Cardiovascular disease (CVD), especially in the form of heart attacks and strokes, is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the US and UK. Fortunately, it’s not something that has to blindside you. Research over the past 50 years has identified a number of risk factors, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and smoking, that will predict if you’re more or less likely to succumb to CVD.
Not surprisingly, Big Pharma has capitalised on their idea of ‘prevention’ – drugs to lower blood pressure or cholesterol. Addressing these risk factors alone (not the disease itself) has ballooned into a billion dollar industry.
In 2003, with much media fanfare, two British scientists suggested a novel and radical way to reduce the incidence of CVD. They called their invention the Polypill – a combination of five drugs and one nutrient designed to treat some of the major cardiovascular risk factors. Briefly, it would contain low doses of three blood pressure medications combined with a statin drug (to lower cholesterol and triglycerides), a low dose of aspirin (to thin the blood and reduce the risk of pathological clots forming), and folic acid (to reduce the level of homocysteine in the blood).
That kind of combination is radical enough by itself. But the most drastic and controversial aspect of what the British scientists proposed was that ALL people over the age of 55 should take the Polypill – regardless of their individual risks. They proposed that such an approach would reduce deaths from heart attacks and strokes by up to 80 per cent and prolong life expectancy on average by more than 10 years.
Healthy people taking drugs for the rest of their lives? This does not sound like a good idea to me. But if a natural substance could give you the same results – reducing the incidence of heart attacks and strokes by reducing your cardiovascular risk factors – that would be a different story. And that is exactly what garlic can do when it’s taken over a long period of time.
To understand this value of garlic, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many cardiovascular risk factors in addition to the ones that get the most publicity. It’s also important to know that garlic will only have a modest effect on many risk factors. However, when these small effects are multiplied across quite a number of risk factors, the result is a significant health benefit.
I should clarify here that I am referring to either fresh (uncooked) garlic in the diet or the herbal pills that mimic the effects of fresh garlic, where most of the clinical research exists.
The herbal tablets that mimic the effects of fresh garlic are called allicin-releasing. When a fresh clove of garlic is crushed, an amino acid known as alliin comes into contact with the enzyme alliinase. A chemical reaction results, which produces the strong-smelling phytochemical known as allicin. With allicin-releasing tablet products, this reaction is designed to take place in your small intestine. The best garlic products are checked to ensure that the production of allicin occurs to the right level (otherwise the product will not be effective).
Allicin-releasing garlic products have been shown to have the following effects on cardiovascular risk factors in human trials:
- Modestly reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels2
- Modestly reduce blood pressure
- Inhibit plaque build-up on the arteries, which is even more important than having good (HDL) cholesterol
- Inhibit the plaque-building properties of bad (LDL) cholesterol
- Slow down plaque build-up in people with diseased arteries
- Improve the elasticity of arteries
- Have a significant antioxidant effect in the blood
- Have a significant antiplatelet effect, which can even result in post-operative bleeding
- Lower fibrinogen and increase fibrinolytic activity
In case you’re not familiar with the terms fibrinogen and fibrinolytic activity, I wanted to explain why this particular benefit of garlic is so exciting. When we bleed, there are two main events that stop the bleeding. The first is the formation of a platelet plug, and the second is the formation of a clot. In order to form a clot, a protein precursor in the blood known as fibrinogen reacts to form a protein mesh known as fibrin. This fibrin mesh then traps red blood cells, which forms a clot. This is extremely beneficial when you’re bleeding. But if your body produces too much fibrinogen on its own you will have a tendency to form excess clots, which can block arteries and cause a heart attack or stroke.
That’s why it’s so important for your body to be able to counterbalance this activity. That’s where the fibrinolytic activity comes in. Fibrinolytic activity is the rate at which your body dissolves fibrin and is a failsafe mechanism to ensure against too much fibrin being inappropriately formed. By reducing the levels of fibrinogen (a recognised cardiovascular risk factor) and by increasing fibrinolytic activity, garlic will thereby decrease the risk of a clot inappropriately forming.
Mainstream doctors typically use aspirin and warfarin to accomplish this effect. Aspirin reduces the tendency of platelets to stick together, and warfarin reduces the tendency of forming blood clots. Both of these drugs are used to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks. But since they have severe side effects – most importantly, the risk of bleeding to death – they are only justified in serious disease.
To obtain the best health benefits from garlic you should consume one fresh (uncooked) clove every day or its equivalent in herbal pill form (this is about 800 to 1100mg of dry garlic powder). You’ll experience the most benefit when you combine garlic with an adequate folate intake and the appropriate dietary and lifestyle measures.To your better health,
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 9, Issue 2 • February 2015
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.