The spice of life

clove

All stewed up over garlic
Sure, goldenseal, Saint Johnswort and echinacea have champions among advocates of herbal remedies. goodbye vampiresBut when these folks talk seriously about using botanical products to prevent or cure disease, garlic is first among equals.

If you read the press, you have heard that extracts of the lowly bulb can treat earaches, stomachaches, high blood pressure, cancer, insomnia, and even shortages of "nutrition and energy". You have read that it's the ideal remedy for balky automatic transmissions (we're kidding!) and racing ponies (they're not!).

Don't ask us to judge the validity of these outlandish claims for garlic, a relative of onion that's sometimes called the "stinking rose." But we've found evidence that the chemical that gives crushed garlic its peculiar aroma may be able to duke the daylights out of some bacteria and parasites.

An old remedy
Microbiologist David Mirelman, vice-president for technology transfer at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, became interested in garlic more than a decade ago. For 5,000 years, he says, the Chinese have treated worms and other intestinal parasites with garlic extract.

Mirelman suspected there was something behind the long history, and after years of chemical detective work he traced the antibiotic activity to allicin, the "perfumed" chemical in crushed garlic. Working with Meir Wilchek, Talia Miron and Aron Rabinkov, he perfected the first method for making large amounts of pure allicin.

The ability to work with a single chemical, rather than the soup of chemicals found in real garlic, allowed scientists to understand and test whether allicin could produce the many benefits trumpeted by the bulb's many friends. For example, researchers found that allicin-gobbling mice had a 50 percent reduction in plaque in the body's largest artery. Plaque -- AKA atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries -- is a major cause of heart disease.

Mirelman and others have found that allicin can inhibit or kill many common human pathogens:

bullet Fungi (including Candida and Aspergillis)

bullet Bacteria (including the diarrhea-causing Shigella and Escherichia coli; Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the cause of tuberculosis; and antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus)

bullet Protozoa (including Giardia and Leishmania)

bullet Parasites (such as Entamoeba, a genus of parasites that includes the cause of amebic dysentery, an intestinal disease that affects millions around the world).


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