If you have been diagnosed with Lupus, you’ve probably heard about the risks of including garlic in your diet. On the other hand, if you believe food is medicine, you are likely familiar with garlic’s extensive list of health benefits. As one of the oldest forms of natural herbal remedies, it has been used for centuries to treat various conditions including heart disease, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, cold, flu, indigestion, tumours, diabetes and more. Garlic has been used medicinally in more cultures than any other plant based product or substance. Part of the onion family, the garlic plant consists of a bulb with 10-20 smaller sections called cloves. Every 100 grams of garlic is 150 calories, 33 grams of carbs, 6.36 grams of protein.
Some potential benefits of garlic include the following:
- reduces blood pressure
- fights bacterial infections
- boosts immune system
- balances blood sugar
- assists in fat metabolism
- offers protection against cancer
- useful for digestive conditions and intestinal disorders
- provides relief from rheumatoid conditions
- prevents oxidation and plaque buildup in arteries
Garlic not only contains antioxidants, but is also enriched with Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, sodium and zinc.
While garlic’s health benefits are well documented, a simple Google search of ‘Lupus and diet’, will return dozens of articles warning about the potential of garlic to over stimulate the immune system, thereby increasing the chance of a Lupus flare. This sounds plausible, given the immune boosting properties in garlic, yet there are no specific studies to support this concern. To add to the confusion, some of the most trusted sources, including The Johns Hopkins Lupus Center and the Lupus Foundation of America have released conflicting statements on the subject, with Johns Hopkins listing garlic as a food to be avoided, while the Lupus Foundation of America suggests that occasional use in cooking is not likely to cause significant problems for most people. Their stance is further supported by a Q&A session with Dr. Ronenn Roubenoff, who states “Garlic and ginseng, which are the most commonly sold herbal supplements, probably don’t influence lupus but I don’t know of any studies on them”.
There are three substances in garlic that can activate the immune system. Studies show that allicin, ajoene, and thiosulfates activate the immune system by enhancing the activity of white blood cells, particularly macrophages and lymphocytes. The sulphur components of garlic help to prevent and suppress cancer in the body and when used in supplement form can combat colds and infections. The sulphur also helps your body absorb the trace elements of zinc in garlic, which is another immune system booster. Since people with lupus and other autoimmune disease are thought to already have over active immune systems, institutions such as Johns Hopkins are citing this as a reason to avoid garlic. But not so fast, let’s first explore some of the reasons garlic should only be avoided if you have a reaction to it; otherwise you may be missing out on some of the amazing health benefits.
Unfortunately, having lupus increases the chances for serious complications stemming from high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, blood clots and more. Studies show that garlic may prevent many of these complications by reducing blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels and supporting homocysteine levels. High homocysteine levels are linked to increased risk of heart disease, memory loss and osteoporosis. Studies show that homocysteine levels in women with SLE can be significantly higher than women without Lupus. High blood levels of homocysteine can also result from B vitamin deficiency, including folate, which is also common in people with lupus. Preclinical studies at Pennsylvania State University showed that aged garlic extract, when taken as a supplement, lowers homocysteine.
There are also some interesting, but less known benefits of garlic that may be helpful for those with lupus, including its ability to stimulate hair growth. Rubbing crushed garlic extract on your scalp or massaging with garlic-infused oil is known to prevent and even reverse hair loss. If this is true, the results may be worth the smell! Garlic can also benefit the skin and when applied topically can help with fungal infections and provide relief from other skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis. Garlic is also very good for gut health, despite the common misconception that it can destroy the good gut bacteria. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, garlic is a prebiotic, which contributes to the health of the beneficial bacteria and is essential to good gut health. Garlic also contains an antifungal agent called Ajoene, which has been shown to kill a variety of fungal infections and proven to be effective against candida or yeast overgrowth, athlete’s foot and ringworm.
There are many ways to incorporate garlic into your lupus diet, whether you cook with it or take it as a supplement. While research shows that fresh garlic is far superior to garlic supplements, there is the problem of the lingering odour resulting from the allicin that is activated when garlic is crushed, bitten, chewed or chopped, but without the allicin, the health benefits are greatly reduced.
The best way to ensure you are getting all the “good stuff” from it is to use fresh, organic, raw garlic, crushing garlic has been shown to release more of the allicin than chopping, so it’s worth remembering this when you prepare it. To use it as a supplement, crush one or two cloves, add a small amount of honey and let it sit for five to 15 minutes before swallowing it. This allows enough time for the allicin to be fully activated. Some people also swallow the cloves whole, but it’s important to bite into it to release the allicin, which isn’t the most pleasant way to eat garlic, but much more effective than when it is cooked. Studies show that the enzyme allinnase, which converts into the beneficial allicin, is deactivated by heat, so if you do cook with garlic, try adding it to the recipe towards the end of cooking time to maintain as many of its beneficial properties as possible.
The fact that allicin is deactivated by heat certainly debunks the notion that cooking with garlic can cause a lupus flare. In fact, most of medical studies on garlic are based on consuming five to ten cloves per day or more, which is much more than the average person consumes. As with any natural supplement or remedy, it’s wise to rotate them in and out rather than to take continuously.
If you cannot tolerate raw garlic either due to the strong taste or odor, or, if you experience stomach upset when you consume it, there is always the option of garlic supplements. As with all supplements, there are products that offer high quality, pure supplementation and there are those that don’t, so buyer beware.
Remember, the allicin that is produced when allinase converts the alliin into allicin, is where the health benefits lie, and many supplements are deficient in allicin. This would explain why so many studies on garlic supplementation failed to show benefits for lowering cholesterol or blood pressure. The gold standard of garlic supplementation is aged garlic extract (AGE). Studies show that the aging process produces an entirely distinct set of beneficial organosulfur compounds that are not found in fresh garlic.
This alternate source of garlic claims to be even more rich in antioxidant than the fresh bulb. Kyolic is the most recognizable brand of aged garlic extract and is a concentrated form of organic aged garlic. The Wakunaga Company, the producer of Kyolic, claims that over 350 scientific studies show Kyolic to be safe and effective in providing health benefits; in humans, AGE has been found to help prevent atherosclerosis and protect against cardiovascular disease, increase circulation and immunity. In preclinical studies AGE has been shown to prevent various kinds of cancer and neuro-degenerative disease and to have anti-aging effects in improving memory, endurance and learning. Of course, the most attractive by product of aged garlic extract is the absence of garlic’s unpleasant odor. Aged garlic oil is produced by the extraction and aging of organic garlic, at room temperature, for 20 months. According to the company, the process increases antioxidant levels, well above those found in fresh garlic and converts harsh unstable compounds, such as allicin to stable health-promoting substances. AGE contains mostly stable water-soluble organosulfur compounds, that are powerful antioxidants and are largely responsible for AGE’s health benefits and has a 98% absorption rate into the blood circulation. Aged garlic extract also contains some oil-soluble organosulfur compounds, flavonoids, phenols and other beneficial nutrients, including selenium. Further research claims that garlic, specifically aged garlic extract, can reduce histamine release by 50-90%! Allergies, produced by the release of histamine from mast cells, can be a problem for anyone, but seem to be especially common with autoimmune diseases like lupus.
Over reacting to any stimulus can interrupt our daily lives and produce irritating symptoms ranging from skin flushing to hives to anaphylaxis- if garlic can reduce these reactions, this is good news! If this isn’t enough to convince you to give garlic a try, the fact that it may reduce fatigue, enhance endurance and reduce stress, should. Since raw garlic and aged garlic extract offer different benefits, there is no harm in incorporating both into your natural health regimen.
With all this good news, there must be a caveat, right? Like many natural remedies, raw garlic does have the potential to interact with synthetic medications, mainly by enhancing the effects of those intended to lower blood pressure, thin blood and lower glucose levels. Another downside is the potential for stomach upset that can result from either consuming large amounts of garlic, or by consuming it on an empty stomach. To prevent this, it’s best to take it with a healthy fat or before a meal and limit your intake to one to four cloves per day. There are studies that are based on consuming five to ten cloves per day or more, but this is a dosage that should be discussed with your health care provider, especially if you are pregnant, facing an upcoming surgery or are taking any medications. Despite this general advice, the evidence is weak for garlic preparations causing harmful interactions if taken in addition to blood-thinning, blood-sugar-regulating, or anti-inflammatory medications, but again, it’s not a bad idea to discuss any diet changes or supplementation with your health care provider. Even better, consult with a Naturopathic provider. Naturopaths are very well versed in nutritional supplementation and can help you identify the best plan for you to achieve optimal health while helping to reduce or prevent painful and irritating lupus flares. In fact, the warnings of garlic’s potential to cause flares are slowly but surely being debunked, not only by patients, but by several types of health care providers. The benefits of garlic most certainly outweigh the risks.
The key to optimal health is a balanced immune system and diet is your best aid to ensure it’s neither under active or over stimulated.
It’s hard to ignore the potential of this powerful plant. If you have been avoiding garlic based on what you’ve read or heard, rather than your own personal experience, consider adding it to your natural lupus health regimen and see how it goes. If you do experience side effects, It is possible you have a sulphur sensitivity, this type of reaction is nothing to do with lupus.
Don’t let fear based warnings that are based on little evidence keep you from enjoying the culinary and health benefits that garlic offers. You may find that it makes you feel better, especially if you are being treated with immunosuppressive drugs – garlic may be just the boost your body needs to keep those nasty infections and colds at bay.