Let Your Food Be Your Medicine


3 Herbs: Garlic, Licorice & Olive Leaf

When it comes to nourishing the body, and keeping it healthy, it's tough to beat the power of good nutrition and responsible botanical medicine. Though many herbs, like echinacea and goldenseal, should only be used for brief periods of time, and are not what I would call a "food," other plants do occupy both sides of the botanical kingdom, being both culinary and medicinal herbs. In many cases, herbs in this category can be safely used for months, or even years, to improve the overall health of the body.


In the group of culinary-medicinal herbs, nothing quite stands out like the delectable garlic. Though reviled by some because of its uniquely piquant smell, garlic is one of nature's more well-known medicinal plants. It is, surprisingly, a member of the lily family, though clearly quite different from the graceful cut flower most of us associate with the word lily. Other uncharacteristic members of the lily family include leek, shallot, and onion.

While the onion grows in a single bulb, the garlic bulb consists of several bulblets, or cloves, clustered on a single base. Above ground, garlic appears as a tall, thin stalk, topped by a round, puffy flower. The plant grows well in hot, sunny climates, such as the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the American West.
A bulb with a bright history

References to garlic's use as a medicine date back to the Stone Age. According to Rudolf Weiss, author of Herbal Medicine, a garlic recipe has been found which was written about 3000 B.C. He also describes an ancient Egyptian papyrus dated 1600 B.C., which recounts an uprising by pyramid workers angry because their lunch rations did not include adequate amounts of garlic and onion. Garlic, and its cousin, the onion, was needed by these workers to improve physical performance and to combat dysentery common in that part of the world.

Garlic was introduced to Northern Europe during the 1600s by the Turks. According to Weiss, the Turkish Army traveled with large supplies of both garlic and coffee, and much of it was left behind after battles and invasions had ended.
Outside the kitchen, garlic benefits us inside

Garlic's constituents include polysaccharides, diallyl disulfide, S-allyl cysteine, S-allylmercaptocysteine, saponins, water-soluble and oil-soluble oils, other organosulfur compounds (including aliiins), vitamins A, B, and C, hormone-like substances, and enzymes. Garlic supplements are studied, and available, in many forms, including: garlic oil (macerate or steam-distilled), solid garlic extracts in powdered form, cold-water aqueous extract, and fermented garlic extract (aged), among others. Garlic and garlic-derived products work to help lower elevated blood cholesterol, and they have anti-microbial (antibiotic-like) properties, thus fighting bacteria and fungi.

I put garlic on my list of herbs to eat every day because, simply put, garlic helps the body stay healthy. It reduces "bad" cholesterol and blood fats, helps preserve blood vessel elasticity, decreases clot formation, lowers the risk of intestinal parasites, and decreases the frequency of common viral illness. Garlic is safe for long-term use; its most unpleasant side effects are its smell (in some preparations), and a stomach irritation in sensitive folks who eat too much of it.

A sampling of the research

A March 12, 1999, study conducted by Y. Yeh, et al., which was published in the FASEB Journal, was carried out to see if disulfide components in garlic extract (aged) modulate plasma homocysteine counts. In rats with severe folic-acid deficiency, the addition of garlic extract (aged) brought down homocysteine levels by 30 percent, thereby significantly reducing the risk of heart disease.

A 1997 study by Yu-Yan Yeh, et al., took a gander at 17 men with high cholesterol who supplemented with garlic extract (aged) for five months. After this period, total cholesterol was knocked down by 7 percent, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol was decreased by 10 percent, encouraging the authors to conclude that garlic extract (aged) supplementation produces mild cholesterol-lowering effects in men who have hypercholesterolemia.

Also in 1997, Kerstin Breithaupt-Grogler, and others, examined 101 healthy men, aged 50 to 80, who had been supplementing with at least 300 mg/day of standardized garlic powder for two years, or longer. The upshot? Long-term supplementation with standardized garlic preparations relaxed the aorta, making it more elastic, which combats (or avoids) the typical aortic stiffening usually associated with mature, aging people. This, the authors agreed, "may provide an explanation of the protective effects of garlic against cardiovascular disease."

Another study, entitled "The Effect of Garlic on Hypercholesterolemia in Renal Transplant Patients," was published in Transplantation Proceedings. This study looked at kidney transplant patients, a group in which extremely high blood fat is a common problem. Subjects had cholesterol levels greater than 240, and triglycerides of 500 or more. They were given 680 mg of garlic -- dried, powdered, standardized, and in capsules -- twice daily over a 12-week period. The conclusion? Garlic had "significant beneficial effects" and could possibly be used along with a lowered dose of standard pharmaceutical lipid-reducing medications to "minimize the chance of drug toxicity."


Though radically different in flavor from garlic, licorice is another well-known food which has great medicinal properties. Known botanically as Glycyrrhiza glabra, licorice has a reputation for two actions: anti-ulcer and anti-inflammation.
Licorice 'licks' pain & inflammation

Whole licorice root, consumed in the form of an extract or a strong tea, acts like asteroid. It prolongs the action of cortisol, the body's anti-inflammatory, adrenal steroid hormone. Because cortisol decreases pain and inflammation, licorice can act as an herbal anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic agent. In some ways, licorice behaves similarly to the medication hydrocortisone.

In my practice, I often use licorice in patients with severe hypersensitivity reactions, chronic pain, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine use licorice to replenish the qi (vital force within the body), to remove toxins, to reduce spasms and pain, and in the treatment of hepatitis.

A note of caution

One must be cautious in the use of licorice; its cortisol-like action can also result in recorded negative effects. Large doses or long-term use of licorice can cause the body to over-excrete potassium and retain sodium. This results in fluid retention, and can even cause edema (excess fluid in connective tissues and surrounding organs) and high blood pressure.

Side effects from licorice candy are more common in Europe where this candy is still made with real licorice extract. Americans are more likely to have problems from over-consumption of licorice tea or extract. If you choose to use licorice regularly, it is wise to inform your doctor, and to pay attention to your blood pressure and overall health. Most at-risk for side effects are people with pre-existing high blood pressure or kidney disease, women on oral birth-control pills, and the elderly.

Another form of licorice to consider

Deglycyrrhizinized licorice is another option for those who want the antiulcer activity of licorice, and want to avoid the possibility of negative side effects. Deglycyrrhizinized licorice does not have the hormone-like action of licorice, and, therefore, will not increase the risk of water retention and hypertension. While ineffective as an general anti-inflammatory, deglycyrrhizinized licorice does retain its value as an effective botanical medicine for digestive inflammation, in conditions of gastritis, ulcer, and irritable bowel.

Olive leaf

Relatively new to the modern American botanical scene is Olea europaea, or olive leaf. For centuries, the olive tree has been revered as the "tree of life." In this century, most of us know it as the international symbol of peace, and as the source of a healthful and delicious culinary oil. Additionally, it seems the leaf of the olive tree may well have significant value as an immune-enhancing herb.

So far, so good for this extract

To date, the evidence for olive leaf is largely enthusiastic testimony from individual patients and practitioners who report recovery from severe viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases, including Candida, through the use of olive leaf extract. According to proponents of the herb, it is very effective for a wide variety of conditions, and is not associated with any reported side effects.

Preliminary animal research on olive leaf indicates that the plant is rich in flavonoids, and has both blood-pressure and blood sugar-lowering effects. I am just beginning my work with this plant and look forward to learning what future research and clinical studies reveal.

PHOTO (COLOR): Jamison Starbuck

Berthold, H., et al. "Effect of a Garlic Oil Preparation on Serum Lipoproteins and Cholesterol Metabolism," JAMA 279(23): 19001902, 1998.

Breithaupt-Grogler, K., et al. "Protective effect of chronic garlic intake on elastic properties of aorta in the elderly," Circulation 96(8):26492655, 1997.

de Klerk, G., et al. "Hypokalaemia and hypertension associated with use of liquorice flavoured chewing gum," British Medical Journal 314:781-2, 1997.

deLaurentis, N., et al. "Flavonoids from leaves of Olea europaea," Ann Pharm Fr 56(6):268-73, 1998.

Huang, K.C. The Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs. New York: CRC Press, 1999.

Lash, J.P., et al. "The Effect of Garlic on Hypercholesterolemia in Renal Transplant Patients," Transplantation Proceedings 30:189191, 1998.

Weiss, Rudolf. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Press 1988.

Yeh, Y-Y, et al. "Garlic extract reduces plasma concentration of homocysteine in rats rendered folic acid deficient," The FASEB Journal 13(4) (Abstract 209.12), March 12, 1999.

Yeh, Yu-Yan, et al. "Garlic reduced plasma cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic men maintaining habitual diets." In: Ohigashi, H., et al. (eds.) Food Factors for Cancer Prevention. Tokyo: Springer-Verlag, 1997.


By J. Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D.

Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., is a licensed naturopathic and homeopathic physician. Her Missoula (Montana)-based family practice treats the whole person via constitutional homeopathy, botanical medicine, nutrition, counseling, and other natural modalities. Dr. Starbuck is also a consulting editor for Time-Life Books.

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