The healing garlic is not a myth! One of the oldest cultivated plants on Earth, garlic has been regarded for thousands of years and much appreciated for its medicinal properties as noticed through empirical use. The objective of this review is to briefly examine the medical uses of garlic throughout the ages and cultures. First will have a look at the ancient medical and literary texts that talked about the healing properties of the garlic.
The garlic – the early days
Garlic has been in use for such a long time that one cannot pinpoint with certainty its place of origin. Various sources consider that garlic originated in western China from around the Tien Shan Mountains to Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan; from there it spread first to the Old World and then to the New World.
According to different sources quoted by The Cambridge World History of Food, the cultivation of garlic in Western Europe is usually thought to have been stimulated by the Crusaders’ contacts with East in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. However, much earlier, Charlemagne (724-814) listed garlic in his Capitulare de Villis and mentioned it as of Italian origin.
The Spaniards are responsible for introducing the garlic to the Americas. In Mexico, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) apparently grew it, and by 1604, it was said in Peru that “the Indians esteem garlic above all the roots of Europe”.
By 1775, the Choctaw Indians of North America were cultivating garlic. By the nineteenth century, American writers mentioned garlic as among their garden esculents. It is also known that garlic grew wild in southwest Siberia and spread through southern Europe down to Sicily.
The garlic family
Along with onions, leeks and shallots, garlic is a species in the plant family named Alliaceae. Garlic is low in calories and very rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and Manganese. It also contains trace amounts of various other nutrients such as Selenium, Fiber and decent amounts of calcium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin B1. Garlic also contains antioxidants that protect against cell damage and aging.
There are more than 100 varieties of garlic grown worldwide, but they are generally split in two major types. There are two major types of garlic (Allium sativum), hard-necks (Ophioscorodon) and soft-necks (Sativum), each one have its own varieties and sub-varieties:
- Soft-neck garlic is most commonly seen garlic in grocery store. Its names derives from the multiple layers of creamy white or bright papery parchment covering the bulb and continuing up the neck.
- Artichoke garlic (e.g. Applegate, California Early, California Late, Chamiskuri, Galiano, Italian Purple, Red Torch etc.) and silverskin garlic (e.g. Chet’s Italian Red, Inchelium, Kettle River Giant, Polish White, Creole etc.)
- Hard-necked varieties are often much easier to peel than their soft-necked cousins.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is another member of the Allium clan, elephant garlic, may look like a good buy because it is so large, but its flavor is very bland and tastes more like a leek; in fact, its flavor is slight and its healing properties are inferior to those of other garlic varieties.
Garlic – Romania’s strongest natural antibiotic
Just as in many other parts of the world, garlic has been used for centuries not just a great condiment for traditional dishes, but also as an efficient medicinal plant which can treat a series of health problems. In Romania it is said that garlic is our strongest natural antibiotic and there are many natural remedies made using garlic used for fighting back coughs, cold or bronchitis. When used in different mixes or tinctures (with water, alcohol, ginger, vinegar, oil, etc), garlic can help with hypertension, liver or rheumatic pains, cleaning blood vessels, or regenerates hair growing. A potion especially prepared of garlic and vinegar is a great natural disinfectant for scratches, small wounds or cuts.
For Romanians, just as in the case of other nations of the planet, garlic has very strong connection with the world of magic and religious holidays, acting as a repellant for repellant for vampires and evil spirits. To find out more about the Romanian traditions and superstitions related to garlic, you can read two of my previous articles: The Magical Garlic and Romanian traditions on Saint Andrew’s Day
Antiquity’s healing garlic
It was the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) who said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Although he was not referring to garlic, I thought this would be a great quote to use as the Ancient Greece texts have a generous number of references regarding the use of herbs and condiments used to treat various health problems, and garlic make no exception.
As already said, garlic has been used for thousands of years for its medicinal properties and not surprisingly, it all started with Ancient Egypt. Vodex Ebers (1500 BC), an Egyptian medical text, mentions 22 different treatments which included garlic prescribed for abnormal growths, parasites, circulatory ailments, insect infestation and general malaise; garlic macerated in oil for was used by Egyptian Copt Christians for skin diseases and for the new mothers after childbirth to stimulate milk production. Assyrians also used garlic as an antibiotic and to pack in rotten teeth cavities.
As you read in my previous article, The Magical Garlic, Prophet Mohammed did not favor garlic consumption, yet he does recommend it to be applied externally on the sting of the scorpion or the bite of the viper.
The Greeks – tens of medical uses of garlic
Known as the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates recommended garlic for pulmonary ailments, to aid in the release of the placenta, to treat sores, as a cleansing or purgative agent, and for abdominal growths, especially uterine.
Theophrastus (371-287 BC), a brilliant Greek connoisseur of alchemy, biology, physics, ethics and metaphysic, reported that garlic was used by workers harvesting roots of the poisonous plant hellebore to prevent the ill effects of the toxic plant.
In his Historica Naturalis, the Greek physician Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), also recommended garlic for 23 different ailments which treated toothache, hemorrhoids, consumption, animal bites (including shrew and scorpion), bruises, ear aches, tapeworms, epilepsy, insomnia, sore throat, poor circulation, lack of desire and neutralizing the effects of the poisonous plants aconite and henbane.
Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 AD), the Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist, author of De Materia Medica and chief physician of Roman emperor Nero’s army, recommended garlic to thin mucus and relieve coughing, to expel worms, for protection against viper and dog bites, to stimulate menstrual flow and to heal ulcers and leprosy.
The Jews – “the garlic eaters”
The first Biblical reference to the garlic is when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and complained to Moses: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.” (Numbers 11:5).
Jewish regard themselves as “garlic eaters” or “garlic munchers”. In his book called “Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and The Science”, Eric Block says that “garlic was so indelibly associated with Jews that the Nazis issued buttons of garlic plants to demonstrate the wearer’s ardent anti-Semitism and that ‘the mere mention of garlic by a Nazi orator caused crowd to howl with fury and hatred.”
Levi Cooper from The Jerusalem Post, also reports that eating garlic was so part of Jewish identity that the Mishna rules that if someone pronounces a vow prohibiting benefit “from those who eat garlic,” the one who pronounced the vow may not derive benefit from a Jew. The Mishnah (Mishna), the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions, also known as the “Oral Torah.”
The Talmud as well as other Jewish sages mention several qualities of garlic: it satisfies hunger, it warms the body, it illuminates one’s face, it increases seed, it kills parasites in the intestines; garlic also affects a person’s mental health as it gladdens the heart and therefore eliminates jealousy.
China – garlic as medicine and food preservative
The use of garlic in China dates back thousands of years. It was prescribed for removing poisons from the body, preventing plague, supporting respiration, helping digestion, treating diarrhea, fatigue, headache and insomnia, controlling worm infestations. It may have been used as a treatment for depression and to improve male potency. Chinese also used garlic as a food preservative, believing that it can eliminate the noxious effects of putrid meat and fish and to treat unwholesome water.
India – garlic as “a poor man’s gold”
In India, garlic is known as “a poor man’s gold” due to its healing qualities. 3000 years before Christ, Charak, the father of Ayurvedic medicine, stated that garlic strengthens the heart and maintains blood fluidity. Garlic is extensively used in the three leading medical or healing traditions, the Tibbi, Unani and Ayurvedic. Just like in other parts of the world, applied externally garlic helped heal cuts, bruises and infections. Garlic was also appreciate for both its anti-aging (“Rasayana”) and aphrodisiac qualities.
There are also other medical Indian texts that talk about the use of garlic in treating various health problems:
- Charaka-Samhita (written around 400-200 BC) recommends garlic for the treatment of heart disease and arthritis;
- The Bower Manuscript (300-550 AD) mentions that garlic is used to treat weakness, fatigue, infections, infestations, worms, and digestive problems;
- Dymock, in Pharmacographia Indica (1890), reports that garlic was used to treat many ailments such as coughs, mucus, gonorrhea, colic, fevers, swellings, rheumatism, worm infestation, hysteria, flatulence, sciatica, and heart disease;
Garlic – strength & courage
We could easily say that garlic was one of the earliest performance enhancing substances. A portion of garlic was daily given to pyramid workers as it was believed to improve their strength and stamina. Roman sailors and soldiers also loved the garlic for giving them strength and courage. Just like the Egyptians, Greek athletes and workers used garlic to increase strength. The story goes as far as saying that the Olympian athletes chowed down on the fragrant herb before they competed.
Garlic as aphrodisiac
Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle was one of the first to mention the aphrodisiac qualities of the garlic. Chinese doctors prescribed garlic for men with “intimacy problems” and grooms were told to place cloves of garlic in their buttonholes to ensure a happy honeymoon. Also in Hinduism and Jainism garlic is thought to stimulate and warm the body and to increase one’s desires. In some Buddhist traditions, garlic, along with the other five “pungent spices”, is understood to stimulate sexual and aggressive drives to the detriment of meditation practice.
An interesting Biblical reference to garlic’s aphrodisiac qualities is to the moment Jews returned to Israel after the Babylonian exile and Ezra decreed several ordinances to perpetuate Judaism: the reading of the Torah on Monday and Thursday (as well as the Sabbath) and, among others, the requirement to eat garlic on Friday nights “because garlic served as an aid to passion and fertility and so would enhance the marital relations that couples were encouraged to enjoy as part of Jewish Sabbath observance.”
On the other hand, it is for this potential of inflaming passions that in the Mahayana Buddhism, monks and nuns were not allowed to consume garlic or other pungent spices such as chili; they were regarded as being “earthly pleasures” and viewed as promoting aggression due to their spiciness and pungency. At times it was forbidden for Tibetan monks, widows, and adolescents to consume the stimulating herb.
Henri IV – The King of Garlic
The French King Henry IV (1533-1610) is known throughout the history not just as “Le Bon Roi” (The Good King), or “Le Vert Gallant” (The Green Gallant), but also “Le Roi d’Ail” (The King of Garlic) and that’s not without reason.
To protect himself from disease, as well as from evil spirits, Henry IV was given what some call the ancestral “Bearn baptism” which consisted of rubbing a clove of garlic on the newborn’s lips and giving him/her to drink a drop of the local wine called the Jurancon.
It is said that Henry IV ate so much garlic every day that he exuded garlic from every pore and his breath could “fell an ox at twenty paces.”
Given the two wives and over 70 alleged mistresses, one can only hope they favored garlic’s aphrodisiacal properties more than its smell. Henriette d’Entragues, one of the king’s many female conquests, was said to spray him with perfume to keep the “smell of carrion” at bay.
Healing garlic in the Middle Age
During the Middle Age period, the influential Medical School at Salerno classified garlic as a “hot food” to be consumed in winter to protect against pulmonary or breathing disorders. It was also consumed with beverages to alleviate constipation and recommended to workers to prevent heatstroke. In Britain it was believed to be, either by itself by itself, as a ‘simple’, or mixed with other herbs, one of the cures for leprosy. Lepers were often called “pilgarlics”, as they were made to peel their own garlic, certainly a mark of identity and a means of segregation!
The Cambridge World History of Food, also mentions that: “St.Hildergard (1089-1179), a German abbess, mystic, and scientific observer who continued the focus on garlic as medicine by specifically mentioning it in her Physica as remedy against jaundice. The herbal doctor Paracelsus (Phillipus Aureolus Paracelsus, 1494-1541) and Lonicerus (Adam Lonitzer, 1528-1586) emphasized the antitoxic properties of garlic and its effectiveness against internal worms. At about the same time, Italia physician and botanist Matthiolus (Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1500-1577) was recommending garlic against stomach chills, colics, and flatulence.”
The Renaissance’s garlic healing
In the years of the Renaissance, Pietro Mattioli of Siena (1501-1577 AC), a well-respected Italian physician prescribed garlic for digestive disorders, worms, kidney disorders, and to mothers during difficult childbirth. Garlic was also recommended for constipation, animal bites, toothache, dropsy, loss of appetite and humoral asthmas.
It is also said that in 1762, during the great plague of Marseille, four thieves arrested for looting were granted pardon in exchange for revealing the secret of their immunity to the disease. It was a potion made with garlic, which became known as the “Vinaigre des 4 voleurs” (Four Thieves Vinegar). At the same time, the French gravediggers drank a crushed infusion of garlic which they believed to protect them from the plague.
Garlic and the modern medical history
In the modern medical history of United States, there are several references to the garlic’s healing properties, yet I’ll first mention the Shakers, who next to to the Native Americans are considered among the first herbalists next who held all the medicinal knowledge of the American native plant species. They used garlic as an expectorant, stimulant and tonic.
The well known microbiologist Louis Pasteur was the first to describe the antibacterial effect of onion and garlic juices. Back in 1858 he reported that 1 mm of raw garlic juice was as effective as 60 mg. of penicillin in killing bacteria.
First published in 1859, John C. Guns’ “Gunn’s new domestic physician: Or, Home book of health” recommended garlic as a diuretic, for treatment of infections, as a general tonic and for asthma and other pulmonary disorders. Few years later, in 1877, John King’s American Dispensatory recommended garlic as a stomach tonic, for children’s diseases, coughs, hoarseness, catarrh, whooping-cough, and worms.
During the First World War, both British and Russian soldiers used diluted garlic solutions to prevent infections and gangrene. That’s how garlic came to be known as “the Russian penicillin”. The 21st edition of the U.S. Dispensatory (1926) reported that garlic was used in pulmonary complaints such as bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma.
Garlic healing – the scientific studies
Today scientific studies tend to confirm many of the beliefs of ancient cultures regarding garlic, defining mechanisms of action and exploring garlic’s potential for disease prevention and treatment, despite of the skepticism displayed by some members of the medical community. There are thousands of studies done across countries proving that various compounds contained in the garlic, not just allicin as initially thought, contribute to a series of diseases and medical problems such as: sickness and common cold, various types of cancer, cholesterol, hypertension, warts, skin problems etc. For a mode detailed review of the latest garlic medical properties scientific research, please read When science praises the garlic.
Preliminary conclusion about medical use of garlic
Praised for its magical and healing qualities, yet both celebrated and condemned by the belief that it could inflame the passions, garlic has been regarded across cultures as one man’s most powerful natural medicine. It was what I would call the panacea of the common man. Just as the Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen of Pergamon (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), one of the most accomplished medical medical researchers of Antiquity, garlic was the rustic’s “Theriac” or Heal All medicine. When considering the scientifically proven results of contemporary medical studies regarding garlic’s medicinal properties, clearly we cannot name all-mighty, yet it definitely of great help for our well-being.
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