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Garlic Tales

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Scientists are continuously trying to unvail  the secrets of the garlic, to zero in on what makes the herb so beneficial.

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A herb that is a part of almost every Indian kitchen continues to make news. Garlic, or Allium sativum, one of the oldest medicinal herbs known to human beings, is now in laboratories, while scientists look at what makes it so beneficial.

Indeed, garlic seems to possess near-magical health properties. Yet science has not found it an easy herb to understand. Despite tall claims from practitioners of alternative medicine, no one clearly knows how good garlic is and why it is considered to be so beneficial. But now scientists are rapidly unravelling its secrets.

Over the years, people with varying backgrounds have claimed that the bulb is good for controlling blood pressure and reducing cholesterol. It is supposed to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant and anticoagulant properties, apart from a few other benefits. There is now good evidence that most of these claims are true. And scientists have recently discovered new properties as well: it can reduce blood sugar levels, and is thus good for controlling diabetes. Yet conventional wisdom is not always right: it may not, after all, reduce cholesterol.

While evidence on the utility mounts, scientists are also beginning to understand why. For example, garlic’s antioxidant properties have been a mystery to scientists. It has been known to be a powerful antioxidant (a compound that destroys damaging free radicals); in fact a bit too powerful for comfort. It has a compound called allicin that is an antioxidant, but its structure could not explain its power. Till now, that is.

Derek Pratt, professor of chemistry at Queen’s University in Canada, has found out why garlic is so powerful.

A compound akin to allicin is found in other plants of the family alliaceae — such as shallots, onions and leeks. However, none of these plants has garlic’s beneficial powers. This is because the allicin found in garlic breaks down into another compound called sulphenic acid, which rapidly cleans up free radicals in its path. Without this breakdown, allicin cannot be so effective an antioxidant.

“This compound is the most powerful antioxidant known to us,” says Pratt, who published his results last week in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

While its efficacy in dealing with free radicals is now beyond doubt, garlic is probably not so effective in reducing bad cholesterol, the Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL). Several studies on its effect on blood cholesterol led to conflicting results, but one in Stanford University more than a year ago was probably the most conclusive. This six-month-long study found no correlation between consumption of garlic and reduction of LDL. “We are convinced now that garlic does not reduce bad cholesterol,” Christopher Gardner, the Stanford professor who led the research, had told Knowhow soon after publishing the results of the study.

But that does not mean it is not useful in treating high cholesterol. Its antioxidant properties are useful in treating cardiovascular diseases in general, and even for treating high cholesterol. This is because garlic suppresses the oxidation of LDL in the blood. LDL is called bad cholesterol because it sticks to the artery walls and clogs the arteries. However, it is not LDL that actually does the damage but oxidised LDL. Several studies have shown that garlic suppresses oxidation of LDL and thus prevents the formation of plaques in the arteries. It makes bad cholesterol not so bad.

“Garlic does reduce LDL oxidation,” stresses Khalid Rahman, reader in the physiological biochemistry at Liverpool University in the UK, who has conducted several lab and clinical studies on the herb.

There is increasing evidence that it can lower blood pressure, particularly when BP is elevated only mildly. A recent meta-analysis (analysis of all published literature) by scientists at the University of Adelaide showed that it does lower blood pressure. However, the scientists also warn that the evidence is not strong enough to use garlic as the only means of therapy.

These results are from clinical studies, which mean that they have been done on people. The results are equally encouraging in pre-clinical studies done in the laboratory. There, the herb has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant. It may be able to help dissolve clots and improve blood circulation. A few months ago, Japanese scientists (at the RIKEN and other institutions) showed that it could lower blood glucose levels in rats.

The list of beneficial properties is actually lengthening every day, but the topic is not without its controversy either.

This is because there are some studies showing that garlic had no effect on lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol, while some others showed that it did do so. This variability, fortunately, is not hard to explain. Scientists explain this contradiction through differences in the duration of the trials, and also on the variability in the properties of garlic. “The factors influencing a clinical study with garlic are difficult to control,” says Pratt.

Although we know that it is beneficial, not all kinds of garlic may act in the same manner. “In my view there is a group of people who are non-responders to garlic, like to any other medication,” says Rahman.

However, garlic has caught the attention of hundreds of scientists throughout the world. We will learn more about this wonder herb in the coming years.

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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On Pill? Forget Your Mr Right’

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Give a second thought before you pop the next contraceptive pill, for a study has revealed that it may disrupt a women’s natural ability to choose Mr Right.

A team at Liverpool University in Britain has carried out the study and found that the contraceptive pill changes a woman’s choice in men by altering the way she actually reacts to a male body odour.

According to experts, a man’s aroma gives a clue to his type of genes and ability to fight disease, and women subconsciously react to the smell to pinpoint a partner with dissimilar genes to themselves. But taking the pill could disrupt this ability to sniff out the ideal partner, the Daily Telegraph reported.

And some possible consequences — women could be more attracted to partners with whom it would be harder to conceive if they want children, an increased risk of miscarriage and long intervals between pregnancies.

Passing on a lack of diverse genes to a child could also weaken the women’s immune system. Known as Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), different MHC molecules fight different diseases, so it is important to have a mix of MHC types, according to the researchers.

The British team analysed how the birth prevention pill affects odour preferences on 100 women. They did not find that women who were not on the pill were more attracted to men with a different MHC, showing that the extent to which preferences for genetically dissimilar odours varies from study to study.

Sources: The Times Of India

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Pain ‘Linked With Low Vitamin D’

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Low levels of the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, may contribute to chronic pain among women, scientists believe.

The link does not apply to men, suggesting hormones may be involved, according to a study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases said.

<-Severe vitamin D deficiency leads to osteomalacia

The team from the Institute of Child Health in London said studies were now needed to see if vitamin D supplements can guard against chronic pain.

About one in 10 people are affected by chronic pain at any one time in the UK.

The causes are not well understood and much of the focus to date has been on emotional factors.

Dr Elina Hyppönen and colleagues believe, at least in women, vitamin D levels could play a role in some cases of chronic pain.

Sunshine vitamin :
The nutrient, essential for healthy bones, is produced in the body when exposed to sunlight and is also found in oily fish, egg yolks and margarine.

Among the 7,000 men and women aged 45 from across England, Scotland and Wales that they studied, those who were smokers, non-drinkers, the overweight and the underweight all reported higher rates of chronic pain.

Among the women, vitamin D levels also appeared to be important.

This finding was not explained by gender differences in lifestyle or social factors, such as levels of physical activity and time spent outdoors, say the authors.

Women with vitamin D levels between 75 and 99 mmol/litre – a level deemed necessary for bone health – had the lowest rates of this type of pain, at just over 8%.

Women with levels of less than 25 mmol/litre had the highest rates, at 14.4%.

Severe lack of vitamin D in adults can lead to the painful bone disease osteomalacia.

But the researchers said osteomalacia did not account for their findings.

Dr Hyppönen said work was needed to evaluate whether vitamin D supplements could help prevent chronic pain.

In the meantime, she advised: “If I had chronic pain I would certainly check I was getting enough vitamin D.”

Kate MacIver of the Pain Research Institute at Liverpool University cautioned: “Taking too high a dose of Vitamin D supplements as a means of preventing or treating chronic pain could result in Vitamin D toxicity and high blood calcium levels.”

Most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from their diet and by getting a little sun.

However, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding you should take 10 micrograms (0.01 mg) of vitamin D each day, the Food Standards Agency recommends.

Older people should also consider taking 10 micrograms (0.01 mg) of vitamin D each day.

Sources:BBC NEWS:August 11,’08

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