As with any comprehensive treatment program to treat bad cholesterol, modifying what you eat remains one of the cornerstones. Several herbs have been thought to improve cholesterol levels, and more specifically, the makers of several herbal supplements have claimed benefit with their product. Garlic is one of the most commonly consumed herbal supplements. Among its many purported health benefits, which include lowering blood pressure, preventing blood clots, killing bacteria and fungus, and repelling both ticks and bloodsucking creatures of the night, garlic has long been thought to improve cholesterol.
Garlic (Allium sativum), otherwise known as the “stinking rose,” contains a chemical called alliin. When garlic is crushed, a chemical reaction occurs and alliin becomes allicin. Allicin has been well documented to inhibit the formation of cholesterol in several laboratory studies. Furthermore, over a hundred animal studies have been performed that showed a positive effect of allicin on cholesterol.
Unfortunately, the results seen in the laboratory and in animals have not been consistently seen in humans. Earlier studies shown mixed results and produced more criticism concerning study designs than answering the question concerning the benefits of garlic. Much criticism focused on the form of garlic (raw vs. supplemental form) and the dose given. Therefore, a well-designed and powerful study was performed by Stanford University last year to answer the garlic cholesterol connection.
In this study, almost 200 people with moderately elevated cholesterol were given 3 forms of garlic: raw garlic (blended and given in a sandwich as a condiment), Garlicin (powdered garlic supplement), and Kyolic-100 (aged powdered supplement). Each garlic product was eaten 6 days of the week for a total of 6 months. The amount of allicin and garlic in each product was fairly similar and the supplement doses were actually 2-3 times the manufacturer’s recommended dose.
Besides bad body and breath odor reported by over half of those eating the raw garlic, there was no significant improvement in cholesterol levels in any of the 3 treatment groups. No serious side effects were reported either. Does this lay the garlic-cholesterol connection to rest? Perhaps. Critics of this study point out that a lower dose of the Kyolic-100 supplement was used in this study as opposed to earlier positive studies. Furthermore, not all forms of garlic supplements (i.e. garlic oil) were investigated. Nevertheless, not even a hint of cholesterol benefit was seen over the 6 months, a pretty negative conclusion if you ask me.
Based on this information, I don’t recommend that people start taking garlic as the sole therapy to treat high cholesterol. Eating a heart healthy diet, exercising, and taking prescribed medicines if indicated still remain the cornerstone of treatment. If you still want to take garlic for heart health, that’s OK with me. Just because there is not a proven garlic cholesterol connection doesn’t necessarily mean that garlic may not have overall heart benefit. Garlic has several other favorable effects on the body that may reduce a risk of a heart attack independent of cholesterol. All I ask is that you wait till after your appointment to eat your daily dose of garlic.
Read more from Dr. Kang, Cholesterol Education: A Year in Review and What's to Come