Garlic has been used for centuries as both a food ingredient and a medicine.
In fact, eating garlic can provide a wide variety of health benefits (1).
This article explains how garlic is particularly protective against the common cold and the flu.
Whole garlic contains a compound called alliin. When garlic is crushed or chewed, this compound turns into allicin (with a c), the main active ingredient in garlic (7).
Allicin contains sulfur, which gives garlic its distinctive smell and taste (8).
However, allicin is unstable, so it quickly converts to other sulphur-containing compounds thought to give garlic its medicinal properties (5).
These compounds have been shown to boost the disease-fighting response of some types of white blood cells in the body when they encounter viruses, such as the viruses that cause the common cold or flu (5, 9).
Bottom Line: Garlic can be crushed, chewed or sliced to produce allicin, which is thought to give garlic its immune-boosting properties.
Garlic has shown promise as a treatment for preventing colds and the flu.
One study gave 146 healthy volunteers either garlic supplements or a placebo for three months. The garlic group had a 63% lower risk of getting a cold, and their colds were also 70% shorter (11).
Another study found that colds were on average 61% shorter for subjects who ate 2.56 grams of aged garlic extract per day, compared to a placebo group. Their colds were also less severe (9).
If you often get sick with a cold or flu, eating garlic can help reduce your symptoms or prevent your illness entirely.
However, a review of the evidence found that many of the studies investigating the effects of garlic on the common cold were of poor quality (12).
It's also unknown if you need to take garlic constantly, or if it also works as a short-term treatment when you start getting sick.
Bottom Line: Regularly eating garlic may help prevent the common cold or the flu. If you do get sick, eating garlic can reduce the severity of your symptoms and help you recover faster.
The way garlic is processed or prepared can really change its health benefits.
The enzyme alliinase, which converts alliin into the beneficial allicin, only works under certain conditions. It can also be deactivated by heat.
However, it was noted that crushing garlic and allowing it to stand for 10 minutes before cooking can help prevent the loss of its medicinal properties.
The researchers also stated that the loss of health benefits due to cooking could be compensated for by increasing the amount of garlic used.
Here are a few ways to maximize the health benefits of garlic:
- Crush or slice all your garlic before you eat it. This increases the allicin content.
- Before you cook with your crushed garlic, let it stand for 10 minutes.
- Use a lot of garlic — more than one clove per meal, if you can.
Bottom Line: Ensure whole garlic is crushed, chewed or sliced before it's eaten. Let crushed garlic stand for 10 minutes before you cook it.
Another easy way to increase your garlic intake is by taking a supplement.
However, be cautious, as there are no regulated standards for garlic supplements.
That means the allicin content and quality can vary, and so can the health benefits.
Powdered garlic is made from fresh garlic that has been sliced and dried. It does not contain allicin, but is said to have allicin potential.
Powdered garlic is processed at low temperatures, and then put inside capsules to protect it from stomach acid.
This helps the enzyme alliinase survive the harsh environment of the stomach so that it can convert alliin to the beneficial allicin in the intestine.
Aged Garlic Extract
When raw garlic has been sliced and stored in 15–20% ethanol for over 1.5 years, it becomes aged garlic extract.
This type of supplement does not contain allicin, but it does retain the medical properties of garlic. Many of the studies showing benefits against colds and the flu used aged garlic extract (2, 9, 17).
Garlic oil is also an effective supplement, and is made by infusing raw garlic into cooking oils. You can add it directly to your meals, or take it in capsules.
However, it's worth noting that animal studies have shown that garlic oil can be toxic to rats at higher doses and in certain conditions (18).
Bottom Line: Common types of garlic supplements include powdered garlic, aged garlic extract and garlic oil. Aged garlic extract may be the best type.
The minimum effective dose for raw garlic is one segment (clove) eaten two to three times per day.
You can also take an aged garlic supplement. In that case, a normal dose is 600 to 1,200 mg per day.
High intakes of garlic supplements can be toxic, so don't exceed the dosage recommendations.
Bottom Line: You can get a benefit from garlic by eating 2-3 garlic cloves per day. Supplement doses range from 600 to 1,200 mg per day.
Here are 5 more ways to boost immune function and help you avoid colds and the flu:
- Take a probiotic: Probiotics can promote a healthy gut, enhance your immune system and reduce your risk of infection (22, 23, 24, 25).
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet: Your whole diet is important. Getting a balance of important nutrients will make sure your immune system stays in good shape.
- Don't smoke: Cigarette smoke can weaken your immune system and make you more prone to infection (26, 27, 28).
- Avoid excess alcohol: Excess alcohol is thought to damage your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections (29, 30, 31).
- Take a zinc supplement: Take zinc lozenges or syrup within 24 hours of the start of a cold, as this may reduce the duration of the cold (32).
Bottom Line: A healthy diet and lifestyle are essential for keeping your immune system in good shape.
Studies show that garlic can help fight colds and the flu. It can reduce your chances of catching an illness, and help you recover faster.
To maximize these benefits, it is best to consume raw garlic or aged garlic extract.
At the end of the day, garlic is both tasty and super healthy. Then there are many other great reasons to include it in your diet.