Wild Garlic, health and performance.
Allium ursinum also known as ramson or wild garlic has a long tradition of medicinal use in many different countries, with reported anti fungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti inflammatory, cytotoxic, antioxidant, expectorant, vasodilatory and cardio-protective effects. It is also used as a tonic for digestion; easing colic, treating loss of appetite and curing indigestion. However, despite this wide use scientific studies on its nutrient composition, pharmacological activity and therapeutic effect have until now been rare. Recently though several studies have published, particularly from Eastern Europe and these show many exciting possibilities.
Wild garlic is common in the UK and can be found growing in most woodlands, particularly in the damper parts and often with bluebells. It is found from March to May and is easily identified by the pungent garlic smell. The species name ursinum comes from the Latin ursus meaning bear. Folk tales commonly linked wild garlic to bears, which were meant to gorge on the leaves as they woke from hibernation in spring. All parts of the plant can be eaten but the leaves and flowers are most commonly used.
The distinct smell of the garlic and onion family is due to the presence of sulphur-based compounds, particularly glutamyl peptides and sulfoxides. The exact profile of compounds and metabolites each plant contains has been found to be highly variable on the area grown and time of harvest, but the highest amounts are generally found in the leaves from March and April before flowering and in the bulbs late August / September. In addition to the sulfoxides, particularly where the foliage is damaged, a number of volatile secondary metabolites may be present. These metabolites are particularly important to the value and taste of wild garlic in cooking, especially the thiosulfinates.
As well as the sulphur-containing compounds wild garlic is a good source of phenolic compounds and flavonoids, particularly kaempferol derivatives and also contains steroidal glycosides, lectins, fructans and fatty acids including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Wild garlic is also a particularly good source of adenosine containing over 20x that in standard garlic.
The amount of research in humans is still limited and most of the studies have used rats or human cells in culture. However, the results have been good, suggesting that many of wild garlic traditional uses can be supported. Extracts of wild garlic leaf have been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, to lower blood pressure, decrease insulin sensitivity, lower cholesterol, inhibit platelet aggregation and increase membrane fluidity, all of which are beneficial in cardiovascular disease.
Extracts from leaves, stems and flowers have also been founds to inhibit the proliferation of human cancer cell lines including breast, lung, prostate, colon, lymphomas and neuroblasts. Suggesting there may be benefit in fighting cancer. Wild garlic Kaempferols also act as a chemopreventive agents, inhibiting the formation of cancer cells. In both these cases wild garlic was seen to have greater potency than traditional cultivated garlic.
Wild garlic has also been proved to be anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and is successfully used to treat yeast-related infections and normalise gut flora.
Many of the phytochemicals in wild garlic have be shown to be potent antioxidants.
There have not been any strong studies that specifically look at performance but in theory wild garlic’s anti-inflammatory, vasodilatory and antioxidant properties could make it ergogenic….. Normal garlic taken 5h before intense exercise has been widely shown to increase blood fluidity and oxygen/nutrient delivery to working muscles and improve endurance.
But remember wild garlic’s high adenosine content? This maybe a problem. Adenosine is a purine nucleotide that works as both an inhibitory neurotransmitter and a neuromodulator. It has a critical roll in energy transfer as a component of tri- and di- phosphate (ATP / ADP) and in signalling as adenosine mono phosphate (cAMP) but its primary roll is actually thought to be neuroprotective, promoting even heart rhythm/oxygen delivery, suppressing high brain arousal and inducing sleep. It does this by suppressing serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and glutamate. Some of these will be familiar as they have been identified as performance enhancing….. which suggests adenosine may not be a good thing to have in the diet before competition. One way caffeine is known to work – suppressing fatigue, is by clogging adenosine receptors preventing adenosine switching off the ‘aroused state’. Strangely though some studies have still found that adenosine does promote performance and it’s been shown to help memory but no studies have been done specifically on wild garlic adenosine and performance. Adenosine has been shown to enter the blood stream from the diet and to cross the blood brain barrier. Perhaps there could be a significant benefit during recovery?
As a wild uncultivated food, wild garlic is chock full of bioactive phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins that are known to be beneficial to health. There are some fantastic recipes (particularly soups and pesto’s) on line and it is a great addition to anyone’s diet. For performance there maybe a benefit and there maybe a definite roll in recovery but much more research is needed.
Care should be taken to identify garlic correctly. The smell is particularly important as it is reasonable similar to other alliums particularly Lilly of the valley, which is poisonous.
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