Herbal Remedies: The Restorative Properties of Garlic, Slippery Elm and Alfalfa

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Garlic is good for much more than simply seasoning your food.


If one herb crossed the boundaries between food and medicine it is garlic (Allium sativum). Garlic has been used for as long as humans have recorded historical events. It may even have been the secret to building the Egyptian pyramids. Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), the Greek historian, known as the ‘Father of History;’ wrote of an inscription on a pyramid that records the quantities of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the laborers who constructed it. Garlic cloves were even found in the tomb of the ancient King Tut.

Some are surprised to learn that garlic is not known from the wild. Horticulturists term it a “cultigen” a plant that has actually evolved under cultivation, rather than in Mother Nature itself. Its nearest wild relatives occur in the Asian steppes, and it was known under cultivation in the Middle East at least 5,000 years ago. The word garlic is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “garleac” meaning “spear plant.” Garlic is a member of the genus Allium in the lily family (Liliaceae). There are more than 700 species of Allium, which includes onion, too. Allium is the ancient Latin name of garlic, meaning “hot” or “burning.” The first century physician, Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), wrote, “Garlic has powerful properties, and is of great benefit against changes of water and of residence,” suggesting it is good for warding off intestinal problems while traveling in the ancient world. The ancient Chinese first recorded its medicinal use around 510 A.D. Then as today in China, its primary use was to treat dysentery and diarrhea, and in many countries garlic is still used for the treatment of intestinal diseases caused by microorganisms. In various world cultures it is also used for colds, fever, symptoms of flu, coughs, earache, bronchitis, headache, sinus congestion, high blood pressure, stomachache, hypertension, and many other health conditions.

Garlic has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. In 1858, Louis Pasteur, of “pasteurization fame, was the first to document garlic’s well-known broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. Indian researchers published a 1984 study that showed garlic was a promising antibacterial agent in eight out of nine strains of clinical bacteria that were highly resistant to antibiotics. Physicians are still unlikely to prescribe garlic over penicillin; however, that trend could change.

Over 1,000 papers on various aspects of the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical applications of garlic have been published in the past 20 years. Research has focused on the potential and use of garlic for the treatment of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, as well as blood thinning activity comparable to aspirin. An analysis of 28 human studies measuring the effect of garlic on human cholesterol was recently prepared by physicians at the New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. They concluded that one- half to one clove of garlic per day (or its equivalent in a dietary supplement product) decreased the total serum cholesterol levels by 9 to 12 percent, depending upon study design, types of preparations, dosage, and target populations.

While the FDA treats garlic as a food in the United States, German health authorities allow garlic preparations to be sold as over-the-the counter drugs. In Germany, sales of garlic preparations top $250 million per year and the minced bulb and other preparations, calculated to an average daily dose of 4g (fresh garlic), are used for supportive dietary measures to reduce blood lipids and as a preventative for age-dependent vascular changes, primarily atherosclerosis.

Slippery Elm

When the coming of spring is still a hopeful thought, and the outcome of the groundhog’s appearance awaits indication, the russet downy buds of Slippery Elm unfold inconspicuous petal-less blooms, then set mature seeds, before most trees leaf out. The slippery or red elm is the only one of the five or six North American elm species with rough hairy twigs and fuzzy red buds, making it easy to identify. Slippery elm occurs in a variety of habitats but generally prefers moist limey stream banks. It ranges from Maine through the St. Lawrence Valley to the Dakotas, south to Texas, and east to Florida.

Botanists call slippery elm Ulmus rubra. Ulmus is the old fashioned name for elm trees. “Rubra,” meaning red, refers to the rust color of the buds. Elm is the ancient name from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Gothic, and Teutonic dialects, remaining unchanged in modern English.

Slippery elm was one of the most useful medicinal plants of the American wilderness. The inner bark, stripped from the tree in early spring while the sap is rising, is the part of the tree that is used. Indians from the Missouri River Valley decocted the fresh inner bark to make a soothing laxative. To render the tallow out of buffalo fat, the Omahas cooked the fat with inner bark. The process gave the fat a better flavor and helped prevent rancidity. Bear’s fat, butter, and lard were also preserved with slippery elm. A poultice of the bark was utilized by the Greeks as a toothache remedy. The fibrous inner bark was also twisted into cords and ropes. The Osage and other tribes applied slippery elm bark poultices to extract thorns and gunshot balls. Surgeons of the American Revolutionary War used poultices of the bark as their first and primary treatment for gunshot wounds.

Aside from medicinal use, slippery elm inner bark, in the form of a gruel or porridge, has a reputation as a tasty and palatable wild edible. During the American Revolution one soldier was separated from his company and survived in the wilderness for 10 days on slippery elm and sassafras bark. In the War of 1812, when food was scarce, British soldiers fed their horses slippery elm bark. Nineteenth century physicians recommended slippery elm broth as wholesome and nutritious food for infants and invalids, a use still commended to this day in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia.

What sets it apart from other elm species that may not be used interchangeably with Slippery Elm, is the high level of mucilage in the inner bark. When mixed with water, the powdered bark produces a slimy mass that is soothing to irritated mucous membranes of the mouth and digestive tract. Herbalists have long used it to treat inflammation and ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract, including gastritis, colitis, as well as ulcers.

Slippery elm is one of the few American medicinal plants that is actually approved as an over-the-counter drug by the FDA. Slippery elm lozenges, available in many health food stores, are useful for soothing a sore throat. This is one simple, safe herb that has stood the test of time.


Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is best known as animal fodder, but has long been recommended by herbalists as a dietary supplement. Native to western Asia and the Mediterranean region, alfalfa is now grown the world over. It has been one of the most extensively studied plants in terms of its chemistry. It is rich in saponins plus numerous vitamins and minerals including A, B1, B6, B12, C, E, and K1, niacin, biotin, folic acid, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. Alfalfa contains dozens of amino acids, yielding 15 to 25 percent protein in dried alfalfa meal.

Alfalfa saponins are destructive to red blood cells and interfere with the utilization of vitamin E. It is believed to be on the causes of ruminant bloat in farm animals. The same saponins are found in concentrations of up to 85 in commercial alfalfa sprouts.

Oral toxicity in humans is considered low because saponins are not absorbed by the gut and therefore do not enter the bloodstream. Alfalfa leaf saponins have been shown to lower plasma cholesterol, decrease intestinal absorption of cholesterol, and prevent atherosclerosis. However, to get such benefits from alfalfa a human would have to eat alfalfa like a horse. One study with monkeys, for example, showed that alfalfa did lower fat in the blood which reduced atherosclerosis, but only if the diet was enriched with 50 g (nearly 2 ounces of dried alfalfa meal daily.

Many people advocate the use of dried alfalfa and alfalfa sprouts to enhance health. Its purported benefits in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes and as an appetite stimulant and general tonic remain unsubstantiated. What’s more, alfalfa seed sprouts, high in a toxic compound known as canvanine, can produce systemic lupus erythematosus, also known as Cazenave’s disease, which can cause scarred lesions on the face and scalp. Persons predisposed to the condition are advised to curtail or eliminate alfalfa sprouts from their diet.

While alfalfa sprouts and dried leaf products remain popular, the scientific jury is still out on whether alfalfa has any measurable health benefits for humans, beyond supplying protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Disclaimer: The information contained herein should not be considered as a substitute for the advice and consultation of your health care professional.