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Dr. Bernard Presser D.C.
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More people are using herbal remedies than previously imagined. From 1993 to 1994, herb sales in the U.S. increased 32% in drug stores (total $74.7 million) and 41% in grocery stores (total $31.9 million). According to a 1997 survey, about a third (32%) of American adults - almost 60 million people - spend an average of $54 per year on herbal remedies to treat common health conditions such as colds, burns, headaches, allergies, rashes, insomnia, PMS, and depression. This herbal boom has created a $3.24 billion market for "botanically based health remedies" or phytomedicines.
Phytomedicines are defined as "crude vegetable drugs" and the preparations (extracts, fluid extracts, tinctures, etc.) made from them. These drugs are obtained from plants, so are frequently considered "natural" remedies. Many people are seeking a natural medicine where "conventional" medicine has failed. Herbs have been used for hundreds, even thousands of years as traditional medicines by various cultures around the world.
"Medical herbalism is a different paradigm than allopathic medicine." (Emphasis added) Medical or medicine refers to treatment of disease, to drugs or remedies administered to alleviate symptoms. Nutrition deals with foods and food complexes, taking in nourishment and utilizing it so that the body grows, makes energy, repairs, heals, and maintains itself. Are herbs medicines or foods or both?
A growing body of research indicates many plants have "therapeutic potential" in their natural, unprocessed state. Some can have side effects and some can be extremely toxic. Also, because processed herbal products are basically unregulated - the FDA classifies them in the dietary supplement category, exempting them from rigorous testing - manufacturers are not held to any standard of production. There is no guarantee that the remedies are what they claim to be.
"You assume that what's in there is what's said to be in there," says James Duke, Ph.D., retired botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The more reduced the product - in other words, if it's powder or capsule form - the less easily it is identified, and the more easily it can be adulterated." A study of 54 ginseng preparations, for instance, revealed that about 60% contained so little ginseng they were worthless; 25% contained no ginseng at all. Another study analyzing products containing feverfew found that two out of three contained no active ingredient. Some companies, however, conscientiously work to assure the identity, purity, and quality of their products. i
FOODS OR DRUGS?
Herbs may be placed in categories:
1) Culinary use of herbs as vegetable products for adding flavor or aroma to food.
2) The botanical view that defines herbs as nonwoody, seed-producing plants which provide nutrients.
3) Herbs that contain pharmaceutical actions, which are "crude drugs" of vegetable origin. These categories can interrelate depending on the way the herbs are processed and how they are taken or used. Herbs in the first two examples are nutritional. Some argue that the third example, pharmaceutical herbs, should be considered nutritional because they are "natural."
"Nutrition" to some people means a quick, easy, and obvious reaction, the alleviation of some particular symptom. Actually, this is pharmacognosy (study of natural medicines), not really nutrition. Modern society has been taught to expect a quick fix - some sign that what has been ingested has an immediate effect, whether it is relief from pain, the ability to sleep, have a bowel movement, feel energy, be released from depression, or whatever. This is much easier than taking the responsibility, time and effort to make lifestyle changes, dietary improvements and other adjustments that bring real health.
Some confusion arises because the difference between a food-herb and a pharmaceutical herb is not always clear cut. For example, sulfur compounds in garlic support the body's immune response, the inflammation and repair process. This is a nutritional effect; the biochemistry is not stimulated or suppressed; there is no masking of symptoms. However, if the sulfur were isolated and highly concentrated, then it would have more of a pharmacological - stimulating or suppressing or masking - action.
Another example is the salicylates found in tiny amounts in almonds, tomatoes, apples, grapes, cucumbers, white willow bark, wintergreen, and other foods and herbs. These appear in complexes with a multitude of other cofactors and nutrients. But once isolated or synthesized in a laboratory, salicylates become aspirin, a drug. Most pain relievers contain 300 milligrams (mg) or more of salicylates. Most food sources contain between 1 to 4 mg per 100 grams; an apple contains about 2 mg. There is a huge difference between the apple and two aspirin tablets (600 mg salicylates). How many apples could one eat to ease a headache? Not only would it not have the pharmacological effect because it is a food, but it would be more than uncomfortable to eat the number of apples needed to get 600 mg of salicylates (300 apples)! Nature incorporates built-in safety modes.
Nutrients can prevent or cure diseases: vitamin C complex for scurvy, thiamin for beriberi, niacinamide for pellagra, vitamin D complex for rickets, etc. But this should not be confused with the pharmacological action of penicillin for an "infection" - interference in the biochemistry of inflammation and repair - or other drug reaction. Nutrients aid and enhance the body's own biochemical efforts and natural processes. Drugs interfere with biochemistry, provoking or restraining normal responses.
Many modern drugs had their origin as herbs, plants, or other natural substances. These materials are analyzed, tested, and then condensed to an extract of so-called "active ingredient(s)". The pharmaceutical industry isolates the "active ingredient" (like aspirin from willow bark or codeine from the opium poppy) and synthesizes (artificially imitates) it, often bypassing any need to use the actual plant.
Because a "natural" form is used does not mean "nutritional" or that it is without limits. Foxglove contains cardiac glycosides (especially digitoxin and digoxin) used to treat heart disease by increasing contractility of the cardiac muscle and thus cardiac output. The drug digoxin is extracted from the leaves of the plant. "Digitalis," used to designate the whole group of glycosides, is, like all drugs, a poison and can have adverse effects. Children have been poisoned by eating the seeds or leaves or by sucking the flowers of foxglove. Hemlock is the most "natural" way to commit suicide.
Scientists isolate the so-called "active ingredients" of herbs; the components they contend make the herb "work". They identify a chemical or chemicals in the plant that are potential drugs with a pharmacological impact. Nature created plants with a plethora of interacting constituents that not only produce actions or reactions, but which also balance, protect, and feed. The "active ingredients" are not concentrated and never appear alone, so they have "less potential to cause side effects or serious overdoses." White willow bark, for instance, contains salicylates which are not isolated or concentrated enough to cause gastrointestinal bleeding (as will aspirin), and one's stomach will not hold enough of it to cause an overdose. It has been used for hundreds of years to safely treat mild pain. Yet with modern technologies, the salicylates can be isolated and concentrated, then combined with some of the herb and then called "natural". Though not designated as a "drug," a line must be drawn between nutritional and pharmaceutical!
Although "medicinal" herbs are gentler than manufactured drugs, they can have side effects and are not always safe in any amount. "Any substance, whether natural or not, that is strong enough to act as a medicine can be taken inappropriately and can cause side effects. Goldenseal, for example, taken for long periods of time or in large amounts (depending on individual tolerance) can damage the liver. Many herbs safe for regular use may pose some risks during pregnancy (e.g., cascara sagrada, coltsfoot, essential oils, feverfew, senna, etc.).
To summarize, some herbs are more like natural medicines (not foods) to be used as treatment for the short duration of illness or injury. Other herbs are more like concentrated foods that can be used daily, but in small amounts. For instance, garlic and parsley are food herbs and are consumed regularly by many people throughout their lives. Yet one could not eat a pint of garlic or a quart of parsley - the intensity of the taste or aroma, reflecting the intensity of the food components, prevents it. This is Nature's way of saying these herbs should be used in tiny amounts and to enhance other foods and their nutritive value. Further, isolated chemicals from either the natural medicine herbs or the food herbs - even if combined with some of the herb itself - create pharmaceutical products.
"The exact workings of herbal remedies are still a matter of conjecture." Plants manufacture complex and numerous diverse compounds which work together to make "a medicine that is more than the sum of its active ingredients." Some of the supportive compounds may be important to reduce the possible toxicity of active constituents, or act as preservatives, or enhance the efficacy upon the body, among its other roles. Like food, once those ingredients are separated or synthesized, the comprehensive function - the biological activity - is lost and the body can use it only as a drug, a xenobiotic (foreign substance).
Drugs focus "on blocking a single pathological biochemical/molecular pathway," while whole herbs affect a variety of pathways and are naturally designed to cope with biochemical complexity. Herbs hold the potential for greater clinical gains than drugs because of the likelihood of additive and synergistic effects. This "permits low dosage levels, which, combined with the already modest concentrations of most phytochemicals, greatly minimizes the risk of side effects."
In contrast, pharmacological application of herbs employs a dose that "will induce strong drug-like effects." The aim is quick, temporary relief for an acute condition such as insomnia, a cold, or pain. The herb is used "to override the physical condition." The goal is directed at the effect, not the cause. Side effects (unwanted effects) and toxic reactions are more of a risk, especially due to large doses, extended duration of use, or individual sensitivities. Symptoms are masked or overridden, but true healing may not occur. "Pharmacological doses of herbs are best used for relief of acute conditions rather than chronic ones, and should only be used on a short-term basis, for a few days or up to a week."
Natural-medicine herbs can have benefits and are safe when properly and responsibly administered by a trained herbalist or physician. "But they are not part of nutrition in philosophy, scope or mode of action."
Physiological use of herbs applies to herbs and doses that support, rather than override, normal biochemical function and support the body's own self-healing mechanisms. Both the individual's and the herb's uniqueness are considered so the minimum amount required to produce an effect is administered. This type of herbal use can be applied to chronic conditions since it is safer and more nutritionally-oriented to ingest for longer periods of time. Even herbs with potentially strong effects can often be taken with this method. The "downside" to this approach is that it must be combined with other natural healing modes including dietary improvements, food supplements, rest, or exercise. It means time and effort, not the ease of taking "a magic bullet" to make a symptom abate.
Because they act gently, most herbs will not have dramatic immediate effects. If they do, then they are medicinal herbs or highly concentrated (usually containing isolated active ingredients), with the corresponding threat of side effects or biochemical imbalances. Some herbs gradually improve health by lightly encouraging organ or endocrine gland function, digestion, elimination, detoxification, etc., so the body is better able to repair or heal. Herbs can nourish the immune system; aid regeneration of damaged liver tissue; invigorate heart muscle; help build up the adrenal, thyroid, reproductive, or other glands; improve breast milk production; soothe the gastrointestinal tract; relax blood vessels so they dilate properly and support musculoskeletal tissues.
The fresh herbal plant is the ideal form for use. But more readily available alternatives are commonly preferred. Dried herbs may be the best form after the fresh plant for obtaining all the natural components. They may be chopped, ground, put into capsules, or made into tea. Tinctures are herb extracts in a solution of water and alcohol (or glycerin), the preferred method of "preserving medicinal strength." Encapsulated herbs may be less potent than whole dried herbs, but they are easier to use and their dose is more precise. Herbal capsules and tinctures are now frequently labeled "guaranteed potency" or, more popularly, "standardized." What do these classifications mean? ii
"The idea that the medicinal effect of an herb is due mainly to a single active ingredient is a concept that is well ingrained in modern pharmacology," says Alan R. Gaby, M.D. This pharmacological viewpoint is reflected in the trend toward standardization of herbs which is based on the concentration of a specific, isolated ingredient.
To "cope" with the normal inconsistency of "active ingredients" in herbs, standardization places a minimum concentration of these particular constituents in a product. That is, the manufacturer "guarantees" (though no tests may be conducted) that the herb contains a specific amount of a certain chemical. "Guaranteed potency" herbs are standardized and definitely tested to insure a specified amount and the activity of the desired constituent(s). Isolated extracts of the so-called "active ingredient(s)" are often added to the herb and in many cases a synthetic chemical is used. Natural components of herbs vary due to soil health, weather, farming practices, harvesting methods, curing procedures, processing and preparation methods, and other factors. Thus the perceived need to "standardize" a chemical in the herbs.
Standardized herbs are promoted as being more potent and containing a more reliable dose than their whole herb counterparts. This discounts the complex, balanced, synergistic mixture of ingredients which act together for physiological and nutritional benefits as well as for reduced toxicity. For example, an overdose of the drug digitalis causes severe cardiac arrhythmia. But when the plant source - foxglove - is taken to excess, nausea occurs as an early warning sign long before any cardiac arrhythmia can develop. Natural compounds in the foxglove reduce likelihood of toxicity. But the single "active ingredient" - digitalis - is always much more toxic.
Also, the "active ingredient" does not always produce the expected action. The hypericin in St. John's Wort had been thought to account for its anti-depressant effect, so its products are often standardized for hypericin content. Yet recent studies show that the beneficial effect does not depend on the content of hypericin. The sum of the parts does not equal the function of the whole.
Standardized extracts of some medicinal herbs have shown "clear efficacy in clinical trials" - as drugs -- and are being widely used. This gives them a place in medical practice, not nutritional practice. An extraction method that maximizes the content of one compound can and does remove other beneficial substances. The whole cooperative complex in unaltered herbs can produce nutritional benefits. While "a modern reductionist approach to herbal therapy" may be desirable for a pharmaceutical effect, it should not be confused with a natural or nutritional effect. Pharmaceuticals are strong, isolated chemicals with profound effects for masking symptoms. The herbal concept is supposedly alternative to this drug method. So why should herbs be made into drugs and then administered as "natural" remedies? Because they sell and at a huge profit!
As mentioned, there are many reasons why strengths and amounts of "active ingredients" may vary considerably (though factors such as soil quality and processing methods can be tremendously improved). "I've seen anywhere from a ten- to 10,000-fold variation in active ingredients in herbs, says James Duke. Some botanicals may be short on active ingredients and others may have more than expected. The lack of quality control in the herb industry greatly influences the results. So it becomes imperative to ascertain the source, methods, processing, and reliability of the companies distributing herbal preparations. iii
Herbs may have adverse (unwanted) reactions including individual sensitivities, toxic reactions (usually from isolated chemical ingredients or excessive dosing), interactions with drugs (uncommon), and mistaken plant identity. Some degree of caution is required, particularly with medicinal herbs. Of 258 German research monographs, 63 herbs were contraindicated in people who are allergic to the plants, 24 were restricted for use during pregnancy or lactation, 15 were contraindicated for patients with gallstones, 7 were contraindicated in inflammatory kidney disease. The most common side effects are gastrointestinal upset (e.g., nausea, diarrhea, etc.), "allergic" skin response, and photosensitivity.
Yet, confirmed reports of harmful effects are exceedingly rare. Most of the "dangers" ascribed to herbs are highly exaggerated. Severe acute risks "normally do not occur." Overall risk of "herbal drugs" is quite low. "The usefulness of anything does not depend on its source as much as it depends on the knowledge of the person using or recommending it!" Most of the handfuls of people who get seriously ill from herbs mistakenly believe that if something is natural, it is safe at any dose. Toxicity can build up over months or years when medicinal herbs are taken over a long period of time.
Prescription and over-the counter drugs kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. Nonfatal poisonings run about 500,000. Yet the World Health Organization has managed to come up with only 5,000 cases of "suspected" adverse reactions to herbal medicines - time period not stated (could be over many years). Most of the adverse reactions and even deaths attributed to herbal products are "due to misuse because they are either mislabeled or come with no information."
The scattered reports of death and toxicity associated with herbs pale in comparison to injuries caused by "conventional medicine." Steven Barrett, M.D. of Quack Watch said: "I'm more concerned about money. More people are being harmed financially than physically." How tolerant for a doctor whose writings and speeches viciously attack the alternative health care field! All he could criticize was the money spent, not the supposed dangers of herbs.
As long as no medicinal claims are made on the label, the FDA does not regulate herbal remedies. Herb manufacturers often make claims anyway in brochures, magazine articles, books, and other venues. According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, a product cannot be removed from the market until it has been proved to cause harm. The burden of proof is on the government.
"Herbal medicine is like any other medicine," says James Duke, Ph.D. "It should be used with discretion." One way to view the relative safety of herbs, he says, is to compare them to coffee. He rates herbal teas according to whether he views them more or less safe than coffee, which he would limit to two cups a day (more can cause minor to major side effects). Water hemlock and belladonna, known to be deadly, would not be touched. Goldenseal is to be limited to one cup. He considers lemon verbena as he would coffee and may drink two cups a day. He could not be afraid to drink three cups of feverfew or chamomile. Herbal teas sold in grocery stores contain small amounts of several herbs blended for flavor, not for "medicinal effects" so there is no need for concern with these.
Some herbal products are adulterated with "harmful or undesirable substances, whether added by mistake or design." Ayurvedic herbs imported from India, for example, may be boiled down in clay or metal pots, leaving residues of lead, mercury, arsenic, or cadmium. Some Chinese herbal remedies have been found laced with prescription drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or heavy metals. Some herbal medicines sold by mail have also been found to contain drugs; one was found to contain diazepam (the tranquilizer in Valium), indomethacin (a NSAID used in Indocin) and hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic used in Hydro Diuril); another was contaminated with digitalis. Alcohol tinctures may contain an ingredient from the herb which is not soluble in alcohol, imbalancing the natural characteristics of the plant. Encapsulated herbs may be adulterated with cheaper herbs or fillers. Two bottles of the same product may not contain the same ingredients!
Only products made by reputable companies, who ensure the contents, quality, and safety of the remedies should be used. Culinary herbs and herbal foods such as garlic can comfortably be used regularly. Dosing with medicinal herbs on a regular basis or long duration should be avoided. Caution should especially be used during pregnancy. iv
Garlic is a food-herb. Its therapeutic use goes back thousands of years and has been attested to by all peoples, worldwide. The ancient accounts relate that garlic aids digestion and elimination, increases energy, reduces swelling and its accompanying pain, helps break down and eliminate poisons of various types including snakebite venom, improves resistance and immune system function, and assists in the elimination of intestinal parasites. Throughout history, it has been used to treat minor ailments and serious disease: from toothaches, upper respiratory complaints, insect or animal bites, and stomach ailments to smallpox, typhoid, and cholera. Garlic is still widely used, particularly in poor countries. And it is garnering increased respectability as the scientific community is beginning to recognize the healing powers of this herb. In the last several decades, there have been well over 1,000 published studies on the health-promoting aspects of garlic.
For years scientists believed that the sulphur compound, allicin, was responsible for garlic's effectiveness. During the last several years, researchers have "discovered" many other therapeutic and nutritive compounds that all contribute to various aspects of garlic's healthful qualities. Like any natural food, it is the cooperative, interrelated complex that provides the efficacy, affect, safety, and bioactivity.
Garlic contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients including vitamin C complex, B vitamins, manganese, zinc, germanium, selenium, and boron. The most active ingredients seem to be sulfur compounds. Over 90% of research on garlic has focused on water-soluble sulfur (sulfhydryl) compounds since they can be "measured" at "target sites." Once the compounds are absorbed, metabolized and converted, other nutritional and therapeutic effects occur. Yet there are innumerable other compounds in garlic that are not easily "trackable" and some are still unknown. In his reference work on phytochemicals, James Duke lists 202 chemical components of garlic identified so far.
The sulfur-containing allicin gives garlic its characteristic aroma. As soon as a raw clove is cut or crushed or chewed, the enzyme alliinase reacts with alliin to form allicin which is then converted into a number of other sulfur compounds. Those compounds form still others - dozens of them. And much depends on whether the bulb is fresh or aged, raw or cooked, natural or processed into supplement form, whether the supplements are tablets, capsules, or extracts. Garlic's changeable nature creates problems for researchers who attempt to specify "the" chemical compound that delivers the herb's punch. The solution is the whole food since many contents have various synergistic effects.
Since the enzyme alliinase is inactivated by heat, oxygen or water, cooked, aged, or "odorless" garlic preparations have either less allicin action or none at all. Some manufacturers have developed methods to provide a "standardized" concentration of alliin, relatively odorless, to be converted to allicin in the body's gastrointestinal tract. Yet properly prepared fresh garlic preparations contain alliin and alliinase (stable when dry) which, when mixed with fluids in the intestinal tract, form allicin.
Heat and excessive drying time can diminish the quality of garlic products, so aging without heat is frequently preferred. Aged garlic contains no allicin or allicin-degradation products. Aging allows allicin and other substances to convert to other active sulfur compounds such as s-allyl cysteine and other water-soluble sulfhydryls. So aged garlic has and is used successfully to treat many health conditions since numerous nutrients and phytochemicals are preserved. Cooked garlic retains some sulfur constituents and other nutrients though aging conserves even more.
The intense aroma and taste of raw garlic serves as Nature's message to consume small amounts and to mix it with other foods. Raw garlic, for some people, can be irritating to the mouth, throat, or stomach, particularly if eaten in excess on an empty stomach. Very sensitive individuals may experience inflammation of the skin when handling raw garlic. Massive amounts administered to rats led to reduction of red blood cell count, edema, ulceration of the fore-stomach. These problems have not been reported in humans consuming a reasonable amount of raw garlic.
Fresh garlic allicin seems to be essential for actions on cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lipid balance. Numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies using preparations containing alliin or allicin potential have shown a reduction in total serum cholesterol levels by 10 to 12%, a decrease in LDL (so-called "bad" cholesterol) by about 15%, usually an increase in HDL (so-called "good" cholesterol) by about 10%, and a drop in triglyceride levels by about 15%. Studies using aged garlic or cooked garlic are never nearly as significant. Reduction of blood pressure is also greater when fresh garlic is used as compared to aged garlic, typically 11 mm/Hg systolic and 5 mm/Hg diastolic within one to three months.
In even small amounts, garlic can lower elevated cholesterol levels in the blood. The combined results of five studies which met extremely stringent criteria revealed that one-half to one clove of garlic a day lowered cholesterol by an average of 9%. The Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter stated that two cloves of garlic daily can be as effective as some cholesterol-lowering drugs. Just as most whole foods confound scientists seeking "a" chemical that explains an effect, "no one knows why garlic works..." Evidently, this pungent herb aids in correcting some biochemical imbalance so that the higher circulating cholesterol is no longer needed.
Two recent studies found no cholesterol-lowering ability for garlic. But one study used a powder tablet and the other a garlic-oil preparation. Both supplements were subject to heat, refining, and other processes that deplete the nutrients and potential for assisting the imbalance leading to cholesterol elevations.
The reduction of serum thromboxane levels is attributed to garlic when consumed raw. Thromboxane is a compound synthesized in platelets and other cells for platelet aggregation - blood clots. Garlic taken frequently "in low doses" will "have a significant antithrombotic effect" if it is needed.
Studies have also shown "clinical use" for garlic in persons with mild hypertension, with reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure of at least 5% to 10%. German researchers reported that people consuming the equivalent of less than a clove a day for an average of seven years had more supple arteries (as assessed by ultrasonography) than those not getting garlic.
Garlic compounds such as diallyl sulfide, diallyl monosulfide and other diallyl polysulfides may help to fight cancers. Chemically-induced cancer of the forestomach of rats was inhibited. Garlic was effective in suppressing tumor formation of the breast in mice exposed to a chemical carcinogen. Garlic cultivated on selenium-rich soil was the most effective. Other animal studies showed garlic inhibits the activation of the carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds in both liver and breast tissues. In rodents, garlic can inhibit tumor growth in the esophagus, colon, rectum, skin, and other areas. Epidemiological data indicate that people who eat plenty of garlic and other alliums (onions, leeks, shallots, etc.) have a lower risk of stomach cancer than others.
The trace elements selenium and germanium in garlic are believed to play roles in garlic's protective and antitumor effects. Selenium, for example, binds to the toxic metals cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury, aiding elimination. These and other garlic components increase the body's levels of the enzymes catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and glutathione-s-transferase. Catalase catalyzes (speeds) the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen. Glutathione peroxidase is vital to cellular respiration and protects against lipid peroxides (fat breakdown products). Glutathione-s-transferase blocks and detoxifies poisons including carcinogens. "Glutathione via glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase is involved in the protection against xenobiotic [foreign, toxic] substances and free radicals." Glutathione is used by the cytochrome P450 enzyme system (phase II reaction), primarily in liver cells, for detoxifying foreign or harmful substances.
Garlic's antitumor effect may be due to the liver-strengthening actions of a number of its components, so is not limited to a particular tissue or a specific carcinogen. Garlic enhances and regulates the functions of the liver and gallbladder by triggering enzyme responses that help break down waste and toxic materials and their accumulations.
Another avenue through which garlic lessens the likelihood of developing cancer is by boosting the number and activity of some white blood cells, including phagocytes (which engulf foreign or damaged particles) and "natural killer cells" (which break down diseased or abnormal cells). Thus the herb supports the immune system and the natural process of inflammation and tissue repair. It has a strong effect on the lymphatic fluid and tissue, assisting the elimination of noxious waste matter.
When cooked garlic was fed to rats that were then exposed to a carcinogen, it did not block the effect of the poison, whereas rats fed raw garlic received the benefit. A third group of rats were fed garlic that was peeled, left to stand for 15 minutes, and then heated. This time the garlic's anticancer properties matched those of fresh garlic. Why? The enzyme alliinase is inactivated by heat, but, it was allowed during the 15 minutes (it begins working when the cloves are peeled) to start the cascade of chemical reactions that create health-promoting, cancer-fighting compounds.
During World Wars I and II, garlic preparations were used to treat wounds, offsetting the need for excess bacterial action by keeping the area clean of contamination. Garlic "fights" poisons secreted by the refuse-collecting bacteria and affects only the "bad" bacteria (that have engulfed poisonous substances) but not the "good" bacteria.
Garlic is especially helpful as an antifungal agent. Studies have shown its impact on Candida albicans in vaginal yeast "infections" and thrush, reducing the overgrowth as well as or more effectively than antifungal drugs such as gentian violet, Nystatin and amphotericin. A topical application of fresh garlic extract in water was more effective than three pharmaceutical preparations for treating the fungal-caused "swimmer's ear." Fresh herb diluted, spread on affected areas, and left on for 30 minutes has been used as a remedy for athlete's foot.
The benefits of garlic in treating hay fever and other allergies, including chemical reactions, are often reported. The herb is recommended by some doctors over antibiotics for chronic, low grade inflammation such as rhinitis or sinusitis. Studies have discovered garlic's ability to prevent and aid colds, coughs, flu, bronchitis, and any other condition involving inflammation. Fresh garlic juice in water or oil topically may ease the pain of ear aches. Its efficacy in treating rheumatoid arthritis has been related.
A valuable treatment for parasites (from pinworms and Entamoeba histolytica to tapeworm and giardia), garlic does not necessarily kill the parasites, but it makes their living quarters much less desirable so they are excreted. The oil of garlic repels most insects. Undocumented reports hold that, if enough garlic is eaten (not necessarily applied to the skin), it will discourage many insects, including mosquitoes, from hovering near.
Garlic has shown good use as a diuretic and an anti-nausea and digestive aid. It assists diarrhea, stomach ailments, ulcers, colic, flatulence, and indigestion, actually stimulating proper digestion. During World War I a combination of garlic and charcoal served as an excellent preventive and treatment for dysentery, diarrhea, and other parasite-based diseases. The charcoal helps to absorb and eliminate toxins in the intestinal tract.
Garlic supplements come in various forms. For garlic oil the volatile oil is distilled from the cloves with steam and diluted with a refined vegetable oil. The heat destroys many of garlic's active products. In garlic oil macerate, the cloves are mashed to produce oil and combined with refined vegetable oil. No heat is used, but ingesting refined vegetable oil can be counter-productive. For aged garlic extract, according to a traditional Chinese method, the cloves are soaked in 20% alcohol solution for 18 to 20 months. Almost all traces of odor are thus removed as well as some of the active compounds. For garlic powder, cloves are dehydrated, pulverized, and placed in capsules. It contains allicin, so provides allicin breakdown compounds. The aroma, though not as strong as raw garlic, remains. Freeze-dried, air-dried, essential-oil, and other types are also available.
The search for specific active ingredients has led to misunderstandings and claims that a product contains a specific compound, making it "superior" whereas other compounds may be absent. Garlic contains numerous compounds that "are active in different conditions." Obviously, the manufacturing process of some pills and extracts can inactivate garlic's ability to produce allicin, ajoene (formed when allicin decomposes in the digestive tract), and other compounds. Enzymatic and chemical changes can take place during processing.
Mixed results from studies on garlic - some positive, some negative - can be at least partly due to the specific commercial garlic preparation employed. When compared, there are several-fold differences in the content of various organosulfur compounds. Clearly, "the manufacturing process is the major determinant" of a plant's therapeutic or nutritional activity. Supplements are not all the same!
"The garlic question neatly illustrates a couple of points: the understandable desire to see foods as medicines, as well as how much we still don't know about the chemistry of food and its relation to health." Foods should be consumed whole as produced by Nature and in the amount and manner Nature indicates. Garlic can certainly be an important part of a wholesome, balanced program of unaltered foods and food supplements for optimal well-being. v
i J. Grunwald, HerbalGram, No.34, Summer 1995, pp.60-66; B. Johnston, HerbalGram, No.40, Summer 1997, p.49; M. Blumenthal, Herbal Gram, No.35, Fall 1995, p.57; V. Tyler, HerbalGram, No.30, Winter 1994, p.24; P. Bergner, Nutrition & Dietary Consul, March 1994, p.8; J. McHugh, Amer Health, Vol.XV, No.4, May 1996, pp.72-74.
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Originally published as an issue of Nutrition News and Views, reproduced with permission by the author, Judith A. DeCava, CNC, LNC.