Fondly termed the “stinking rose,” the humble garlic bulb has been used as both food and medicine for millennia; there is evidence that the Egyptians ate it while constructing the pyramids. In 18th century Europe, it was consumed by gravediggers and priests as a protection against the plague, and in the two World Wars, garlic was administered to soldiers as an antiseptic agent, to inhibit infection. Modern medicine is conducting research to ascertain whether the lore of its medicinal value has a scientific basis, and if so, how we can best harness its benefits to aid human health and well-being.
The garlic plant, native to Asia, is grown around the world. Related to the onion, which the plant resembles somewhat, garlic is a perennial herb that grows to a height of approximately 2 feet (60 cm). The spherical white flower head rises on a stalk directly from the bulb. For both medicinal and culinary uses, the bulb, which separates into cloves, is the important part of the plant.
One of this herb’s most compelling health-promoting properties is its use as a natural broad-spectrum antibiotic. There is some support from medical research to suggest that garlic is successful at fighting many bacteria and fungi and even certain viruses. This makes it a potential weapon against not only the common cold, but also superbugs that are resistant to other antibiotics.
Other studies reveal that garlic may be helpful in regulating cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, reducing the buildup of plaque in the arteries, and may even have some cancer-fighting properties. Medical research continues to be conducted to explore these promising areas of its beneficial effects on health. In traditional, homeopathic medicine, garlic is valued for its antioxidant, antibiotic, antimicrobial, antiseptic, and antiparasitic properties. Additional homeopathic uses include treating the pain of ear infections (with the oil used as an ingredient in specially prepared ear drops), soothing toothache pain, combating roundworm, and supporting respiratory health.
Garlic has many active components that contribute to its health benefits, one of the primary being allicin, which is the compound responsible for the herb's pungent aroma and is formed when it is crushed. To obtain the maximum benefit, it must be consumed raw — cooked garlic loses its antibiotic property. It may also be taken in capsule, tablet, tincture, oil, extract, or freeze-dried form.
Although the use of small amounts of fresh garlic, or quantities consumed in ordinary culinary use, is generally considered to be safe, dried, powdered, and extracted forms are considerably stronger and require more careful dosing. People suffering from bleeding disorders or who are about to undergo surgery or childbirth should avoid larger amounts of garlic. It may interact with certain medications, including diabetes medications, statins, anti-platelet medications, blood-thinning medications, protease inhibitors, and ACE inhibitors. Pregnant and lactating women may need to avoid consuming this herb in quantity. In any of these cases, a physician should be consulted before use. It can cause digestive upset and allergic reactions, and consuming even a small amount of fresh raw garlic may result in bad breath. Chewing fresh parsley may help counteract this effect.
It should be noted that all herbs contain substances that may cause undesirable side effects or interact with medications. Anyone interested in using garlic medicinally should do so only with a physician’s consent and under the supervision of a knowledgeable and reputable practitioner of homeopathic medicine.