For thousands of years, physicians have been aware of the health/medicinal benefits of garlic. But, today, the popularity of garlic supplements is related primarily to decades of research concerning the health benefits of garlic in lowering cholesterol, thus improving the health of the heart and possibly reducing the risk of heart disease. While no one disputes that there are numerous genuine health benefits of garlic, the most recent research conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) casts doubt on garlic’s cholesterol lowering effect and its benefits to heart health.
Over a period of six months, 169 people with moderately high levels of LDL or bad cholesterol were given three different formulations of garlic supplements. The trials were double blinded, randomized and conducted using placebo controls. Older research supporting claims of the benefits of garlic to heart health were not always conducted in this manner. Some research was conducted using laboratory animals. Some research was not blinded or placebo controlled, meaning that researchers or participants knew they were receiving actual garlic supplements. The problem with non-blinded studies is that the results are sometimes skewed towards what the researchers want or expect the results to be, plus, the placebo effect is well documented. When a person believes that they are receiving a product that will help their condition, any substance will return positive results 10-20% of the time.
NCCAM research concerning the cholesterol lowering health benefits of garlic supplements was also controlled so that no other changes in diet or exercise regimens were made, because the primary question is whether or not garlic supplements alone actually have a beneficial effect on LDL cholesterol. If the NCCAM results are accurate, then garlic supplements have no effect on LDL cholesterol levels. Thus, the benefits of garlic to heart health may have been overstated by previous researchers or simply blown out of proportion by the media and supplement companies.
The undisputed health/medicinal benefits of garlic are mostly related to a component known as allicin, which is released when fresh garlic is crushed. Louis Pasteur, the father of modern antibiotics, noted garlic’s antibacterial activity in 1858. It was used to prevent gangrene during World Wars I and II. Other health benefits of garlic include the treatment of various infections, such as upper respiratory infections, fungal infections and infection with intestinal worms and parasites. The garlic must be fresh and crushed in order to be effective. The allicin is lost if garlic is cooked.
NCCAM researchers made note that all of the health benefits of garlic were not studied in this trial. There could be other factors of heart disease that garlic supplements address, such as high blood pressure or anti-clotting effects. Garlic supplements alone are not your best insurance policy against heart disease.