The Right Chemistry: The virtues of garlic

While garlic can be poisonous to vampires, it has a decidedly opposite effect on humans. It is the most widely used “health food” in the world.

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The night is cold and misty. The eerie silence is only broken by the occasional howl of a wolf. A perfect night for vampires! He prepares the crosses, sharpens the wooden stakes, and most importantly, he starts digging up the garlic! The peasants of Transylvania will tell you that vampires hate such things. Where do they get these ideas? Well, there may be some science behind this alluring folklore.

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The basis of the vampire legend may be a rare hereditary disease, known as iron deficiency porphyria. In this condition, the body cannot properly use iron to form the essential oxygen-carrying compound, hemoglobin. This leads to a waxy pallor, extreme sensitivity to sunlight, and receding gums, all hallmarks of a vampire. But what is the connection with garlic? It turns out that allyl disulfide, one of many compounds found in garlic, activates an enzyme that destroys old blood cells by removing iron from hemoglobin. So the garlic can destroy any viable hemoglobin the vampire still possesses. The problem is that you have to get the garlic into the vampire’s bloodstream. Inviting the vampire to sit down for a bowl of garlic soup won’t work. His diet is limited to human blood. Perhaps a potential victim can be persuaded to, for the greater good, load up on garlic and submit to the vampire’s passion. When he drinks his blood, he’ll get a good dose of garlic and hopefully succumb to its effects. In this way the complicated matter of the stake in the heart can be avoided.

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While garlic can be poisonous to vampires, it has a decidedly opposite effect on humans. In fact, it is the most widely used “health food” in the world. Over the years, in addition to its well-known anti-vampire effect, garlic has been recommended as a treatment for a variety of ailments, as well as a general tonic for the body. The Egyptians fed their slaves large doses to keep them strong and healthy, the ancient Greeks claimed that garlic would “open blockages” in the body, and lotions made from the bulb have long been used in India for washing wounds. and ulcers. More recently, an American foodie with the intriguing name of Adolphus Hohensee urged his followers to “cure low blood pressure, inhibit germs, and cleanse the blood and intestines” by using a clove of garlic as a suppository at night. The taste of garlic in the mouth upon waking was “proof” that the miracle substance had made its way through the body and had in fact cleansed the system.

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What does modern science say? Without a doubt, garlic juice has an antibacterial effect. The juice was used in both world wars as an antiseptic for the prevention of gangrene. The active ingredient appears to be allicin, the compound responsible for the smell of garlic. Allicin is the natural protective factor of garlic, protecting the bulb from attack by fungi, animals and insects. In fact, it is well known that mosquitoes are scared of garlic eaters. But then again, so do people. Allicin has been clinically tested as an antibiotic, but never made it to market due to the substance’s antisocial odor and the availability of much better antibiotics. However, it should be noted that four convicted criminals who were forced to bury the dead during an outbreak of plague in France in the 18th century proved to be immune to the disease. Credit was given to the mixture of garlic macerated in wine that they consumed. “Vinaire des quatre voleurs” is still available in France today.

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The garlic bulb has virtually no odor until it is cut or crushed. It is this physical manipulation that destroys the cells and leads to the release of the enzyme allinase, which converts the odorless compound alliin to the odorous allicin. The greatest amount of allicin is formed when garlic cloves are peeled and crushed. This is why some top cooks don’t use a garlic press, preferring instead to slice the cloves to impart just a hint of flavor. On the other hand, if we’re looking at the potential medicinal value of garlic, we want allicin, so grinding the cloves is necessary. But don’t cook them right away. The released enzyme takes about 15 minutes to do its job. If you throw the garlic into the pan right away, the heat will destroy the enzyme and with it some of the medicinal potential.

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The study of garlic as a medicine is complicated by the fact that, in addition to allicin, the bulb contains literally hundreds of compounds. Two of these are of particular interest due to their ability to interfere with the clotting action of the blood. Allyl methyl trisulfide, a notoriously difficult substance to isolate in quantity from garlic bulbs, can now be synthesized in the laboratory. A second compound, a non-odorous component of garlic known as ajoene, appears to have an even stronger antithrombotic effect. It also lends itself to laboratory synthesis and has the potential to find a place alongside aspirin, heparin, and coumadin as a commonly used anticoagulant drug. The presence of these compounds in garlic extracts, powders, pills, or lotions sold in health food stores is questionable. If you have to have a protective effect, you have to look for it in the consumption of fresh garlic, and in abundance. But then there is the problem of the smell of garlic, the sensation of heat, burning urine, heartburn, flatulence and belching. On the other hand, garlic lovers claim to have more energy and a higher sexual desire.

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So blood and garlic are obviously related, which is where we start our story. As for the scientific evidence for protection against vampires, I cook with a lot of garlic and have never felt a vampire breathing down my neck at night.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of the Office of Science and Society at McGill University (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3-4 p.m.

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