Friend or Foe?

Philip Ricker

A number of years ago, a person came to me in my Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice, who was experiencing some symptoms that had gone undiagnosed for a number of years. Her symptoms were: insomnia, night sweats, night urination, nightmares, stomach pain, constipation, and strong thirst as well as rashes, skin sensitivity, and afternoon fatigue. This symptomatic picture, to a TCM practitioner, is a strong Yin fluid deficiency with  excess heat/dryness.  This was not a woman experiencing menopause (she was only in her late twenties).  Her menstrual cycle was normal, although the flow had lessened.

She also firmly believed she was “doing everything right”.   She was eating a healthy, predominately vegetarian diet with lots of leafy greens, whole grains, and high quality protein.  No obvious problem with lifestyle, as she exercised five times a week, maybe too vigorously.  I was  baffled—until I asked one simple question.  “Do you by any chance eat a lot of garlic?”

“Of course,” she said. “I eat garlic daily. I love it because it‘s so good for you.”  To this I replied, “We need to talk.”

Garlic has been used for centuries.  Historical records of its use go back four or five thousand years in the Middle East and China.  It has a reputation in the western world as a natural antibiotic and blood cleanser.  It will kill many parasites, such as pinworms and hookworms.  Throughout history it has been used to treat various conditions such as  amoebic and bacillary dysentery, tuberculosis, appendicitis, boils, leprosy, the common cold, and whooping cough.  Added to foul water, its antitoxic quality is reputed to make the water drinkable.  More recently, garlic has been researched for its effect on hypertension, cholesterol, and blood sugar as well as for its antifungal properties. So it would seem to be a great food additive.

Garlic’s botanical name is Allium Sativum.  Allium is Latin and derives very likely from the Celtic word “All”, meaning hot or burning.  In Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine garlic is considered a folk remedy. Its properties are acrid (burning, bitter, irritating), warm, and drying. It is through this hot, burning, and drying quality that garlic is such a good remedy—but also why it can be problematic.

Garlic was one of the five foods forbidden to Buddhist priests and Daoists in ancient China. The hot, dry quality of garlic interferes with a quiet heart and calm spirit—which in turn makes meditation more difficult.  It is also not recommended to those who pursue fasting because it will create an abundance of hot yang energy at a time when the typical goal is to create a peaceful yin quality. To practitioners of Ayurveda, garlic is considered tamasic (essentially a food to be avoided). Garlic interferes with the clear yang of consciousness, clouds the mind, creates excessive sexual desires, and vivid dreams. It is more medicine than food. And of course the odor on the breath and skin can be less than pleasant.

I have been curious how garlic has become so ubiquitous in food, particularly in health food.  If you read labels you will notice few foods without garlic. It seems to be added to virtually everything.

A curious thing I’ve noticed in my informal research into garlic is that societies living in hot climates tend to use garlic as an addition to many of their foods and recipes.  This fact, on its face, seems nonsensical, since garlic is heating and drying and would cause people to be less tolerant of the heat.  But apparently, the closer to the equator one lives, the more likely garlic will be a part of the diet.  And conversely, the farther from the equator one lives, the less likely garlic will be consumed in traditional diets.

I believe the reason is quite simple. The hotter the climate, the more likely there will be a problem with the storage of food. Therefore, more bacteria, more parasites, and probably more fungal growth. It’s all about the bugs in the food—and garlic kills the bugs.  My Northern European ancestors had little need for garlic. Food could be more easily stored due to the cooler climate.

A substance that has such strong therapeutic qualities in small amounts can be over-consumed to the point of then making us ill.

To revisit my patient who was “doing everything right”—garlic was very simply too hot and drying for her. She needed to be gently cooled and nourished with yin and blood herbs and foods that supported her system.   Her heart and spirit needed to be calmed. Garlic should have been used sparingly if at all and with more caution.

One would not routinely consume antibiotics or antifungal agents or do antiparasitic treatments. And with garlic, a little bit therapeutically might be just what you need.  But large amounts of garlic can be problematic. We as energetic beings can be changed by what we consume. If we eat foods that are predominately hot and drying we will slowly become hotter and dryer.  The converse is also true.  I see so many people who are hot-natured consuming foods that are constitutionally inappropriate—and they invariably eat a lot of garlic. So, in the heat of the summer, or if you are experiencing menopausal symptoms, or if you just tend to be hot, your dietary choices are important. Eat more cooling, yin-natured foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Reduce the heating foods such as garlic, leeks, onions, alcohol, coffee, hot peppers, lamb etc.  Lists can be found on the internet by searching Chinese food energetics.


Philip Ricker has been practicing acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine for over 27 years and is experienced in a variety of health issues. Trained in the U.S. & China, he is also a teacher of Qi Gong and offers classes on Saturdays. Phil owns the Acupuncture Center of Asheville where he has performed over 50,000 treatments during the past 23 years.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker