Brought to you by Herbs for Pets
Appearance: Need we describe garlic? It’s what makes Italian dishes worthwhile. It is the aromatic bulb that repels vampires yet attracts hungry people with its nose-tantalizing, mouth-watering scent. While most of us can readily identify a head of garlic in the supermarket, relatively few of us are familiar with the living green plant. Garlic is a member of the Allium genus, a branch of the lily family that also includes hundreds of varieties of onions, leeks, chives, and shallots. In terms of appearance, the numerous varieties of garlic are differentiated from what we know as onions by the nature of their bulbs (commonly known as heads) and their leaves. Commercial varieties of garlic produce heads that are divided into segments (cloves), whereas onion bulbs are comprised of singular, multilayered globes.
Garlic leaves are characteristically flat and almost grasslike, whereas most onions leaves tend to be hollow and erect. Shallot leaves fall somewhere in between. For the purposes of holistic healing, its important to know that all of the Allium species come from the same sourcenature. All of the various colors and shapes of onions, garlic, and their relatives have originated from wild Allium species that range throughout the world. On the slopes surrounding our Montana home, several species of wild Allium are among the first greens to emerge from the receding snows of early spring. With their emergence come winter-weary bears, grouse, deer, elk, and moose, all of whom wish to indulge, if only briefly, in a snack of garliclike wild onions. As one watches these animals while they browse, it soon becomes apparent that they eat wild onions and garlic to fill some instinctive need other than hungerthey pick and choose only a few select plants, then move on to others.
Could it be they know something we don’t? Certainly! It is obvious that nature put the Allium genus here for reasons far deeper than epicurean delight. Fortunately for those who cannot forage the wilds of North America on behalf of their pets, the supermarket varieties of garlic are of optimum medicinal potency.
Habitat and Range: It has been theorized that garlics wild ancestors originated from west-central Asia. Garlics use as a medicine dates back at least five thousand years, and since then hundreds of cultivars have been propagated worldwide. In North America, dozens of varieties can be found in open forest clearings and grasslands at foothill to subalpine elevations. Most are montane residents.
Cycle and Bloom Season: Although commercial varieties are typically harvested during their first year of growth when the bulbs are prime, most Allium species are self-seeding perennials that bloom in midsummer.
Parts Used: Bulb (the segments of which are called cloves)
Primary Medicinal Activities: Antibacterial, stimulates the immune system, anticancer, nutritive, antioxidant, expectorant, lowers blood pressure, antitumor, antiviral, antifungal, tonic
Strongest Affinities: Liver, blood, cardiovascular system, immune system
Preparation: Fresh, dried, tincture, or oil infusion
Common Uses: Garlic contains considerable amounts of protein, fiber, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, vitamin A, thiamine, niacin, taurine, zinc, riboflavin, and dozens of other nutritive compounds. A single clove of fresh garlic may contain as much as one hundred sulfur compounds, all of which have been shown to possess medicinal qualities.
Most of us who read the ads and labels for garlic preparations or supplements at health food stores are continually reminded of allicina volatile oil constituent of garlic. Once believed to be the definitive factor in garlics healing abilities, allicin represents only a segment of garlics complex, medicinally versatile chemistry. This is not to say that allicin is not useful; actually it is one of the most impressive broad-spectrum antimicrobial substances available in nature, with dozens of scientific studies to back up this claim. Researchers have found that allicin may be more effective against harmful microbes than tetracycline, a frequently prescribed antibiotic drug.2 And unlike conventional antibiotics, garlic works against many forms of virus and won’t compromise populations of beneficial flora in the digestive tract when ingested in the appropriate amounts.
Despite its clear value as a healing agent, allicin is not the only healing agent in garlic worth considering. In fact, the presence of allicin in garlic preparations is not required at all in many situations where garlic may prove beneficial. At least thirty other compounds contained in garlic have been shown to be useful for conditions ranging from skin disorders to cancer.
Allicin is an unstable compound that dissipates quickly when exposed to air, moisture, or heat. Unless special measures are taken to preserve it, the allicin content in many garlic preparations are nil by the time they reach someone who needs them. To confront this dilemma, several garlic preparations that have been standardized to allicin are available on the market. These extracts, powders, capsules, and tablets have had a certain percentage of allicin added in the laboratory to guarantee their potency.
Such formulas are safe and effective when used properly for specific antimicrobial purposes but are generally unnecessary and expensive for use in most other instances where garlic is indicated. And, despite the claims of many manufacturers, consumers can’t tell if the allicin content in a standardized preparation still exists at the time of use. Unless a laboratory analysis is performed after the product has reached store shelves, theres no way of knowing whether the allicins potency has vanished from the formula.
Before you use a standardized formula, try to find out how the manufacturer can guarantee the allicin content in the product after it leaves the lab. If the companys answer is satisfactory, then bear in mind that many of garlics other medicinal constituents may be absent or overpowered by an unnatural abundance of allicin and that you will be using garlic in a manner beyond natures design. Regardless of what the manufacturer might say, nature endows garlic with a specific amount of allicin as well as hundreds of other compounds that serve unified purposes.
When we isolate a single constituent from the whole plant, we are no longer working within a natural context, and we limit the healing potential of that plant to the confines of what we know, as opposed to what might be possible. While scientists are beginning to understand how single chemical elements and compounds work in or on the body, we still know very little about how they work in a synergistic capacity. In this realm, just beyond our understanding, a great many healing secrets are waiting to be discovered. Any good herbalist will tell you that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The chemical complexity of garlic is good news for the self-reliant herbalist because in addition to allicin, garlic contains a multitude of compounds that are stable and easy to use. Despite its widespread recognition as a healthy food for humans, garlic demands some added respect, caution, and therapeutic consideration if it is to be used effectively in the care of animals. Here are three general rules of proper use:
- Remember that allicin is essential in applications where garlic is to be used as a natural form of antibiotic but may not be necessary if you are using garlic for general health maintenance or other purposes.
- If you wish to employ garlic as an antibiotic, you need to use raw garlic or raw garlic juice within three hours of chopping or pressing the fresh cloves, or you need a good garlic extract from a reputable source. A properly dried garlic powder may be useful for internal antibiotic applications as well, even though only a residual trace of allicin remains in the powder until it is used. In this case, two compounds called alliin and allinase meet with enzymes to form allicin as they enter the mouth. The allicin then does its work within the bodyfrom the inside out.
- If you decide to use garlic as a topical antibiotic, bear in mind that raw garlic juice is strong and may cause acute reddening and irritation of skin and mucous membranes if applied in undiluted form. Cut the juice with some olive oil, vegetable glycerin, or water at a starting rate of one part pure garlic juice to two parts inert liquid (oil, water, etc.). If irritation still occurs, further dilute the juice. Such problems can be avoided by infusing fresh cloves of garlic directly into olive oil.
- If you wish to use garlic as a cancer-inhibiting antioxidant agent, immune- system enhancer, blood-thinning agent, cardiovascular tonic, or nutritional supplement, any form of garlic will probably have the desired results. Perhaps the only exceptions are preparations of garlic that have been subjected to heat such as pickled, sauted, boiled, roasted, or otherwise hyperheated cloves that have likely been depleted of their medicinal potential and a considerable percentage of their nutrients.
Reprinted fromHerbs for Pets© 1999. Permission granted by BowTie Press.