What Is It?
This grand perennial with its purplish flower head is native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Canary Islands. In the days of ancient Rome and Greece, Europeans began to cultivate artichoke as well. It is now grown commercially in North Africa. Although the flesh of the spike-tipped petals, called “bracts,” and the heart of the flower head are eaten as a delicacy, it is the plant’s large, lobed leaves and their extracts that are used medicinally.
Traditional healers prescribed artichoke leaf to treat digestive upset, poor liver function, and a range of other ailments. Its primary use has been as a choleretic–a substance that strengthens liver function by increasing bile production. Artichoke leaf also has a centuries-old reputation as a diuretic (to increase urination).
Artichoke is used as a sweetener and flavoring agent in some alcoholic drinks. Its aromatic “bitter” properties (particularly from the leaves, stem, and roots) inspire its use in alcoholic liqueurs intended to encourage good digestion. The extremely bitter taste is believed to stimulate the production of digestive juices, which is why the traditional aperitif is drunk before meals in many countries.
Ongoing research seems to indicate that artichoke does indeed have medicinal qualities. Most significant appears to be its beneficial effect on the liver. In animal studies, liquid extracts of the roots and leaves of artichoke have demonstrated an ability to protect the liver, and possibly even to help liver cells regenerate. Although research is not yet conclusive, scientists are optimistic that its long-standing use in humans for digestive and bowel problems is indeed justified. It may also play a role in lowering cholesterol and thus help to prevent heart disease.
Specifically, artichoke leaf may help to:
Relieve digestive problems. Various studies have shown that artichoke is particularly helpful in relieving gastrointestinal problems that result from an inability to adequately process fats, a result of poor bile secretion. Because it stimulates the liver to produce of this important gastric “juice,” artichoke can help to ease upset stomach symptoms such as nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Artichoke leaf is also reputed to relieve flatulence. Cynarin, an artichoke extract, has recently been listed in the The Merck Index, a pharmaceutical guide, for this use.
Ease IBS symptoms. Evidence for relief of IBS symptoms is not firmly established, but it may be reasonable to speculate that if artichoke allays digestive problems from one cause (poor bile production), it may help very similar symptoms caused by another, namely irritable bowel syndrome. A 2001 study of people using artichoke leaf extract identified a subgroup of patients with IBS, a condition characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. After six weeks, there was a significant abatement of their IBS symptoms. Although not a controlled clinical trial, the researchers believe the results are suggestive enough to warrant further studies on artichoke as a treatment for IBS.
Lower cholesterol. Secreting bile helps the liver to regulate its production of cholesterol. Given artichoke’s role in boosting bile output, researchers have examined whether artichoke lowers cholesterol. While results have been inconsistent, some manufacturers have nonetheless added cynarin, the artichoke extract, to their cholesterol-lowering drugs.
–Although often only the flower head is available, in some grocery stores you can find the whole plant. Cook the leaves as a vegetable.
–You may find artichoke in multi-ingredient liver remedies that also include milk thistle, another liver-supporting herb.
–Cynarin, the major active component of artichoke leaf, is available in standardized extracts.
For digestive problems: Take 1 teaspoon liquid extract mixed with water OR a 320 mg standardized extract capsule OR 15 to 30 drops tincture mixed into water three times a day.
For irritable bowel syndrome: Take 1 teaspoon liquid extract mixed with water OR a 320 mg standardized extract capsule OR 15 to 30 drops tincture mixed into water three times a day.
To lower cholesterol: Take 1 teaspoon liquid extract mixed with water OR a 320 mg standardized extract capsule OR 15 to 30 drops tincture mixed into water three times a day.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with artichoke.
Possible Side Effects
Most people tolerate artichoke preparations quite well. However, a small percentage of clinical trial participants reported sensations such as weakness and hunger when taking artichoke leaf.
If you know you are allergic to artichoke or a related species, don’t take artichoke leaf or preparations containing cynarin.
If you have obstructed bile ducts or gallstones, do not use artichoke without the guidance of your doctor.
High cholesterol – take 1 teaspoon liquid extract mixed with water OR a 320 mg. standardized extract capsule OR 15 to 30 drops tincture mixed into water three times a day.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD