Most of the research on garlic and our cardiovascular system has been conducted on garlic powder, garlic oil, or aged garlic extracts rather than garlic in food form. But despite this research limitation, food studies on garlic show this allium vegetable to have important cardioprotective properties. Garlic is clearly able to lower our blood triglycerides and total cholesterol, even though this reduction can be moderate (5-15%).
But cholesterol and triglyceride reduction are by no means garlic's most compelling benefits when it comes to cardioprotection. Those top-level benefits clearly come in the form of blood cell and blood vessel protection from inflammatory and oxidative stress. Damage to blood vessel linings by highly reactive oxygen molecules is a key factor for increasing our risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack and atherosclerosis. Oxidative damage also leads to unwanted inflammation, and it is this combination of unwanted inflammation and oxidative stress that puts our blood vessels at risk of unwanted plaque formation and clogging. Garlic unique set of sulfur-containing compounds helps protect us against both possibilities-oxidative stress and unwanted inflammation.
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On the anti-inflammatory side of the equation, garlic's 1,2-vinyldithiin (1,2-DT) and thiacremonone are the compounds that have been of special interest in recent research. Both compounds appear to work by inhibiting the activity of inflammatory messenger molecules. In the case of thiacremonone, it is the inflammatory transcription factor called NFkappaB that gets inhibited. In the case of 1,2-DT, the exact anti-inflammatory mechanisms are not yet clear, even though the release of inflammatory messaging molecules like interleukin 6 (IL-6) and interleukin 8 (IL-8) by macrophage cells has been shown to be reduced in white adipose tissue by 1,2-DT. The combination of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative stress compounds in garlic makes it a unique food for cardiovascular support, especially in terms of chronic degenerative cardiovascular conditions like atherosclerosis.
In addition to the ability of garlic to help prevent our blood vessels from becoming blocked, this allium vegetable may also be able to help prevent clots from forming inside of our blood vessels. This cardiovascular protection has been linked to one particular disulfide in garlic called ajoene. Ajoene has repeatedly been shown to have anti-clotting properties. It can help prevent certain cells in our blood (called platelets) from becoming too sticky, and by keeping this stickiness in check, it lowers the risk of our platelets clumping together and forming a clot.
Equally impressive about garlic is its ability to lower blood pressure. Researchers have known for about 10 years that the allicin made from alliin in garlic blocks the activity of angiotensin II. A small piece of protein (peptide), angiotensin II helps our blood vessels contract. (When they contract, our blood is forced to pass through a smaller space, and the pressure is increased.) By blocking the activity of angiotensin II, allicin form garlic is able to help prevent unwanted contraction of our blood vessels and unwanted increases in blood pressure.
More recently, however, researchers have found that garlic supports our blood pressure in a second and totally different way. Garlic is rich in sulfur-containing molecules called polysulfides. It turns out that these polysulfides, once inside our red blood cells (RBCs), can be further converted by our RBCs into a gas called hydrogen sulfide (H2S). H2S helps control our blood pressure by triggering dilation of our blood vessels. When the space inside our blood vessels expands, our blood pressure gets reduced. (H2S is described as a "gasotransmitter" and placed in the same category as nitric oxide (NO) as a messaging molecule that can help expand and relax our blood vessel walls.) Interestingly, our RBCs do not appear to use processed garlic extracts in the same way that they use polysulfides in food-form garlic.
Garlic's numerous beneficial cardiovascular effects are due to not only its sulfur compounds, but also to its vitamin C, vitamin B6, selenium and manganese. Garlic is a very good source of vitamin C, the body's primary antioxidant defender in all aqueous (water-soluble) areas, such as the bloodstream, where it protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation. Since it is the oxidized form of LDL cholesterol that initiates damage to blood vessel walls, reducing levels of oxidizing free radicals in the bloodstream can have a profound effect on preventing cardiovascular disease.
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Garlic's vitamin B6 helps prevent heart disease via another mechanism: lowering levels of homocysteine. An intermediate product of an important cellular biochemical process called the methylation cycle, homocysteine can directly damage blood vessel walls.
The selenium in garlic can become an important part of our body's antioxidant system. A cofactor of glutathione peroxidase (one of the body's most important internally produced antioxidant enzymes), selenium also works with vitamin E in a number of vital antioxidant systems.
Garlic is rich not only in selenium, but also in another trace mineral, manganese, which also functions as a cofactor in a number of other important antioxidant defense enzymes, for example, superoxide dismutase. Studies have found that in adults deficient in manganese, the level of HDL (the "good form" of cholesterol) is decreased.