Garlic has always been favored by cooks for its unique flavor, and by natural health practitioners for its healing properties. The antimicrobial properties of this tiny bulb have been used time and again to cure fungal infections and relieve coughs and colds. This anti-hypertensive, anti-cholesterol herb with its blood thinning capacity is a proven heart tonic and a potential candidate for cancer treatment too. But, now it comes in the avatar of a highly potent detoxifier, according to a study published in the Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology journal.
The study to determine the effectiveness of garlic extract in comparison with d-penicillamine, a chelation drug, was conducted on 117 car battery plant workers who had high levels of exposure to lead, an occupational hazard of that industry. The workers who took part in the study had various symptoms of lead poisoning such as irritability, fatigue, arthralgia, metallic taste in the mouth, numbness in hands and feet, abdominal pain etc.
Half of the workers were given 250mg of d-penicillamine while the others received 400mg of dry garlic powder, both administered thrice daily in similar capsules. The dry garlic powder in each capsule was equivalent to 2 gms of fresh garlic. Their blood lead concentration (BLC) and other parameters and symptoms were recorded before the study commenced, and again two weeks after the treatment duration of one month.
As was expected, both groups showed significant reduction in BLC after the chelation period. The marked improvement in the clinical symptoms of those in the garlic group was noteworthy. They had less irritability and headaches, joint pain and numbness of hands and feet. No one had abdominal discomfort on account of taking garlic capsules. The most noteworthy among the positive side effects was lowering of systolic pressure, which was not entirely unexpected, given the anti-hypertensive effect of garlic. There was no difference in the diastolic pressure. Increase in appetite was surprisingly accompanied by weight loss, contrary to expectations. Better sleep and sense of euphoria could be counted as additional benefits too.
Bad breath was the main negative side effect of taking garlic capsules. Some people developed oral ulcers, a common complaint sometimes associated with high consumption of Allium bulbs. None of the participants in the drug group had complaints of bad breath or oral ulcers, but they did not show any significant improvement in clinical symptoms. There was no change in their blood pressure either. Seventeen people from this group had to discontinue the study due to severe adverse reactions while only seven dropped out of the garlic group. That should speak for the comparative desirability of these two methods as a treatment for lead poisoning. Incidentally, d-penicillamine is not used for chelation in children due to its adverse effects.
On the other hand, garlic has been widely used without serious side effects. It is comparatively cheaper and easily accessible, especially to people in developing countries who are at greater risk of exposure to lead. Since lead poisoning is mainly associated with neurotoxicity, as is evident from the clinical symptoms; and garlic capsules have been more effective in relieving these symptoms, it should be ideal for treating this condition. Moreover, garlic has the additional benefit of acting as a preventive too, as it inhibits the absorption of this heavy metal from the digestive tract.
The exact mechanism of detoxification in the case of garlic is being investigated. Since the neurotoxicity of lead is mainly due to oxidative stress, the antioxidant phytochemicals allicin and alliin in garlic may be responsible for counteracting that effect and relieving the symptoms. But other compounds in garlic may be acting in ways similar to the chelation drugs like penicillamine to flush out lead and other heavy metals from the tissues.
Garlic extract has been found to be just as effective as capsules in chelation and relieving the symptoms of poisoning. Its efficacy has been proven in several animal studies involving chickens and sheep, besides laboratory rats. With more studies conducted on humans, garlic may just prove to be a cheap, but safe and effective, alternative for preventing, as well as treating, lead poisoning even in children.
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