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Would My Workout Benefit from… Garlic Supplements?

Garlic — it doesn’t just strengthen your breath

During my formative years, I had no idea how abundant garlic was in different prepared dishes. All I knew about garlic was that it was my grandfather’s least favorite food, to such an extent that his visage would display a horrified expression if he suspected he had accidentally consumed one solitary flake. 

In both retrospect and fairness, it’s possible that my grandfather suffered from some sort of allergy to fructose, and garlic simply brought forth its harshest manifestation. It’s also possible that he could have been among what’s now being estimated as the one in 1,000 individuals who is authentically vulnerable to spice-based allergies, of which garlic is among the most prevalent. Regardless, I’d often joke with my parents that grandpa was part vampire like Blade, because that was the only logical explanation my brain could sprout forth to rationalize how such a well-traveled man could take such a dismissive attitude toward such a delicious, ubiquitous vegetable product.

Many years later, as I reached my 30s and began to vigorously swim once again, I started to look for whatever legal and ethical supplement options I could find to expedite my return to distance training, and garlic popped up frequently on the list of suggested supplements. Apparently, the bane of my grandfather’s culinary experience was also a potent accelerant of endurance building, and by taking a capsule of garlic every day, I’d be making my return to the water far less brutal to my cardiovascular system.

Is this a real thing, or are you joking?

Legends about the supposed benefits that garlic bestowed upon Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Romans, Ancient Greeks and the like have been making the rounds for decades, if not centuries. However, in order to get to the bottom of garlic’s legitimate benefits, it’s important to pin down a few important events in the garlic-as-a-supplement movement that have taken place over the last century or so.

In August 1921, it was reported in several publications around the world that a study conducted by three famous French physicians found that garlic ingestion could alleviate arterial tension. The expanded findings outlined how the ordinary consumption of garlic could be reliably expected to reduce high blood pressure down to “practically a normal level” in only one week’s time. Three weeks later, Brooklyn Daily Eagle columnist Luke McLuke quipped that this finding meant that “a man may take his choice of having high blood pressure, or being permanently ostracized from society,” which was undoubtedly intended as a comedic reference to the odor emanating from consumers of garlic.

This revelation stoked some businesspeople within the burgeoning dietary supplement industry to develop new products featuring garlic. For decades, various potencies of garlic were squeezed into tablet configurations or pressed into encapsulated forms, and sold as remedies for high blood pressure. To that end, in December 1938, Dr. Irving S. Cutter wrote in the New York Daily News of German experiments that demonstrated how 20 cases of hypertension were “greatly ameliorated after the administration of garlic.”

But this is all about medical use. When did it become about athletics?

The earliest point is unknown, but one of the moments that stands out occurred in 1968. That’s the year Vancouver Sun sports columnist Jim Kearney penned his column “Why We’ll Never Beat Russia in Hockey” — obvious fighting words when printed on the pages of a prominent Canadian newspaper — and lamented all the institutional advantages for developing hockey players that were programmed into the Soviet system. Highlighted among Kearney’s reasons for Soviet domination was the prescribed consumption of garlic by young Russian hockey prospects.

“They prescribe copious amounts of garlic in the athletes’ diet because it helps increase the hemoglobin content in the red blood corpuscles,” wrote Kearney. “Hemoglobin is the substance that carries oxygen to the tissues. The more oxygen, the less fatigue.”

Was this correct?

A 2000 study demonstrated that a single dose of 900 milligrams of garlic resulted in marked increases in the aerobic performance levels of the garlic recipients as little as five hours after supplementation. Many years later, garlic supplementation of male athletes engaged in aerobic activity during a double-blind 2015 study demonstrated higher antioxidant presence in the saliva samples of the garlic supplementees. 

More important, though, are the studies that specifically identified garlic’s role in contributing to the activation of nitric oxide synthase. This is a process that results in vasodilation — i.e., the widening of blood vessels — which eases the flow of blood and the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. Obviously, this is a net benefit to the sustainability of cardiovascular performance. 

So it sounds like I should definitely be taking garlic supplements!

Per usual, you need to count the cost before you do anything as serious as committing to taking what amounts to a drug. When you take food as a supplement, you’re usually not just taking one isolated component of that food, which means you can’t just isolate the milk; you’re stuck with the whole figurative cow.

Here’s what I’m getting at: In addition to its nitric-oxide boosting properties, garlic also contains allyl methyl sulfide. This is the stuff that provides garlic with its potent smell, and which may provide you with halitosis if you ingest garlic in voluminous quantities. Also, as my grandfather would be quick to assert, the allergies associated with garlic are very real, and extend well beyond a mere aversion to fructose. Complications from garlic allergies can range from diarrhea and nausea all the way to anaphylactic shock. It interacts very poorly with blood thinners as well, resulting in a higher risk of bleeding, and even reduces the potency of certain anti-HIV medications

Allergic reactions and medicative interference aside, garlic supplementation administered to a healthy person may still result in an upset stomach, heartburn and potential bleeding within the stomach.

In terms of my own personal experience, when I found myself feeling like quitting after each 25-yard swim during the farcical stages of my return to the pool, I supplemented with garlic for a month to accelerate my re-adaptation to the water. Once the in-water suffering (and whining) was reduced, I halted the garlic supplementation cold turkey. In other words, have a reasonable short-term goal in mind whenever you supplement with anything, and once that goal has been accomplished, get off the supplement. 

Garlic may give you hyper-athletic powers on the level of Wario when he bites down on a bulb of garlic, but on the flip side, the combustible interactions of garlic with your delicate innards may also have you looking and smelling like Wario on a permanent basis. Call me undedicated, but 30 years of intestinal discomfort is a high price to pay for 30 additional seconds of cardiovascular endurance.