It was once wisely observed that the artichoke is a vegetable that you have “more of when you finish than when you start.” After all the work of peeling the leaves and breaking through the bristles that surround the core, you get to the tasty artichoke heart.
Yet many others have also noted that “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” In this case, that is the aphorism that applies, because while we all celebrate the heart of an artichoke, it is the leaves that host the most nutrients, providing a variety of health benefits.
So here we'll peel back the layers of this complex vegetable to understand its history, benefits and some of the scientific research that has been done to date.
Artichoke, or Cynara scolymus, is a native plant to southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Canary Islands. Culturally, its appreciation stems from noble roots--cultivated in Florence in the 1400s, it was taken to France by Catherine de Médici. From there the French and Italians, along with the Spanish, established it as a staple of cuisine and culture. In the 1800s, European immigrants brought artichokes to the United States, and today, 99% of the US artichoke commercial crop is grown in California.
Artichoke is a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family. Extract from the nutrient dense leaves has a long medicinal history. It is thought to be one of the oldest used medicinal plants, as it is depicted in ancient Egyptian drawings and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to aid in digestion.
Artichoke leaf extract has been used for different purposes, including alcohol-induced hangovers, chronic albuminuria, hyperlipidemia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), jaundice, liver dysfunction, and even snake bites.
Besides indigestion, artichoke extract may also help people who experience heartburn (dyspepsia), bloating, and nausea, which is a particular focus of those who tout the medicinal benefits.
There has been scientific exploration to confirm and better understand the traditional medicinal uses of artichoke leaf extract in recent years.
The high concentration of cynarin in artichokes helps with cholesterol management as well as digestive health, as Cynarin stimulates bile production, which helps to digest fats and with vitamin absorption from food. This was demonstrated in a 1994 study conducted with a randomised placebo-controlled double-blind cross-over pilot study with 20 participants.
In a 2004 study at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, 208 adults who experience IBS and dyspepsia were observed as they regularly utilized artichoke leaf extract. The results demonstrated 26% reduction in the incidence of IBS among participants by the conclusion of the two-month trial. There was also a meaningful, self-reported improvement of bowel patterns. Additionally, dyspepsia symptoms decreased by 41% after treatment.
Finally, another double-blind, placebo controlled study in 2010 with 32 adult participants over a 3 week period, demonstrates that the inulin from artichoke helped to balance gut flora, which could contribute to treating some of the symptoms of indigestion.
This information is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult a physician before treating any disorder.