If you remember one thing from this article, let it be this: Garlic breath is good. Seriously, if you’ve eaten your fair share of garlic today, you’ve done a service to your health. But what is garlic, and why is it so good for you?
“Garlic belongs in the allium family,” explains Sudha Raj, PhD, RDN, a teaching professor at Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics in Syracuse, New York. Allium refers to a class of plants that also contains onions, scallions, leeks, and shallots. “It contains phytochemicals such as allicin and organosulfur compounds,” Dr. Raj adds. These phytochemicals (or plant compounds) are responsible for the plant’s heart-healthy, immune-supportive, anti-inflammatory, and nutritional properties.
One note: The scientific backing for many of these benefits is based on studies involving supplements and extracts (including powders and capsules), which may provide doses higher than you’d get from food. This is commonly done in research settings to test a desired response within a set amount of time, Raj explains. “However, long-term use of garlic in smaller amounts as in daily food preparation may also produce positive outcomes at lower doses,” she says.
Indeed, “in many studies, the concentrated equivalent may be around two cloves,” says Wendy Bazilian, RDN, a doctor of public health and nutritionist in San Diego and author of the Eat Clean, Stay Lean book series.
If you are interested in taking a supplement, talk to your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you and it won’t interact with any medications you’re currently taking, especially if you have ongoing medical conditions or are making adjustments to your diet that may influence how well one of your drugs works.
But don’t discount the power of adding garlic to your favorite foods, which can contain a huge variety of nutrients and chemicals that may interact synergistically together in beneficial ways, says Raj. “Deliberately including garlic in food preparations on a regular basis can give you long-term benefits,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to load up the garlic in hummus, pesto, pasta, sauces, soups, stir-fries, and roasted vegetables, says Dr. Bazilian. After all, it’s packed with health benefits — here are seven of them.
1. Garlic May Help Lower Blood Pressure
A couple of cloves a day may help keep a visit to the cardiologist away. “Garlic stimulates the synthesis of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels, and inhibits ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) activity,” says Raj. (ACE inhibitors help relax blood vessels.) This could potentially support healthy blood flow and pressure.
Raj points to a recent review and meta-analysis published in February 2020 in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine: In the 12 trials and more than 550 individuals with hypertension that were studied, taking Kyolic aged garlic supplements for three months lowered systolic blood pressure (top number) by about 8 points and diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) by 5.5 points, a similar effect to that of blood pressure medications.
2. Garlic May Help Quell Inflammation
Scientists believe that chronic inflammation is a driver behind chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Garlic, on the other hand, helps inhibit the activity of certain inflammatory proteins, says Raj. In a randomized, controlled, double-blind study of 70 women with the inflammatory autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis, the group who took 1,000 milligrams of garlic supplements per day for eight weeks had lower inflammatory markers, less pain and fatigue, and fewer tender joints compared with a placebo group. Researchers published their findings in November 2020 in Phytotherapy Research.
3. Garlic May Help Lower Cholesterol
Another potential perk of garlic for the heart: improving cholesterol levels. How? Garlic “may help decrease the production of cholesterol by the liver,” says Bazilian.
While more research is needed to determine the relationship between garlic intake and cholesterol levels, a meta-analysis and review of studies that was published in May 2018 in Medicine concluded that taking garlic supplements was effective in lowering both total cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol levels, which are two risk factors for heart disease.
4. Garlic May Support Immune Function
Given our collective zest for learning about taking care of our immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s one reason to add garlic to your dinner tonight. While there’s not enough evidence to suggest that that garlic will prevent or treat the common cold, for instance, it can play a role in your body’s defense mechanisms in a few ways.
For one, the allicin (one of the plant chemicals Raj highlights) in garlic provides antibacterial properties, says Bazilian. Scientists also believe that garlic has antiviral properties that may work in two ways, she says: by blocking the entry of viruses into cells, and by strengthening the immune response so that it can effectively fight off potential invaders. It’s these things that can help support a healthy immune system overall.
5. Garlic May Reduce Blood Clotting
One more perk of garlic for your heart health: “Compounds in garlic (and onions) have been shown to decrease the ‘stickiness’ of our platelets and have anti-clotting properties,” says Bazilian. These things may help guard against atherosclerosis, a process in which plaque buildup leads to a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. Per the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, atherosclerosis increases your risk for blood clots that can cause heart attacks and stroke. Of course, eating garlic shouldn’t be the only preventive measure you take to protect your arteries. The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute recommends following a heart-healthy eating plan, getting plenty of exercise, managing your weight, and avoiding or quitting smoking.
6. Garlic Provides a Host of Antioxidants
Garlic’s nutrients and plant compounds give it “strong antioxidant properties,” per a review published in July 2020 in Antioxidants. Not only do antioxidants benefit blood vessels and reduce inflammation but they may soak up the damaging free radicals that can lead to diseases like cancer (though this anti-cancer potential needs to be borne out in human research, says the American Institute for Cancer Research).
7. Garlic Makes Other Healthy Foods Taste Great
Bazilian classes garlic in the same category of food as onions, herbs, and spices, adding that “garlic brings great flavor to foods, so it helps us eat more of the foods that we’re supposed to be eating more of, like vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and beans.”
Adding flavor through garlic can also potentially help you reduce the need for excess salt on your foods — and for just 4 calories per clove, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And finally, don’t discount the role that taste plays in your overall diet: “When we love the food we eat and learn to listen to our cues for satiety, it can be more satisfying, too,” Bazilian says. All the more reason to add some garlic to your next meal!