Those of us who prefer an integrative health and functional medicine approach to wellness like to say that “food is medicine,” and if natural medicine interests you, you’ve probably heard this phrase before. It’s not just a slogan—for hundreds of years, but especially in the last century, scientists have been studying the medicinal components of foods to prove what our ancient ancestors seemed already to know.
Now that we have so much research on this subject, I personally enjoy taking a deep dive into the therapeutic properties of specific foods (this is entertainment for me—don’t judge!), so I can feel even more confident about including them in my own diet and recommending them to others. As you may already know, I promote a lower-carb Mediterranean-style diet for most people, and just the other day, I was thinking about one of the foods that gives so many Mediterranean-inspired dishes their flavor profile: Garlic.
Garlic has been used medicinally as far back as the 6th century BC, all over the world in many different cultures, including ancient Greece, Sumer, Egypt, China, and India. It has been used to treat digestive problems, breathing problems, parasitic infections, and leprosy. It was used to increase stamina in ancient Olympians, and in the middle ages, it was used to treat “arthritis, toothache, chronic cough, constipation, parasitic infections, snake and insect bites, gynecologic diseases, as well as infectious diseases,” according to a 2014 retrospective published in Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine (AJP).
Today, garlic is still widely used as a therapeutic supplement worldwide, and the more scientists study it, the more they discover why. Research has linked garlic with a reduction in cardiovascular disease and cancer, and has also demonstrated that it has antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiviral, anti-protozoal, and anti-aging properties. That is a lot of medicinal mojo in those tiny but potent cloves.
Knowing all this is reason enough to eat more garlic, but in my recent investigation, I was particularly interested in the anti-viral component of garlic. Science has gotten pretty good at making antibiotics (which work to inhibit bacterial infections), but effective anti-viral medications have proven more elusive. That’s why my ears always perk up when I hear “anti-viral.” I always want to know more.
So that was my garlic research focus: What are the anti-viral properties? How promising is garlic as a therapeutic food? How effective is it? Or is it all just unproven hype?
The first thing I found was a paper published in March 2020 in a science journal called Nutrients, that reviewed the body of research on the pharmacological activities of garlic. According to this article, studies have demonstrated that garlic extract really does show anti-viral activity against influenza viruses, promoting the production of influenza-neutralizing antibodies (our bodies produce these to fight infections). It also found that some of the phytochemicals in garlic prevented the replication of human cytomegalovirus (a type of herpesvirus). I continued to search and found other studies that demonstrated the action of phytochemicals in garlic against herpes simplex viruses type 1 and 2, as well as parainfluenza virus type 3 and human rhinovirus type 2 (one of the common cold viruses). These garlic compounds have also been shown to generally enhance the action of natural killer-cells that destroy cells infected by viruses.
Just because garlic has antiviral properties doesn’t mean it’s some super-powered preventive or magical cure for the cold or the flu, let alone COVID-19.
That all sounds promising–so should we all be chewing on garlic cloves, no matter how it makes our breath smell? It’s time for a reality check. Most of the research on garlic was performed in a laboratory, generally using garlic extract to inhibit the ability of viruses to reproduce and penetrate cells in a petri dish (or in mice). That’s a lot different than you eating garlic bread and suddenly becoming invulnerable. Just because garlic has antiviral properties doesn’t mean it’s some super-powered preventive or magical cure for the cold or the flu, let alone COVID-19.
Sadly, people love the idea of a panacea, and there are some internet rumors going around that boiled garlic water will cure COVID-19 overnight. That’s dangerous information because it could prevent someone who is very ill from seeking treatment for a dangerous disease. You cannot DIY-away COVID-19 with garlic. Let me repeat: You cannot DIY-away COVID-19 with garlic! Yet, despite government attempts to quell the rumors, people have been rushing out to buy up all the garlic. What are these people doing with this garlic? What are they expecting is going to happen? Who are they using it on? This scares me! (Although not as much as reports of people gargling bleach!)
But don’t throw the garlic cloves out with the boiled garlic water just yet. There is plenty of evidence that eating garlic, including in the forms of raw garlic, garlic powder, garlic oil, and aged garlic extract supplements, does have important and potent health benefits. If you eat it consistently, you really could reduce your risk of getting heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions that make you more vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19…or any infection. Logically, the healthier you are, the better off you will be if you get sick from any cause, because your body will be strong and capable of fighting off viruses, bacteria, and parasites, as well as healing from injuries and recovering from surgeries.
Let’s all look at garlic with clear eyes and reasonable expectations. Garlic is good for you. That’s a fact. It has a long history of therapeutic use and its healthful properties are documented. It’s also delicious. But mixing it with butter and slathering it on white bread may not be the best way to enjoy it, since those accompaniments aren’t exactly nutritious, and chewing on raw cloves is not only unpleasant but could cause serious stomach upset. There are better ways to enjoy this savory vegetable.
So, what are you to make of garlic? Or with garlic? How about a nice garlic shrimp? My favorite way is to drizzle hot cooked shrimp with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of freshly minced garlic, some chopped fresh parsley, and just a bit of sea salt. I put this over a big green salad tossed with a homemade garlic vinaigrette. Here’s a recipe to try:
VibrantDoc Garlic Vinaigrette
Makes 1-½ cup (about 12 servings)
6 cloves fresh garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ cup champagne vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Crush the garlic cloves with the side of a chef’s knife and pop off the papery skins. Put the garlic cloves in a blender or food processor with the salt, and pulse until the garlic is finely chopped.
Scrape the garlic into a bowl and add the mustard and vinegar. Whisk to combine, then let the mixture sit for five minutes.
Whisk the pepper and olive oil into the garlic mixture, continuing to whisk briskly until everything is fully combined and starts to look almost creamy (this means it is emulsified). Store in an airtight container (such as a glass jar) in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, whisking or shaking before serving.