Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Garlic and Cholesterol

You'd think if there was an easy, effective, vastly cheaper, and (almost) side-effect free alternative to pharmaceutical drugs for lowering cholesterol, people would grab it. There just may be. But I'm at a loss to explain why it just sits there in a bin at the grocery store left to sprout while hypercholesterolemics elect to unscrew the cap on their statins, down their little orange pill, and endure the drain on their muscle strength and checking account. Maybe it's the lack of desire to change one's diet. (Sacrosanct as it is.) Maybe it's the time involved in crushing a clove. Maybe it's the taste, or smell, or the lingering quality. If I had a choice, understandably not everyone does, it would be to stink of garlic than to invite liver or kidney failure, two of the more serious conditions related to taking statins. In fact, I credit my garlic consumption (among a few other habits) with keeping my cholesterol numbers in check as I age.

I need to say ... I believe there's a strong genetic influence contributing to cholesterol levels. And certainly, anyone with a history of heart disease needs to take aggressive action. Statins, taken religiously and in high enough doses can really dent those levels. But for a whole lot of otherwise healthy folks whose levels are just borderline high, there are a wealth of alternatives to try before filling the statin prescription. Garlic is just one. (Here's another.)

How It Works
The natural sulphur compounds in garlic are thought to act in a similar way as statins; they both inhibit an enzyme required for making cholesterol in our body.1

(A bonus for garlic - it's also been shown to reduce blood pressure, keep the blood from forming clots, prevent or slow the development of cancer, and keep at bay all those nasty microorganisms that lead to general human suffering. But those are for future posts.)

How To Take It
Unfortunately, garlic supplements don't show a consistently good effect on cholesterol in studies. (Positive studies show garlic can reduce total cholesterol by about 10%, and LDL by about 13%.) One reason - supplements typically concentrate one or a few compounds in garlic, which represent only a handful of garlic's suspected active ingredients. Varying potency of compounds in supplements, and lack of standardization (how much of what form is included) may also contribute to studies' lackluster results.

The best bang for your buck is still the raw deal, uncooked, and preferably ingested within 20 minutes of crushing. One of the primary active ingredients, allicin, is made available when the garlic is cut, sliced, minced, pressed, crushed, smashed, or otherwise broken apart and exposed to air ... but is inactivated when heated. (So don't swallow a whole clove ... you won't get much allicin and your esophagus will be sore for days!)

There are lots of variables that come into play when deciding how much garlic will do the trick - the age and type of garlic used, how it was handled after harvest (how much heat it was exposed to) and during food preparation, how much a person weighs, and how often a person could realistically be expected to consume it. That given, one to two fresh cloves daily are likely to provide benefit. (A head of garlic is made up of several cloves, each clove measures about 1 inch by 0.5 inch.)

I like to mince or press a clove into a small bowl of olive oil and spread it on bread or use as a condiment. Suggestions are welcome!


1Mathew BC, Prasad NV, Prabodh R. Cholesterol-lowering effect of organosulphur compounds from garlic: a possible mechanism of action. Kathmandu Univ Med J: 2004, 2(2);100-102.

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