Looking for the science in ancient medicines

Current studies of age-old remedies like garlic and resveratrol will help confirm their appropriate role in the treatment of modern diseases. 

By John Russo Jr./Vicus.com

VICUS.COM (21 July 2000) — “As soon as the topic of alternative and complementary medicine comes up, the initial reaction is to either dismiss it or embrace it unequivocally.” However, cautioned Richard Rivlin, M.D., “the truth most often lies somewhere in between.” 

Garlic in history

Throughout history, garlic has been used all over the world for its medicinal effect. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Koreans and Chinese all claimed garlic had healing properties. Hippocrates reportedly used garlic in the fifth century B.C. to treat infections like leprosy. In 1858, Louis Pasteur reported favorably on the anti-bacterial activity of garlic.
Source: University of Hawaii

Rivlin is in a position to know. He is program director of the clinical nutrition research unit at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and professor of medicine and chief of the nutritional division of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, also in New York City. From this vantage point, he has been able to test many ancient remedies to determine the rationale for claims made in support of their use as cancer-fighting agents. During his lecture on July 17, the opening day of the Nutracon 2000 conference in Las Vegas, Nev., Rivlin highlighted two agents — garlic and resveratrol — that have a long history of clinical use and are now recognized as having scientifically defined anti-cancer activities as well as possible cardioprotective properties. 


The ancient Greeks looked upon garlic as a performance-enhancing drug and officially sanctioned it for this use during the first Olympic Games. And the Greeks were not alone in their appreciation for the benefits of garlic. Evidence from ancient civilizations in China and South America, as well as other parts of the world, shows that garlic was used to treat diseases of the heart and for increasing the capacity to do work.

Modern research is now confirming what was observed clinically by these ancient societies. For example, components of the active ingredients in garlic have been shown in the laboratory to inhibit the growth of prostate and breast cancer cells, according to Rivlin. Garlic may also have a beneficial effect on two risk factors for atherosclerosis – hyperlipidemia and hypertension (Ali, et al., 2000).

According to Rivlin, “Crushing or cutting garlic initiates a cascade of reactions and compounds that are known to provide different health benefits.

“What is needed,” he continued, “is agreement on standardizing the active ingredients.”

His preference is to standardize garlic based on one of its water-soluble derivatives that have direct actions and can be measured in blood. The current tendency is to standardize around allicin, which is a volatile compound formed after crushing garlic. But allicin is rapidly degraded and cannot be measured in blood.


Resveratrol is a promising anti-cancer agent. “There is relatively little,” according to Rivlin, “in grape juice or white wine. However, it is found in the skin and seeds of grapes, as well as in peanuts.”

Grape leaves were used as a primary treatment for heart disease and infection in ancient medicine. In the past few years, we have learned the scientific basis for this use. Rivlin listed several documented effects of resveratrol, including antioxidant properties and the ability to inhibit platelet aggregation.

It is also known to inhibit carcinogenesis caused by hydrocarbons, inhibit programmed cell death (apoptosis) and inhibit parts of the cytochrome P-450 system involved in drug and carcinogen metabolism.

Applications to patient care

All of the studies Rivlin referred to were done using these compounds in the laboratory. He quickly pointed out that studies conducted in the laboratory may provide promising results, but they must be studied in humans to confirm their value.

These studies are taking place in many areas of clinical interest, and they will help confirm the appropriate role for these and other ancient medicines in the treatment of modern diseases.

John Russo Jr., Pharm.D., is senior vice president of medical communications at Vicus.com. He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.


Ali M, Al-Qattan KK, et al. Effect of allicin from garlic powder on serum lipids and blood pressure in rats fed with a high cholesterol diet. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2000 Apr; 62(4):253-9.

Cho BH, Xu S. Effects of allyl mercaptan and various allium-derived compounds on cholesterol synthesis and secretion in Hep-G2 cells. Comp Biochem Physiol C Pharmacol Toxicol Endocrinol. 2000 Jun; 126(2):195-201.

Damianaki A, Bakogeorgou E, et al. Potent inhibitory action of red wine polyphenols on human breast cancer cells. J Cell Biochem.  2000 Sep; 78(3):429-441.

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Patumraj S, Tewit S, et al. Comparative effects of garlic and aspirin on diabetic cardiovascular complications. Drug Deliv.  2000 Apr-Jun; 7(2):91-6.

Tsan MF, White JE, et al. Resveratrol induces Fas signalling-independent apoptosis in THP-1 human monocytic leukaemia cells. Br J Haematol. 2000 May; 109(2):405-12.