Quiz: What spice adds flavor to food but leaves a strong aroma on your breath? Garlic, of course! Beyond the flavor and aroma aspects of garlic, this powerful spice has health benefits, and one organ that benefits is your heart. In fact, there are several ways garlic may help ward off cardiovascular disease. Let’s see why science says your heart loves garlic and why you should get more of this age-old “spice” that’s actually a vegetable.
Garlic May Lower Blood Lipids
One contributor to cardiovascular disease is elevated LDL-cholesterol. Although there are medications that lower LDL-cholesterol, garlic is a non-pharmacologic way to drop your LDL level. How does it help? Research shows sulfur compounds in garlic may block the activity of enzymes in the liver that synthesize cholesterol so that less enters your bloodstream.
What type of garlic is best? Aged garlic extract may be particularly effective for lowering blood cholesterol. One study found that women with elevated LDL cholesterol experienced a significant decline in LDL levels over 12 weeks relative to those who took a placebo. However, studies looking at the effect of garlic on LDL-cholesterol are mixed and the benefits may vary with the individual.
Garlic may be helpful if you have elevated blood triglycerides too. Many people don’t realize it, but studies link high blood triglycerides, fats that circulate in the bloodstream) with cardiovascular disease too. A number of studies show that consuming garlic or taking garlic extract modestly lowers blood triglycerides, although not all studies show that the drop is clinically significant.
Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is another major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Even more concerning is the fact that hypertension is a silent health problem that many people aren’t aware they have unless they check their blood pressure regularly.
Can garlic lower elevated blood pressure? Studies are encouraging. A meta-analysis of 12 studies involving 500 adults found that aged garlic extract rivaled some blood pressure medications for lowering blood pressure in people with hypertension. The participants who took garlic experienced a drop in systolic blood pressure of 8 to 10 mm Hg systolic and 5-6 mm Hg diastolic. This change alone is enough to have a substantial impact on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Aged garlic extract may have benefits over standard garlic. Aged garlic contains more S-allyl cysteine, a compound with antioxidant activity. S-allyl cysteine blocks the activity of a factor that raises blood pressure. Other studies also show that aged garlic extract lowers blood pressure as much as some blood pressure medications. Don’t stop your blood pressure meds without consulting your physician, though. Everyone responds differently to foods. Also, you shouldn’t take garlic extract or eat large quantities of garlic if you take a blood thinner.
Garlic Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation contributes to cardiovascular disease by damaging blood vessels that carry blood to the heart and brain. Studies show garlic may have an anti-inflammatory effect by altering the activity of immune cells that activate the immune system and cause inflammation. In fact, diet plays a key role in controlling inflammation. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that eating an inflammatory diet is linked with a greater risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
Why is inflammation so concerning? It damages the inner walls of the arteries that carry blood to the heart and throughout the body. Anything we can do to reign in the body’s inflammatory response lowers the risk of stroke and heart attack. Scientists now know that inflammation is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease.
Your best bet for getting the anti-inflammatory benefits of garlic is to consume it raw. A study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology found that heating garlic even for short periods reduces its anti-inflammatory benefits. Therefore, raw garlic cloves are your best bet for maximal anti-inflammatory punch. Eating a few cloves per day is enough to offer benefits.
Improve Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin resistance is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Studies in humans and animals show that garlic improves insulin sensitivity and lowers fasting blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes. One study in people with type 2 diabetes found that taking garlic tablets along with the diabetes medication metformin led to greater reductions in fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C, a marker of longer-term blood glucose control, than taking metformin alone. Garlic has antioxidant properties too, which may also explain its effects on insulin sensitivity.
Lower Risk of Blood Clots
Garlic also has a weak ability to thin the blood and reduce the risk of blood clots forming. Since strokes and heart attacks arise from a blood clot that lodges in a blood vessel leading to the heart or brain respectively, garlic may lower the risk of this happening. However, researchers point out that the blood thinning effects of garlic are short-lived, so you’ll need to eat it often.
The Bottom Line
Garlic may give your breath an aroma, but it’s a good salve for heart health, and now you know five reasons. If you’re concerned about the odor, eat an apple or chew on parsley. Studies show this helps mask the aroma that garlic gives your breath.
Before taking a garlic supplement or consuming a large quantity of garlic, check with your health care professional. If you’re on certain medications, particularly blood thinners, taking garlic may not be appropriate. If that’s not the case, enjoy adding garlic to your favorite dishes. It adds more flavor, you may be getting natural health benefits from each of those garlic cloves. Enjoy!
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