Does Garlic Reduce Your Risk of Cancer?

A Look at Anti-Cancer Alliums

Garlic
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Garlic is thought to have cancer prevention properties related to its antibacterial and antioxidant effects in the body, and population studies suggest this theory is true. Benefits have been found with garlic in relation to cancers of the stomach, colon, esophagus, pancreas, breast, and prostate, and in some cases up to a 50 percent reduced risk has been found. Components of garlic such as allicin, flavonoids, and allyl sulfides all contribute to different mechanisms that reduce risk. That said, understanding how to purchase, prepare, and cook garlic is important lest you lose those important phytonutrients between the grocery store and your plate.

Garlic Basics

Garlic and onions have been a part of cooking since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. The fragrant garlic plant has been called by many names, including "the bulb of the tree of life" (for its anti-aging properties) and "the stinking rose" (even though it is related to lilies and not roses).

Garlic has been credited with the power to enhance your sex life, give endurance to athletes, and ward off vampires. But, more importantly, the health benefits of garlic include its natural antibiotic and antioxidant properties, both of which may help prevent cancer.

Garlic is a vegetable in the Allium family of bulb-shaped plants. It grows in several sizes and colors and it can be planted alongside other vegetables as a natural pesticide.

You'll know where the garlic is planted long before you see it, as its strong, sulfuric fragrance will declare its location very distinctly. Although dining on garlic-flavored foods may give you "garlic breath," doing so can improve your health by lowering high blood pressure and bad cholesterol.

Health Benefits

When looking at potential benefits of foods in relation to cancer prevention, it's helpful to look both at population studies (do people who eat a large amount of the food have a lower rate of cancer) and the possible mechanism by which they work.

Cancer Reduction/Prevention

It's certainly not possible to prevent all cancers, but population studies have found a reduced risk of the following cancers in people who consume more garlic:

  • Stomach cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer

Anti-Cancer Compounds

Garlic has natural antioxidants and is anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and antiviral. The knobs and cloves of garlic contain high levels of sulfur, flavonoids, and selenium. And, when it is crushed, chopped, or bruised, garlic produces the compound allicin.

It is garlic's antibacterial properties that may help to prevent cancer as well as its ability to enhance genetic repair, slow down cell proliferation, and prevent the formation of carcinogenic substances in the body.

Three of the cancer-fighting compounds in garlic include:

  • Allicin: A powerful plant compound that is antibiotic and anti-fungal. This substance is strong enough to cause blisters if you get too much on your skin, but allicin fades quickly after it is produced. Cooking speeds the breakdown of allicin, and microwave cooking appears to kill it and destroy the health benefits.
  • Flavonoids: Aromatic plant compounds that are considered to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds fight cancer by preventing cell damage.
  • Selenium and allyl sulfides: Both of these plant chemicals may be anti-mutagens, or substances that prevent cancer by blocking damage to cells' DNA or stimulating the body to repair damaged DNA.

How to Use and Buy Garlic for Health

You can use garlic in several ways to boost your health, but the greatest benefit will come from fresh, uncooked garlic. If you prefer to try other forms of garlic, there's garlic essential oil, garlic oil macerate, garlic powder, and garlic extract, but the benefits of these products isn't certain.

If you want to receive the benefits of garlic in your diet, it's important to not only find garlic in the store, but understand the best ways to buy, prepare, and cook the cloves.

How Much Garlic Should You Eat?

Unlike some studies looking at cancer prevention and foods, it may only take a small amount of garlic to receive its cancer reduction effects. Even one clove of garlic daily has been linked with a reduced risk of some cancers.

To Supplement or Not

Garlic supplements are also available if you want to avoid "garlic breath." However, be warned that the allicin contained in these supplements varies greatly and will be much less powerful than that which is released from a fresh garlic clove. In general and when at all possible, it's best to eat foods rather than take supplements to get your phytonutrients.

Preparing and Purchasing Garlic

Preparing fresh garlic is ideal. Though pre-minsed jars of garlic are convenient and tasty, only a small fraction of the phytonutrients survive over time. Allicin is released when garlic is exposed to air, so it's important to chop or use your garlic press and then allow the garlic to sit exposed to air for around 10 minutes before adding it to a salad or using it in cooking.

When buying fresh garlic, consider the following:

Good Garlic Bad Garlic
Solid, firm heads Hollow or soft heads
Even color of outer skins Mottled outer skins (mold)
Head has weight Head is lightweight
Cloves are plump Cloves are shriveled
No green sprouts or leaves Green sprouts or leaves

Cooking with Garlic

After buying and preparing good garlic, it's important to not destroy the benefits. It appears that microwave cooking does just that, with most of the healthy phytonutrients being destroyed. Better options can include lightly sauteing, steaming, or baking.

Garlic is Only One Component of a Cancer Prevention Diet/Lifestyle

While there seems to be at least some good evidence that garlic may lower cancer risk, using garlic alone is reminiscent of fad diets that fail. Experts in nutrition recommend eating a "rainbow of foods" to ensure you get a variety of healthy phytonutrients. Combine garlic with cruciferous vegetables, fruits, dietary fiber, and regular exercise to maximize your health and prevention strategies.

A Word From Verywell

You don't have to chew on one clove of garlic a day by itself to get the anticancer benefits from this fragrant bulb. Just chop or finely dice garlic and sprinkle it on a salad, a thick slice of bread, over a fish fillet, or on your cooked vegetables. And if you notice that vampires avoid you, your daily jog gets easier and your sex life improves, well, that's good too.

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