Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Garlic in medicine and at dinner


A whole clove of garlic on a white background
Garlic. Photo by Amin on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a bulbous flowering plant that belongs to the same genus as onions, shallots, chives, and leeks. Its bulbous part consists of 65% water, carbohydrates, organosulfur compounds, protein, and free amino acids. It also produces a substance called allicin which gives it its characteristic smell.

Since the dawn of history, garlic has been used for medical purposes—at first in China, Egypt, Greece, and India. Hippocrates (circa. 460–370 BC) treated his patients with it for various complaints. Since then it has been used for diseases of the head and heart, lungs and liver, brain and bones, bladder and prostate, along with worms, rheumatism, and elevated blood pressure. People have also taken it as an aphrodisiac. Some believe it makes people live longer, healthier, and stronger. It was even fed to the participants in the earliest Olympic games.

In many cultures cloves of garlic were believed to prevent the entry of dangerous blood-sucking species such as vampires. Medical textbooks from the 19th century recommended using it to deter head lice and even inserting a whole clove of garlic in the ear to relieve the agony of earache.1 During the COVID-19 pandemic, some people took garlic to prevent catching the disease, along with pepper, chili, black seeds, honey, onion, vitamins D and C, and zinc. It was even taken to ward off the Ebola virus.2

Claims about the effectiveness of garlic are legion. It is supposed to reduce antioxidant stress, promote glutathione production; prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; and suppress the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It has been claimed to boost immunity; shorten the length of various illnesses; reduce cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; relieve sore or painful muscles; and detoxify the body against chemicals, radiation, and household cleaners. It is said to be anti-inflammatory and reduce the occurrence of heart attacks.

A multitude of experts on television give further advice on its proper use. Do not add it to your diet in too large quantities, nor too quickly. For most people two cloves a day should be the maximum. Eating more than that may cause headaches, fatigue, appetite loss, muscle aches, dizziness, asthma, or skin rashes. Ask your doctor. Don’t take it with blood thinners.

Outside the field of medicine, the evidence is more convincing. It undoubtedly makes food taste better. Hundreds of dishes are consumed in all parts of the world by people who otherwise would find their meals bland and tasteless. The side-effects are not medical but societal. Garlic makes your breath stink, and if you eat too much it even exudes through the skin. No odorless garlic has ever been produced, and the only remedy is having the company you keep also partake of it. “Garlicky kisses are only offensive when one-sided.”1

We read that in medieval times, knights were not allowed to come to some royal courts if they had eaten garlic.1 In Anglo-Saxon countries garlic was long regarded as characteristic of the despised immigrants from southern Europe. Only around 1970 were English and North American cuisines revolutionized by the introduction of garlic to make food spicier and less bland. It is sobering to think that garlic was used some 5000 years ago when the Giza pyramids were being built. Clearly human taste varies and changes, but it does not necessarily progress in a linear fashion.



  1. Bee Wilson. “Garlic’s long march from foul to fabulous.” The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2022.
  2. Myeong Gyu Kim, Minjung Kim, Jae Hyun Kim, and Kyungim Kim. “Fine-Tuning BERT Models to Classify Misinformation on Garlic and COVID-19 on Twitter.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022;19;5126.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Spring 2022 | Sections | Food

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