Christa Sgobba wrote in Silver Sneakers for Tivity Healthy that leaning in for a close conversation after a garlic-filled meal? Not a great idea. Skipping the pungent vegetable just to avoid that pesky garlic breath? Also not smart.
“There are many health benefits relating to garlic,” says Maxine Smith, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. In fact, it may affect nearly every part of your body.
Whether or not you get all the health benefits of garlic, however, depends on how you prepare and cook it. For best results, chop, mince, slice, or mash the garlic—and then let it rest for 10 minutes before exposing it to heat. Crushing garlic triggers a chemical reaction that boosts the concentrations of certain healthy compounds, according to the American Chemical Society. Heat shuts down this reaction.
After letting it sit, you can then sauté, bake, or fry the garlic as you normally would. If you eat garlic raw, like in pesto, hummus, or homemade salad dressings, you can skip this 10-minute rule and still reap the benefits.
But don’t expect garlic alone to be a cure-all, Smith says. “Foods work together to promote health.” (See: The New Food Pyramid for Older Adults.)
Instead, consider the following health boons an added bonus of mincing some garlic into your favorite meal. And if you want to take garlic supplements instead—which is what’s used in most studies on garlic—make sure to talk to your doctor first about any possible interactions with your current meds.
Garlic Benefit #1: It Helps Control Blood Pressure
A meta-analysis of 20 studies published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that garlic can help reduce blood pressure, especially if it’s already high to begin with. In fact, another study from Australia found that garlic supplements, particularly aged garlic extract, can lower blood pressure to a similar magnitude as standard medications, or about 10 mmHg systolic and 8 mmHg diastolic.
There are a few reasons why this may happen, explains Barbara Delage, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist at the Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. For one, garlic may trigger the production of nitric oxide in your body, a molecule vital for healthy functioning of blood vessels. “Nitric oxide promotes vasodilation—the process by which your blood vessels widen—which decreases blood pressure,” Delage says.
It’s also possible that other compounds in garlic can interfere with the production of molecules that make your blood vessels constrict, which raises blood pressure, she says.
An added bonus: If you’re using garlic to flavor your dishes, you may be less likely to reach for salt, which can increase fluid retention and raise blood pressure.
Garlic Benefit #2: It Eases Inflammation
Certain compounds in garlic, especially allicin—an enzyme responsible for its pungent odor—can help ease inflammation, Smith says. They work by blunting the production of pro-inflammatory compounds and enhancing anti-inflammatory compounds, she explains.
That’s good news, considering some experts believe inflammation is a factor in virtually every disease and condition we face as we get older, from cancer to arthritis to diabetes.
One study from India found that people with type 2 diabetes who took garlic supplements along with their metformin medication for 12 weeks experienced a greater reduction of C-reactive protein levels—a marker of inflammation—than those who took metformin alone.
Taking an aged garlic supplement provides the highest concentration of bioavailable compounds, but studies have also shown that fresh garlic can provide subtle benefits. Just remember to allow fresh garlic to rest for 10 minutes before exposing it to heat.
Garlic Benefit #3: It Makes Cold Season Less Miserable
Garlic may not help you prevent a cold, but it could make your time with the bug a little less uncomfortable. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition found that while people who took aged garlic supplements during cold season caught just as many colds as those who didn’t, they reported fewer symptoms and less disruption to their daily functioning.
“Garlic has shown to strengthen the activity of immune cells,” Smith says. In the aforementioned study, aged garlic allowed for better multiplication of natural killer cells, which help defend against viral infections.
Garlic Benefit #4: It’s Good for Your Joints
People who eat the most alliums—garlic and related foods like onions, shallots, and leeks—are less likely to experience osteoarthritis of the hip, according to a study in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.
The researchers believe the connection may be due to a compound in garlic called diallyl disulphide, which can inhibit the production of an inflammatory protein that damages cartilage.
Garlic Benefit #5: It May Help You Lose Weight
A common mistake people make when trying to lose weight: They forget condiments can be calorie bombs. Many store-bought sauces and dressings are also packed with added sugars and fat. Garlic, on the other hand, provides a much bigger bang for your calorie buck.
Just two tablespoons of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing, for instance, will set you back 140 calories and 14 grams of fat. And the same amount of Kraft Honey Barbecue Sauce delivers 12 grams of sugar, which is nearly half of the recommended daily limit of added sugars for women, according to the American Heart Association.
Two cloves of garlic come in at less than 10 calories, making them the better choice for packing in flavor without packing on pounds. “A little goes a long way,” says Smith. To easily add garlic to recipes, she recommends investing in a good garlic press.
Beyond this simple substitution, one Korean study found a promising connection between garlic and weight control. Researchers fed mice a fattening diet for eight weeks to plump them up, then served them the same diet supplemented with 2 percent or 5 percent garlic for another seven weeks.
The addition of garlic reduced the mice’s weights and fat stores—the more garlic, the bigger the weight reduction. It also lessened the effects of the unhealthy diet on their blood and liver values.