Herbs for Healthy Hearts and Circulation: Garlic

garlic_80851669Garlic is a delicious and pungent culinary herb, used throughout the world!

It is renowned for its strong aroma and flavor. Besides being an important component of American and European cooking, garlic is also commonly used in the cuisines of the Middle East, Asia, northern Africa, and parts of South and Central America. Its use goes back to ancient Egypt during the times of the building of the pyramids and the ancient Greeks.

In modern times, entire festivals, like the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, the Minnesota Garlic Festival and Pocono Garlic Festival in Pennsylvania are held each year. These, and many other festivals in different parts of the country, are dedicated to garlic used in every possible type of dish including garlic ice cream!

Garlic bulbs are primarily used in recipes and become more mellow and sweeter with cooking. Some recipes, like dips such as hummus or baba ganoush, often use raw garlic to give a sweet and tangy flavor to the dishes. Olive oil, and other oils, can be infused with garlic and used in cooking. Garlic also adds delicious flavor to cooked foods such as garlic bread.

Garlic cloves are also used raw, dried or cooked for its medicinal benefits. Garlic contains an organic compound, called allicin, which gives garlic its aroma and flavor and is also a very powerful antioxidant.

Research published in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie found that allicin is a very powerful and rapid acting antioxidant that destroys dangerous free radicals. This reaction occurs once allicin decomposes and produces an acid that powerfully reacts with free radicals.

Although onions, leeks and shallots are in the same plant family as garlic and contain a compound similar to allicin, they do not have the same medicinal properties.

Garlic may have some benefits for individuals who are at risk for heart attacks or strokes. In one double blind, placebo controlled study of patients who were on medical treatment but had uncontrolled hypertension, garlic extract was found to lower systolic blood pressure. Other studies have found blood pressure reductions varying from five to ten percent with the use of garlic supplements.

Animal studies have shown the benefits of garlic in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Garlic may slow down the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Both animal and human studies suggest that this may be true. Included is a study that found that garlic supplementation reduced aortic plaque deposits in cholesterol-fed rabbits. Another animal study showed that garlic reduced accumulation of cholesterol on blood vessel walls.

In a human study, a garlic extract inhibited vascular calcification in patients with elevated blood cholesterol. In a double blind, placebo controlled human study; standardized garlic powder was found to slow the development of atherosclerosis when measured by ultrasound testing. Finally, an observational study found that patients who took garlic had more flexibility in the aorta, the main artery that exits from the heart. This would be an indication of less atherosclerosis forming within the aorta.

All of these studies are quite positive, if not conclusive, in terms of garlic having a beneficial influence on cardiovascular function. Yet despite the long held belief that garlic reduces high cholesterol levels, study results have been mixed in terms of garlic normalizing blood cholesterol levels. Garlic does appear to be an anticoagulant, in other words to act as a blood thinner. This may help to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Love, Dr. Susan

Suggested Dosage: For the treatment of cardiovascular disease, the National Institute of Health recommends 4 grams of fresh garlic per day, which is approximately 1 clove. Garlic capsules are also available, including deodorized garlic that is more readily tolerated by many people. You can also use 900 mg per day of a garlic powder standardized to contain 1.3% allicin.

The most common side effect of garlic use is body odor, bad breath and a burning sensation in the mouth. Some people report having heartburn or diarrhea with the use of raw garlic and find that they cannot tolerate it.  Garlic use should also be avoided by people on anticoagulant drugs like Coumadin because of its blood thinning properties.

It is possibly safe for pregnant and nursing mothers except just before and immediately after delivery, although this has not been definitely proven. If you have any questions about the use of garlic, I recommend that you ask your doctor about the advisability of using garlic for your particular case.

For more information about garlic or other herbs that support heart and circulatory health, see my book Dr. Susan Lark’s Healing Herbs for Women.

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