a component in garlic, S-allyl cysteine (SAC) “can restore erectile function in diabetic rats.” There’s also some evidence that garlic—specifically its robust levels of selenium—can improve the health, quality, and motility of sperm. Considering recent reports of lower sperm count and decreased fertility, these potential benefits of garlic are exciting, to say the least.
Garlic Benefit #3 – Beautiful Hair and Skin
Hair loss in both men and women can be distressing. But topical garlic can actually help treat some conditions that result in hair loss.
In a clinical trial, researchers tested topical garlic gel in patients with alopecia areata—a condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, resulting in bald patches. Patients were assigned to use either a topical garlic gel twice daily for three months, or placebo. Both groups also received a topical corticosteroid cream to apply twice daily. All but one person in the garlic group had good responses to the treatment, while the remaining participant had a “moderate” response. The researchers wrote, “the use of garlic gel significantly added to the therapeutic efficacy of [the topical corticosteroid] in alopecia areata and that it can be an effective adjunctive topical therapy for alopecia areata.”
Garlic can treat or heal a variety of skin conditions too. In patients with basal cell carcinoma (a nonlethal form of skin cancer), topical use of ajoene, a sulfur compound in garlic, reduced tumor size in 21 out of 24 patients.
And while reviews are mixed, garlic can be used to calm psoriasis and acne outbreaks, heal wounds and scars, fight viral and fungal infections on the skin, and even serve as an anti-aging agent. According to a published review, garlic has “beneficial effects on the maximum proliferative capacity of fibroblasts on long-term, therefore, garlic can play a role as an anti-aging and rejuvenate agent.”
Best Ways to Reap Garlic’s Health Benefits
To really get the most garlic benefits, you should eat it raw. Include a clove or two in your homemade salad dressings and marinades. I like to make a simple olive oil, lemon and chopped garlic dressing. For folks who want to mask the garlic flavor a little, here’s another option: in a small jar, add a finely chopped clove of garlic to about ½ cup cold-pressed or extra virgin olive oil, about 1/8 cup each of Bragg Liquid Aminos and lemon juice, a splash of water, and about ½ tsp of dried rosemary – it’s surprisingly tasty (even my 6-year old granddaughter loves it)!
Realistically, though, I know most people prefer to cook with garlic. Fortunately, you still get a lot of value out of cooked garlic because the antioxidant value doesn’t really diminish with heat, as it does with a lot of other vegetables and herbs. I personally love adding several cloves of garlic to pasta sauces, fresh steamed veggies and green salads. But really, you can include it in almost any recipe to intensify the flavor of the dish. You don’t need much garlic to reap all the health benefits. Just one to two cloves a day should suffice.
One important thing to remember: Let your garlic sit for about 10 minutes after you chop it up and before you eat or cook it. The chopping releases enzymes that are needed to convert compounds into allicin.
Finally, in case you’re wondering: You shouldn’t let dreaded garlic breath prevent you from enjoying this herb. Eating a raw apple and/or chewing on some mint or parsley leaves after a garlicky meal are some easy ways to freshen your breath naturally.
- Nicastro HL, et al. Garlic and onions: Their cancer prevention properties. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2015 Mar;8(3):181-9.
- Petrovska BB and Cekovska S. Extracts from the history and medical properties of garlic. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jan-Jun;4(7):106-10.
- Yang J, et al. S-allyl cysteine restores erectile function through inhibition of reactive oxygen species generation in diabetic rats. Andrology. 2013 May;1(3):487-94.
- Ghafarizadeh AA, et a. Effect of in vitro selenium supplementation on sperm quality in asthenoteratozoospermic men. Andrologia. 2017 Aug 6. doi: 10.1111/and.12869. [Epub ahead of print].
- Hajhevdari Z, et al. Combination of topical garlic gel and betamethasone valerate cream in the treatment of localized alopecia areata: a double-blind randomized controlled study. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2007 Jan-Feb;73(1):29-32.
- Tilli CM, et al. The garlic-derived organosulfur component ajoene decreses basal cell carcinoma tumor size by inducing apoptosis. Arch Dermatol Res. 2003 Jul;295(3):117-23.
- Pazuar N and Feily A. Garlic in dermatology. Dermatol Reports. 2011 Jan 31;3(1):e4.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.