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The science behind the legendary healing 
properties of garlic

Garlic, discover the science behind its health-giving properties Man has been touting the health-giving benefits of garlic for thousands of years. Legend tells how garlic was cultivated in China. Emperor Hung-ti of Hsia or Xia, the first Chinese dynasty (dated 2205-1766 BC), journeyed up a mountain with his followers. Along the way, the followers ate plant leaves that proved to be poisonous and they became deadly ill. Fortunately, wild garlic was growing close by. They ate the garlic and their lives were saved. That prompted the Emperor Huang-ti to introduce the bulb into cultivation (Garlic Nature's super Healer, Joan Wilen and Lydia Wilen, 1997). The stone tablets written by the Sumerians in 2600-2100 BC are among the oldest reports mentioning garlic. The library of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal in Nineveh (669-662 BC) is another rich source of Sumerian texts referring besides dates and onions to leek species. Louis Pasteur confirmed the antibacterial action of garlic in 1858 and Albert Schweitzer used it successfully against amoebic colitis.

Modern medicine is now beginning to support many of these claims. Epidemiological and medical studies suggest that individuals regularly consuming garlic have longer blood clotting times and show lower blood lipid levels which means a reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. In addition, garlic is reputed to have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Human population studies show that eating garlic regularly reduces the risk of oesophageal, stomach, and colon cancer. 

One of the problems with the modern research involving garlic is that no standard product is used. The results therefore cannot be compared directly and some studies have even shown no actual effect.

And now a multidisciplinary research team in South Africa are adding fresh evidence to support the medicinal value of garlic.

Professor Sid Cywes, a former paediatric surgeon at University of Cape Town was having trouble hybridizing his orchids seeds. The trouble was a fungal infection in his culture medium. Mr Peter De Wet, a chief research technologist and Prof Cywes hatched a plan that entailed a dose of garlic. To their astonishment administering garlic to their orchid culture medium killed the mould. They then went on to test garlic's ability to combat the yeast Candida. At that time one of Prof Cywe's patients, a baby at the Red Cross Hospital had a serious Candida infection down the entire length of its oesophagus and gastro-intestinal tract. A garlic solution added to the baby's milk cured the child within 48 hours. 

Since then about thirty very sick infants, where broad spectrum antibiotics failed to bring improvement, have been given fresh allicin enterally. The allicin treatment brought about a significant success. However, this was not a controlled clinical study.

One of the active ingredients in garlic is a compound called allicin. On crushing fresh garlic, an enzyme called alliinase is released which rapidly converts the odorless compound alliin into allicin bearing the typical odor of garlic. Allicin is highly unstable and rapidly converts to other sulfur-compounds such as ajoene. It is however allicin and ajoene which have been the main subject of research. These compounds block the enzymes which are necessary for metabolism of the micro-organisms. They have been shown to inhibit the growth of more than 23 organisms. A very interesting point is that no resistance to allicin has been found up to date.

Dr Daniel Sidler's interest started when he tested garlic against the bacteria Helicobacter pylori and had tremendous success. Allicin has also been shown to inhibit Campylobacter- universally recognized as the most common cause of gastro-enteritis in very young children of low-income families. These findings are of much interest as bacteria including Helicobacter and Campylobacter are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. 

This multidisciplinary research team is trying to place this work on a scientific footing and have therefore synthesized allicin and recently ajoene in collaboration with Prof Roger Hunter from the University of Cape Town's Chemistry department. Three partly financed protocols are under way. 

One of the major selling points of garlic is that it is cheap. "My philosophy is to have a product which is affordable for patients on the African continent. At the end everybody could just crush garlic at home and take it like that," says Dr Sidler. And while we await the results of this research I for one will be doing just what the doctor ordered. 

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