The many health secrets of garlic are slowly being unlocked


How good is garlic? Any chef will tell you that this herb is indispensable for tasty soups and salads, not to mention salsas and spaghetti sauce.

Now garlic is moving from the kitchen cabinet to the medicine chest. Although native healers have used this herb for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments, researchers are only now beginning to unlock the secrets of this popular flavoring.

Garlic is loaded with nutrients including vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are hard to find in other foods. Sulfur-containing compounds that give garlic its distinctive flavor and aroma are believed to be especially healthful.

Dr. Eric Block is a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Albany and a world-renowned garlic expert. He has isolated a number of active compounds in garlic, including ajoene, a powerful blood thinner. By keeping blood clots from blocking coronary arteries, ajoene may explain why garlic is helpful against heart disease.

The chemical research may be new, but even back in ancient Egypt physicians knew that garlic was good for the heart. A papyrus from the 16th century B.C. tells us that they used it for patients with heart conditions.

Modern medical journals are catching up. The Annals of Internal Medicine is one of America's most respected publications. A new analysis of several studies has documented garlic's ability to lower cholesterol significantly. As little as a clove daily can have a substantial impact on blood fats.

Not only total cholesterol, but also triglycerides and low density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad" cholesterol) levels drop with garlic administration, while beneficial high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels rise. Components in garlic also seem to protect blood fats from oxidation, which is thought to be crucial to the development of clogged coronary arteries.

Cancer researchers are also excited about garlic. Dr. Michael Wargowich of the M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston is studying garlic's power to prevent cancer of the stomach and esophagus. His research on chemoprevention of these cancers in animals is promising. Epidemiological studies from China and Italy suggest that this may be a useful approach. Chinese and Italian people who eat lots of garlic and onion have lower rates of stomach cancer than their neighbors who eat less.

Researchers are also looking into the potential for garlic to help people resist infections and possibly lower blood pressure.

Of course the benefits of garlic are offset by one major disadvantage garlic breath. One reader of this column stank up an entire office after eating a garlic sandwich to ward off a cold. The solution was to nibble dried parsley flakes. Other people resort to odorless garlic pills.

After centuries of jokes and folklore, garlic is finally getting the attention and respect it deserves.

Q: I was in the hospital for a hysterectomy, and was doing well after the surgery until my doctor prescribed Halcion. I don't know what it was for but I had a bad reaction. I became so violent they had to call my daughter to calm me down. I was hallucinating. When I finally woke up, I found myself tied in bed, which frightened me even more.

What is Halcion, and why did they give it to me?

A: Halcion (triazolam) is the most controversial sleeping pill ever developed and has been banned in several countries. It is a short-acting benzodiazepine (Valium-like drug) that has occasionally been linked to bizarre behavior. Some people may experience confusion, agitation, hallucinations, aggressiveness or delusions.

Presumably you were given this drug to ensure your ability to sleep in the hospital. Clearly that strategy boomeranged.

Q: My boyfriend is really depressed. He graduated from college last year and hasn't been able to find a good job. He's working three low-paying part-time positions just to make ends meet.

I finally convinced him to see a doctor about his depression and he got a prescription for Prozac. The trouble is the medicine costs him about $60 a month, which he cannot afford.

He has started skipping pills and the medicine isn't working as well. I'm scared but I can't afford to help him because I am still in school. Is there anything cheaper than Prozac that would work against depression?

A: There are many other antidepressants less expensive than Prozac. Some are available generically at a fraction of the cost of newer drugs like Prozac (which is not available in generic form). They may be more likely to cause side effects, however.

Your boyfriend should get back in touch with his doctor. They can discuss whether an alternative is appropriate or whether free Prozac is a possibility. People who can't afford their medicine can sometimes get assistance from drug manufacturers.

We are sending you our Guide to Saving Money on Medicine. It tells how people can qualify for free medicine and lists brand-name drugs that are available generically. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $1 with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. Z-919, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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