Garlic – that reviled and revered ingredient! Its mere mention provokes reactions as strong as its smell. Some can’t have enough of it. Some can’t have it. Some have written poems on it. Some remain tight-lipped in their disapproval of it. Whether shunned or embraced by people, garlic smells nothing short of sweet in the notes that science and history make about it.
World-renowned microbiologist Louis Pasteur documented the antibacterial properties of garlic as far back as 1858. During World War 1 (WW1), garlic was used to treat war wounds to the extent that there is a record of the British Government issuing a public appeal for garlic to aid “wartime needs” in 1916. Penicillin, the antibiotic, would be discovered a whole decade after WW1 ended. Though established as a life-saving antibiotic before World War 2, Penicillin shortage would prompt Russian doctors to use garlic for treatment of infections, earning it the name of “Russian Penicillin.”
Flashback from the BC era: Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Modern Medicine,’ promoted the use of garlic for treating respiratory problems, parasites, poor digestion and fatigue in ancient Greece, where athletes were given garlic as a “performance enhancing drug” before races and soldiers were fed garlic before war “for courage.” Egyptian slaves who built the Pyramids were supplied garlic as a crucial part of their daily rations because it was believed to “ward off illnesses and increase strength and endurance.” When the slaves went on strike, it is documented that the Pharaoh spent a modern equivalent of 2 million dollars to keep the slaves supplied with garlic and take the project to fruition.
During King Tutankhamun’s reign in ancient Egypt, the price of a “healthy male slave” was “fifteen pounds of garlic”. And that King’s tomb was found, famously scattered with several perfectly preserved heads of garlic. Not only did Italians of yore send their children to school garlanded with garlic cloves to stave off colds, Palestinian bridegrooms wore a clove of garlic with their wedding attire to ensure “a successful wedding night.” European midwives hung garlic braids in birthing rooms “to ward off evil spirits.”
Beyond its status as a disputed but delicious culinary herb and a go-to vampire ward-off, garlic, over several clinical trials, has earned the name of ‘wonder drug among all herbs.’ It is associated with lowering cholesterol, inhibiting tumour cells, destroying bacteria and viruses, accentuating immune response and more. Its legendary pharmacological properties are attributed primarily to allicin, the chemical compound that is released when garlic is crushed.
Dr. Manasa, Ayurvedic physician from Prameya Health, a Bengaluru- based preventive and supportive, integrated healthcare centre, affirms the healing properties of garlic in the context of “vata and kapha doshas” (roughly translating as the body’s movement and assimilation energies respectively). She warns, however, of increased acidity if the patient is “pitta dosha” prone (where pitta relates to the body’s metabolism energy). She also cautions that garlic interferes with commonly prescribed blood-thinners and is “definitely not for daily ingestion,” unless part of a monitored treatment protocol.
Garlic is traditionally used in postpartum care as it is believed to purify breast milk and reduce vata that exponentially “increases during delivery,” she adds. Consultant nutritionist Dr. Lalitha Priya from Prameya Health reinforces that garlic can have mixed reactions also due to cultural taboos and is therefore not indiscriminately promoted, especially among women undergoing cancer treatment.
“These women are already experiencing difficulty in eating and report a loss of appetite. So, we do not push them to take garlic, if they are not used to it,” she says. She adds that while studies have shown that garlic destroys cancer cells in a petri dish, there “isn’t sufficient evidence” to this effect within the bio-chemical environments of the human body.
When it comes to countering cholesterol however, garlic has popular appeal, religious taboos notwithstanding. Aruna Chordia narrates how they chose garlic over medication when her husband was diagnosed with high cholesterol. A special, single clove kind of did the trick over a year of intake on an empty stomach, as per advice from their Ayurvedic doctor. When “taken as medicine and not for taste,” religious restrictions do not interfere, she says. With “modern medicine” bringing in never-before solutions and hazards, the role of the humble and ancient garlic in wellness is only likely to be more examined.
Charumathi Supraja is a Bengaluru-based writer.