Garlic could be the next "it" herb if consumers latch on to recent research presented at a pair of medical conferences this spring.
The bulbous herb cannot only prevent but also reverse the signs of arteriosclerosis, according to a study of approximately 200 people using a specific formulation of Kwai garlic extract. The research was presented at the American Heart Association's 6th Annual Conference on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology in Washington, D.C.
"That [garlic] is able not only to reduce the buildup of plaque but also to reverse existing plaque is really revolutionary," said Joerg Gruenwald, Ph.D., president of Berlin's Phytopharm Consulting and author of the Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine (Medical Economics Co., 2000). Arterial plaque formation can lead to heart disease and strokes.
Because of the strength of the results and garlic's history of safety, he said, several principals from the herbal supplements industry would seek a health claim from the Food and Drug Administration. "FDA should look at our data and give garlic a real health claim in the reduction of risk for coronary heart disease," he said.
Dr. Gunter Siegel, director of the department of physiology at Charité University of Medicine in Berlin, found that a low dose of Kwai garlic inhibits the formation of nanoplaque—the substance that develops in the earliest stages of arteriosclerotic disease and eventually clogs arterial walls—by 15 percent to 40 percent. It reduced the size of plaques that did develop by 5 percent to 20 percent. Garlic also reduced calcium binding—another factor in plaque development—by 50 percent. "Normally," Siegel said, the good cholesterol "HDL helps to hinder nanoplaque in the same way garlic acts. … So garlic can be called a phyto-HDL."
A smaller study of 19 people, presented at the 2005 Garlic Symposium at Georgetown University, showed similarly promising results. Those who took Kyolic aged garlic extract developed atherosclerosis more slowly than they would have without intervention. They lowered their LDL (bad cholesterol), total cholesterol and homocysteine, all considered markers for heart disease.
But not everyone agrees that those are the factors that should be addressed "We're all chasing the wrong stick," said Bill Sardi, a health journalist. "Alternative medicine shouldn't be doing what conventional medicine is doing, which is making the liver malfunction so it lowers cholesterol." Statin drugs, one of conventional medicine's main avenues of cholesterol reduction, act on enzymes, which are made in the liver. Garlic, at least in Siegel's study, acts on the lining of arterial cell walls.
Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Sardi added, "Cholesterol is not a risk factor for heart disease." He said that as many people have heart attacks with cholesterol counts under 200 [often used as the benchmark for high cholesterol] as do those with levels above 300. "The only two proven risk factors are the triglycerides and the HDL." To prove his point, Sardi recounted that when statin drugs were first introduced they reduced cholesterol by 12 percent to 18 percent, "but they never lowered the mortality rates." Red wine, on the other hand, has been shown to increase HDL, and vitamin C can strengthen artery walls, preventing their collapse. Both measures would drastically reduce cardiovascular deaths, Sardi said.
"It's an interesting theory, and theoretically sound," said Dr. Fred Pescatore, medical director of the AHCC Research Association in Rye, N.Y. "Most of us who practice complementary medicine think that cholesterol in and of itself isn't necessarily the issue. It's the inflammation that's going on in the endothelial cell wall lining." Pescatore also operates The Centers For Integrative and Complementary Medicine in New York and Dallas.
"The beauty about what Dr. Siegel found with Kwai is it is going after the endothelium, looking at reduced plaque formation," Pescatore said. For that same reason, lowering cholesterol with garlic is not damaging, he said.
Another study, also presented at the AHA conference, found that fiber both lowers LDL and raises HDL in people with type 2 diabetes, who are at increased risk for heart disease. In the 78 people studied, LDL fell by an average of 28.7 percent, HDL rose 21.8 percent, total cholesterol fell 14.4 percent and triglycerides dropped 4 percent during the 90-day study. "This approach is virtually free of side effects," said Dr. Peter Verdegem, the lead author. "It opens up an alternative treatment option."
Chicken soup for the herbalist's soul?
Traditionally, garlic has been used as an antibacterial and antiviral agent, to decrease high blood sugar, boost metabolism, inhibit growth and formation of cancer cells, prevent inflammation, and alleviate allergies and asthma. "It's one of the most versatile plants," Pescatore said. "Some call it the chicken soup of the plant world."
The Georgetown conference addressed some of those other uses. A seven-year study involving 3,000 participants looked at garlic's effect on stomach cancer. People with the highest intake of allium-containing vegetables such as garlic had only 40 percent of the risk of gastric cancers as those who rarely ate them. Other studies presented found that consuming aged garlic extract resulted in fewer colorectal tumors and decreased size of tumors.
Experts on the Kwai panel touted garlic's safety. "Its use has been documented over 5,000 years," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council based in Austin, Texas. Additionally, ABC has evaluated data from more than 30 clinical trials involving more than 45,000 subjects. Blumenthal noted that aside from rare cases of stomach upset—"and of course there is the characteristic change in the odor of skin and breath"—no adverse side effects have been reported, save some interactions with specific medications, including the blood thinner Coumadin, the anti-inflammatory drug Indomethacin, and insulin. "Even the World Health Organization recognizes the general safety of garlic when used medicinally."
Unfortunately, Pescatore noted, to derive its health benefits, a person would have to eat enormous quantities of garlic daily. The most efficient way of getting adequate and standardized amounts—2,400 to 3,400 mg per day in divided doses—is by taking a nutritional supplement of garlic extract, he said. "To ask people to eat that much garlic is impossible … If you're going to ask people to do that 24/7, you're going to have real compliance issues." Many garlic extracts also are smell-free, Pescatore added. He emphasized the importance of using a product that has "all the components of the raw bulb, not just the allicin components."
But journalist Sardi disagrees that garlic supplements have the same effectiveness as the bulb itself. "The vast majority of the literature on garlic involves allicin," he said. "Garlic has no allicin in it and only has it when it's crushed," due to an enzymatic reaction—so most garlic pills have little or no allicin in them, he insisted.
"Kwai is not an allicin product," and yet Siegel's research with it yielded dramatic results, Pescatore said. "It's the usual thing that Americans do—try to isolate the one component of things" rather than derive the benefit from the whole food. Given the difficulty of eating innumerable cloves of raw garlic daily, he said, Kwai is as close to crushed bulbs as you can get.
Gruenwald suggested that people should begin taking garlic in their 20s or 30s, when arteriosclerotic plaque buildup is starting, but long before they feel any symptoms. "We believe that garlic really is a preventive measurement for heart disease."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 9, 12