It’s garlic planting season again. It catches me by surprise every year because I’m just simply not in planting mode in mid-October. Which means that every year in February I’m out there trying to hack a hole in the frozen ground to plant some garlic, realize that’s a dumb idea, and then go back to it in late March. This year I added to the dumbness by trying to mulch my garlic (embedded in half frozen ground) with hay rather than straw (in case you don’t know the difference, hay has seeds in it, straw does not) which meant I spent the entire spring and summer pulling grass out of my garlic patch. And then when I pull the garlic up in October as I did last week it’s very nice but not as large as I was hoping for. So this year I’m making a Halloween resolution to plant garlic this month, and perhaps scare away some vampires for good measure.
Why do we love garlic? Let me count the ways. Garlic has been researched for its health promoting properties to regulate blood sugar, blood lipids, and even treat cancer, in addition to being an indispensable addition to almost everything I cook. Today, however, I am going to focus on its role in preventing and treating infections.
As I’ve mentioned before, a primary health focus for the autumn months is immunity, and this year colds, flus, tonsillitis and all their buddies all seem to be starting up earlier than ever. When fighting viruses such as cold and flu, garlic has been shown to help prevent these illnesses. When taken internally (aka eaten), garlic activates immune cells called T cells and NK cells to help the body fight off viruses before we get sick. The primary active constituents that help garlic be such a powerful immune booster are called alliin and allicin; these are also the source of garlic’s pungent and wonderful scent. Alliin is enzymatically converted to allicin when garlic is crushed or chopped so swallowing whole cloves won’t do you as much good.
Garlic has also been shown to kill bacteria and fungi, which can be useful for strep and other forms of tonsillitis. In open wounds, garlic helps to prevent the formation of what are called biofilms. Biofilms are a handy little trick that bacteria have of banding together to make a wall around themselves and prevent our immune cells or antimicrobial agents from getting in–sort of like bacterial armor. Because it can prevent this, garlic applied topically can prevent a wound from getting infected.
In Chinese medicine, garlic is seen as a very hot herb; it gets your circulation moving and boosts your temperature to more effectively fight and get rid of bugs. Generally in this tradition garlic is not recommended for kids to eat every day because they are so warm to begin with. However, garlic is seen as a wonderful medicine for children with colds and flu. In his book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford recommends making a sandwich out of thin slices of apple with a slice of garlic between to help prevent and treat colds for kids.
Because of this quality of heating the body and helping to move illness out of the system, garlic can also be used to treat coughs, particularly those that have settled in and been hanging around for too long. One of my mentors Bill Mitchell, ND specifically used it for “excessive, irritating, and persistant coughs.” His prescription in this case is to chop 2 cloves and swallow them in a slug of water four times per day for an adult. This would be sure to exorcise any cough, demon, or vampire without fail.
With this in mind, get out there and celebrate at your local garlic festival, make a batch of pesto, or roast a head to spread on some crackers with brie. Your immune system will thank you for it. As for me, I will be in the garden digging and planning for next year’s harvest.