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The Medicinal Use of Garlic in History
ANA Vice President for Scientific Communications and Director
Texas Nutrition Institute
In the United States, in addition to its use in cooking and food preparation, garlic is now second in sales only to Echinacea as a best selling herbal supplement. As it grows in popularity, mixed reports and controversy continue to surround claims of its medicinal properties. It has been, in fact, probably the most studied herbal product, with about 1,200 medical and pharmacological reports, and an additional 700 or so chemical studies, now published. With that much scientific attention, one would think that we would be able to sort out clearly fact from myth.
Generally, garlic has been so extensively domesticated over so many thousands of years that there no longer are wild forms found anywhere in nature related to the type of garlic humans now use. It is believed that as a variant of the lillie family of plants it originated probably somewhere in Central Asia, and spread rapidly in all directions -- westward to the Mediterranean, eastward throughout China, and southward into India. In all of these areas it has since the beginning of recorded time been used as both a food and a medicinal product.
Indeed, garlic has been employed for medicinal purposes by more cultures over more millennia than any other plant product or substance. The first recorded use was by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, in the now Mid-East regions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Garlic was of great medicinal importance in nearby Egypt. It has been found in the tombs of the ancient Pharaohs dating back to 3,200 B.C. Its use by the pyramid builders, who believed garlic gave them strength, is inscribed on the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The only slave revolt in Egypt (beside the Jewish Exodus) was by laborers over a lack of garlic one year when the Nile flooded the garlic fields. In the Egyptian "Ebers Codex," written in 1550 B.C., there were 22 different medical formulations that included garlic.
The ancient Israelites were fond of garlic long before Moses led them out of Egypt. In the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions incorporated into the Talmud, the ancient Hebrew writers refer to themselves as "the garlic eaters." In the Bible (Numbers 11:5), still on their way to the Promised Land, the Jews lamented the absence of garlic, as well as other foods from Egypt.
Today, nearly 70 variants of garlic grow in the Holy Land. The widespread dissemination of garlic around the world is attributed, in part, to the Jewish diaspora.
The Greeks used garlic to bring strength to their athletes at the Olympic games and in other contests, and employed it, as well, to help heal battle wounds. Hippocrates, who lived 460 to 370 B.C. and is considered the father of western medicine, recommended garlic for pneumonia and other infections, for cancer and for digestive disorders, as well as a diuretic to increase the flow of urine and a substance to improve menstrual flow.
Another Greek, Dioscorides, who lived in the first century A.D. and is held in esteem as the founder of the modern pharmacy, dispensed garlic to treat rabid dog bites, snake bites, infections, bronchitis and cough, leprosy, and clogged arteries, as well as other conditions.
The ancient Romans carried the garlic medicinal practices of the Greeks forward. Galen (129-199 A.D.), personal physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and whose writings were to influence Arabic and western medicine for over the next thousand years, called garlic "the theriac of the peasants," an inexpensive near "cure all" for a wide variety of almost countless ailments.
In the Middle Ages, a German nun, St. Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote two medical textbooks, advocated raw garlic to heal the sick. The London College of Physicians recommended garlic for the great plague in 1665. A leading English physician, Sydenham, also used garlic about the same time to cure small pox.
As more science began to enter the picture, Louis Pasteur demonstrated, in 1858, that garlic could kill infectious germs. Albert Schweizer, in the early and mid-20th century, used garlic in Africa to cure typhoid fever and cholera
Garlic was used throughout World War I to treat battle wounds and to cure dysentery. During World War II, garlic was known as "Russian penicillin" because it was so effective in treating wound infections when adequate antibiotics were not available.
So, where does that leave us today? Multiple scientific studies indicate that garlic can lower cholesterol and triglycerides levels, improve the outcome of coronary heart disease, reduce high blood pressure, improve claudication (leg muscle cramps on exertion), prolong infant feeding time for breast nursing, reduce or cure the fungal infection of Athlete's foot, and reverse some middle ear inflammation. And, it can do much more. There may even be some value, in addition, for garlic in the potential reductions of certain cancers, especially those of the colon and stomach.
Against this extraordinarily long and consistent history of garlic as a useful medicinal product, there continue to occur "negative" reports and healthy skepticism. Why are there discrepancies and why do serious questions about its medicinal value still remain?
Currently, there are at least five different forms of garlic that are widely marketed. Whole fresh garlic is rich in alliin (converted to allicin when garlic is chopped) and ajoene, the two chemical constituents thought to be most important to health. A daily dose of 1 to 3 cloves of whole fresh garlic is needed to promote health.
Dried garlic powder, when standardized by allicin potential to whole garlic, may also be beneficial. About 500 to 900 milligrams (with an equivalent 5,000 micrograms of allicin), however, are needed to be effective.
Steam-distilled garlic oil and oil macerates of garlic are readily available in several products, but the effective medicinal dose (if any) is not known.
Aged garlic extracts are also available, but again the effective medicinal dose (if any) is not known and most likely is extremely high.
Unfortunately, most of the scientific studies on these processed garlic products have not controlled for the content of the active constituents needed to assure health. Thus, as long as this lack of standardization continues to occur, scientific reports will continue to produce a "mixed bag" of results and some degree of controversy will be perpetuated.
So, is garlic beneficial to your health? Most likely it is, if we can learn anything from this long medicinal history. But, remember that the vast majority of positive observations of the past were based on the consumption of fresh whole garlic and plenty of it, at that!