Do the Health Benefits of Garlic Really Include Lowering Cholesterol?
Garlic has long been regarded as a magical cure for a litany of different ailments and threats, from Bubonic Plague prevention to warding off vampires, but some of its medicinal properties are real. Garlic’s main claim to fame is its lively taste and pungent smell; thanks to modern processing techniques, garlic pills have been rendered odorless. One of the targets of garlic pills is the reduction of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, commonly called “bad” cholesterol. Does garlic have the ability to reduce bad cholesterol, or is this a vampire-like myth?
Known Health Benefits of Garlic
Garlic is a member, together with onions and leeks, of the “allium” family of vegetables; leeks in particular are known for their diuretic properties and are often used to make a clear soup during a fast. Onions, garlic and leeks are healthy vegetables, boasting virtually zero fat, and packed with vitamins and minerals. Garlic’s properties are known to help protect from some types of cancer, ease the severity of a head or chest cold, and to lower the risk of developing diseases of the heart.
Among the many benefits of eating or ingesting garlic in pill form is its ability to lower blood pressure. This seems to occur most effectively when garlic is eaten as a vegetable or flavor-enhancer, not taken as a supplement. The properties of garlic are best expressed when the cloves are eaten raw or cooked, and it is a chef’s fact that garlic chopped is less effective than garlic passed through a press; the oil is excreted most effectively by this method, and that oil contains many of garlic’s best medicinal assets.
It is the “allicin” in garlic that lowers blood pressure by blocking peptides (proteins). Another property of garlic, “ajoene”, has a proven track record of anti-clotting in the blood. Most effectively, some of its properties are known anti-inflammatory, ensuring blood cells and blood vessels are safe from dangerous inflammation that can cause plaque to form and arteries to clog.
Garlic is Good for You
Garlic contains some very important elements, including:
- manganese (assists in bone development, sexual hormone levels)
- vitamin B6
- vitamin C
- tryptophan (an essential amino acid)
- selenium (pivotal in cellular function)
- vitamin B1 (thiamin)
In terms of helping in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, garlic’s singular blend of vitamins and minerals is enhanced by its sulfur content; the sulfur is what makes garlic smell so strongly, but sulfur is also a big part of what makes garlic such a healthy food.
The biggest proven benefit of ingesting garlic is a reduction in blood pressure. It is widely believed that while garlic helps lower blood pressure it is not dangerous for those with low blood pressure. And the fact is, low blood pressure, given the aging population and stresses of modern life, is becoming more rare.
It may be an old wives’ tale, but some people still swear that garlic prevents colds and flu. Doctors and clinicians find this mildly amusing, and credit the bad smell with keeping sick people away from others, reducing the spread of the viruses!
Businesses that either market garlic or promote it for other means of profit will be anxious to tell you it’s a miracle plant. Given that its 5,000-year history of cultivation and extensive use for both flavoring foods, and treating and preventing illness, is fairly well documented, these pro-garlic pundits tout it as a cure-all. Whole and/or raw food advocates, and organizations like The World’s Healthiest Foods (WHFoods), tend to show bias in supporting their claims, the latter quoting scientific opinion that garlic reduces cholesterol, but only slightly.
WHFoods takes the standpoint that garlic’s large collection of vitamins makes it an invaluable food source, and on that point they are largely correct. It does not, however, claim miracle-like lowering of cholesterol from the ingestion of garlic, but rather suggests that because garlic contains a substantial amount of vitamin C, a major anti-oxidant, garlic assists in protecting LDL cholesterol from oxidization. This, in theory, helps to some degree to lower cholesterol. Since WHFoods and similar organizations that exist to help teach healthier eating habits have no significant bias, their information is provided, at least, in earnest.
Science, too, has its views on the subject, and a more exacting approach is taken. Aged garlic extract was given to a test study of men with high levels of bad cholesterol in an experiment at Pennsylvania State University in 2001; the finding was a 10% reduction in overall cholesterol levels, and while this is beneficial, it is not sufficient to regard as a stand-alone treatment for high cholesterol. Still, it demonstrates a small positive bent in the management of the condition.
Conversely, a controlled study conducted by Dr. Christopher Gardner at Stanford University, and reported in the “Archives of Internal Medicine” in 2007, suggests that garlic has little or no effect in the reduction of cholesterol. Using 169 test subjects, and three different forms of garlic, plus one placebo, over a period of six months, none of the subjects showed a significant drop in cholesterol, but variables between the humans themselves (such as age, ethnicity, etc.) were not taken into account.
The Bottom Line: Does it Work?
Yes and no. Garlic is an excellent source of important vitamins and minerals that are known to prevent heart disease, especially chronic degenerative conditions of the cardiovascular system, such as atherosclerosis. It also appears (although a definitive medical study has not be done to date) to relieve some cold symptoms. And it certainly helps in the lowering of blood pressure. Plus it tastes delicious and the odor on your breath can be managed by eating a little fresh parsley, another healthy food.
Garlic’s unique combination of sulfur compounds cannot be found in exactly the same blend in any other food we ingest, and the benefits to overall good health are very good. Yes, garlic is a good source of selenium, a pivotal element in the prevention of heart disease. No, garlic alone does not adequately reduce LDL cholesterol. The fact is that garlic does reduce LDL cholesterol, but not enough to make a substantial difference; its maximum reduction is 15%, but it tends to only reduce by 5% in most cases, hence the 10% reduction cited in the Pennsylvania clinical study referred to above.
However, garlic is a positive part of a general diet and health plan to reduce bad cholesterol; this involves a significant reduction in the ingestion of fats from animal sources. Curiously, the total intake of fat has more influence on blood cholesterol than the ingestion of cholesterol itself. So, a diet low in fats, high in fruits and vegetables, including garlic (cooked, fresh, raw or in pill form) will certainly do no harm, possibly reduce cholesterol a little, and certainly help maintain a healthy heart. So, go ahead and love garlic, for your heart’s sake.