Artichoke Health Benefits

Artichokes are the flower buds of a Mediterranean thistle and are delicious eaten steamed, boiled, grilled or roasted. 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

Artichokes are an antioxidant powerhouse, full of unique polyphenols that offer numerous health benefits. One serving of artichoke (typically served as a starter, or to accompany fish) can provide as much as 1142 mg  polyphenols per 100g – three times more antioxidants than the same weight of blueberries! It also has the highest level of luteolin found in any fresh food, which explains its beneficial effects on the liver. Artichokes can improve a range of health risks including raised cholesterol levels, indigestion and diabetes.

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. Artichoke inulin 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 you eat artichoke, 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. They were right!

Modern research shows that taking 320mg artichoke extracts can boost the production and secretion of bile in the liver by over 127 per cent after 30 minutes, 151 per cent after 60 minutes and by 94 per cent after 90 minutes. This aids digestion of fat and can prevent or relieve symptoms of indigestion and bloating.

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, with benefits noticed within 10 days and continuing to improve over a 6 week period.

Artichoke also helps to improve stomach emptying to further relieve bloating.

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)

The beneficial effects of globe artichoke can improve the digestive symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. A study involving 208 people with IBS found that after taking artichoke extracts reduced the incidence of IBS symptoms by 26.4%. 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%. and improved quality of life 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 effects of  artichoke 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.

One study found that artichoke extracts lowered total cholesterol levels by 4.2% while another found that artichoke extracts reduced total cholesterol by 18.5% (from 7.74 mmol/L to 6.31 mmol/L after 42 days) with improvements in the LDL/HDL ratio – in those taking placebo, cholesterol levels increased.

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

Artichoke is emerging as a useful supplement for people with diabetes, as its antioxidants can inhibit the breakdown of starch to reduce blood glucose levels after eating, lower cholesterol and triglycerides and protect against the free radical damage that cause diabetes-related complications.

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 glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1c) compared with placebo. This suggests that artichoke has the potential to significantly reduce the long-term risks of heart disease.

Artichoke improves blood pressure

Artichoke extracts also appears to have a natural ability to inhibit angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.

Artichoke may aid weight loss

Artichoke may help to suppress appetite and increase satiety as a result of improved blood glucose and lipid levels. Interesting research involving 39 overweight people showed that taking 200mg artichoke extracts (plus 100mg kidney bean extracts) significantly reduced hunger and appetite.

Those taking artichoke and bean 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

Set up a large steamer with a couple of inches of water and add a crushed clove of garlic, some slices of lemon and a bay leaf (to add extra flavour to the artichoke).

Using a pair of scissors, cut off the tips of the globe artichoke petals to remove the sharp points.

Then, slice off the top of the artichoke.

Cut off the stem just below the globe.

Rinse the artichokes in cold water, opening up the petals to rinse inside.

When the steamer is boiling, add the artichokes and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 25 to 45 minutes until the outer leaves are easy to pull off – the timing will depend on the size of the globe. 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.

Holding the petal tightly, place the dipped end in your mouth and pull the flesh end through your teeth to remove the delicious, soft pulp. Discard the remaining fibrous petal.

When all petals have been eaten, you can tackle the base of the globe artichoke. Using a knife or serrated grapefruit teaspoon, scrape out the inedible fuzzy part (the choke) and discard it. This reveals the underlying prize of the artichoke heart. Cut the heart into pieces and dip into the sauce to eat.

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.

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