The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a popular Mediterranean thistle that contains several unique and powerful flavonoid antioxidants. Although the fleshy flower buds are eaten as a delicacy, it is the leaves that contain the most active ingredients. These can be used to make a delicious artichoke herbal tea, and to produce a supplement that would benefit most people – especially those who are middle-aged and older.
Globe artichoke is one of the oldest medicinal herbs, used by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks to aid digestion. It was so valued that it was often reserved for consumption by nobles and royalty. Modern research confirms that these actions result from beneficial effects on the liver, and within the bowel itself.
Artichokes are highly antioxidant
One serving of globe artichoke (typically served as a starter, or to accompany fish) even provides more antioxidant polyphenols than a serving of cranberries or blueberries. Globe artichoke extracts provide an astonishing 1142 mg polyphenols per 100g weight, including unique bioflavonoids such as cynarin, cynaroside and solimoside. It also has the highest level of luteolin found in any fresh food, which explains its beneficial effects on the liver.
Artichokes are probiotic
As well as its high antioxidant content, globe artichoke also contains inulin, a prebiotic fibre that stimulates the growth of ‘friendly’ probiotic bacteria in the bowel. It is an especially potent stimulator of Bifidobacterium bifidum and also provides a rich feeding ground for Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus paracasei which are important for a healthy digestive system. This makes artichoke the perfect food, or supplement, to help maintain normal bowel function, to overcome constipation and to take alongside any probiotic supplements.
Artichoke protects the liver
Globe artichoke has similar liver-protective properties as its close relative, the milk thistle, and helps to counteract fatty-liver changes. This makes artichoke a great supplement to take if you drink alcohol regularly, are overweight, have metabolic syndrome, diabetes, or have been diagnosed as having a fatty liver.
When eaten, the beneficial antioxidants, especially luteolin, travel straight to the liver where they have direct effects on the activity of different genes to:
- Protect liver cells from toxins – including alcohol
- Increase bile secretion and improve the digestion of dietary fats
- Promote the production of ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol
- Reduce synthesis of ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides
- Improve the regulation of blood glucose
- Reduce blood stickiness
- Lower blood pressure.
Artichoke has been shown to reduce fatty infiltration of the liver (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) and there is some evidence that artichoke extracts may help damaged liver cells regenerate, although research is not yet conclusive.
Artichoke stimulates bile production
Globe artichokes were cultivated by both the ancient Greeks and Romans, who considered them a valuable aid to digestion.
The effect of artichoke extracts on bile secretion was investigated in gold-standard trial in which 20 people randomly took a single dose of either globe artichoke extracts, or placebo, on separate occasions. Bile secretion was measured and after 30 minutes, there was a there was a significant 127% increase in bile secretion, rising to 151% after 60 minutes. After 90 minutes, bile secretion was still 94% greater than at the start of the study and all responses were significantly greater than with placebo. The researchers suggested that artichoke extracts can be recommended to treat dyspepsia, especially then this was due to difficulties in digesting fatty food.
Artichoke extracts are particularly beneficial for people who have had their gallbladder removed, as this means they cannot store bile to squirt into the small intestine when eating. Instead, bile trickles down on a continuous basis. Taking artichoke before eating will increase bile production to aid digestion.
Artichoke improves digestion
As a result of effects on the liver, and on bacterial balance in the bowel, artichoke extracts can improve digestive symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, nausea, abdominal pain and constipation.
This improvement occurs whether symptoms are related to indigestion, insufficient bile production and poor fat digestion, to hangover or to irritable bowel syndrome.
In a study involving 417 people long-standing symptoms of upper abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, lack of appetite and nausea, artichoke leaf extracts produced rapid relief.
After one week, around 70% experienced an improvement in their symptoms, which increased to 85% after 4 weeks. Another study, involving 553 people with dyspepsia or irritable bowel syndrome, compared the effects of 640mg artichoke leaf extracts three times a day, with meals, against placebo. After 6 weeks treatment with artichoke leaf extracts, there were significant improvements in vomiting (88 %), nausea (83 %), abdominal pain (76 %), loss of appetite (72 %), severe constipation (71 %), flatulence (68 %) and fat intolerance (59 %). Overall, 98% said the treatment was at least as good if not better than any previous medication.
Artichoke improves irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
In the study, mentioned above data from the 208 people with irritable bowel syndrome were analysed separately, and more than a quarter (26.4%) found their symptoms of IBS resolved after treatment. There was a significant shift in self-reported usual bowel pattern from ‘alternating constipation/diarrhoea’ towards normal, with total symptoms score decreasing by 41% and quality of life scores improving by 20%. Good benefits were noticed within 10 days and 84% of patients and physicians rated the overall effect as good or excellent.
Artichoke lowers cholesterol
Research dating back to the 1930s suggested that artichoke extracts can prevent the build-up of fatty plaque in artery walls (atherosclerosis) when following a high fat diet. This effect is now known to result from both cynaroside and luteolin blocking the synthesis of excess cholesterol in the liver. The antioxidant action also protects circulating cholesterol from oxidation which is a major trigger for atherosclerosis. Artichoke extracts also have beneficial effects on blood vessel dilation and responsiveness in people with raised cholesterol levels.
A number of studies have shown that artichoke extracts can lower total cholesterol levels by between 4.2% and 18.5% (from 7.74 mmol/L to 6.31 mmol/L after 42 days) with improvements in the LDL/HDL ratio while cholesterol levels increased in those on placebo.
A six-week trial involving over 300 people showed average reductions in total cholesterol of just under 12% and reductions in triglyceride levels of around 13%.
Artichoke improves glucose control
A study involving 55 overweight people with poor glucose tolerance compared the effects of taking a globe artichoke extract (600 mg per day) for 8 weeks against placebo. Those taking the supplement showed a 9.6% improvement in fasting blood glucose levels, and a 2.3% reduction in HbA1c compared with placebo. This has the potential to significantly reduce the long-term risks of heart disease.
Artichoke improves blood pressure
Artichoke may aid weight loss
Interesting research involving 39 overweight people showed that taking 200mg globe artichoke extracts (plus 100mg kidney bean extracts) significantly reduced hunger and appetite. Those taking the extracts lost 1.1 kilogram more during the 60 day trial (a total of 2.65kg) compared with those taking an inactive placebo. This may mean that eating globe artichoke hearts, drinking artichoke tea, or taking supplements may offer additional benefits in those who are cutting back on food intake to lose weight.
What’s the best dose?
Usual doses of globe artichoke are 360 mg to 1,800 mg extracts per day, best taken with food.
Select a supplement standardised to provide a guaranteed amount of the key active ingredient, cynarin. For example, some brands offer a 360mg extract that is equivalent to 9g of fresh leaves and contains 7.2mg cynarin per tablet.
Are there any cautions?
Artichoke extracts are usually well tolerated. Side effects of hunger and transient increase in flatulence have been reported. Rarely, allergic reactions may occur.
- Do not use globe artichoke if you have a bile duct obstruction or obstructive jaundice.
- In case of gallstones, use only after consulting a physician.
How to Prepare an Artichoke
Tip: When steaming artichokes, add a crushed clove of garlic, some slices of lemon and a bay leaf to the water to add extra flavour to the artichoke.
You can eat artichokes hot or cold. Simply peel off each petal, one at a time, and dip the white, fleshy end into melted garlic butter, aioli, or mayonnaise mixed with a little balsamic vinegar.
My favourite herbal tea
As I write this, I’m sipping an artichoke leaf tea which has a lovely, slightly sweet, smoky flavour. Perfect as a digestive after a meal.
| Natur Boutique’s Organic Artichoke Tea is made from the flower heads of organic, Vietnamese artichokes that are grown at high altitude where the Cynara plants flourish but insects cannot thrive. Each pack contains 20 teabags, each providing 2g dried artichoke.
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