Not only is its fleshy flower bud something of a delicacy, but compounds extracted from this flavonoid-rich vegetable are also said to have a beneficial effect on the liver – helping protect liver cells from toxins – and increasing bile secretion to improve digestion of dietary fats.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘The active ingredients – particularly cynarin – are extracted from the leaves and stems of the plant and could be helpful in reducing high cholesterol levels and relieving digestive complaints.’
What does artichoke do?
Artichoke is rich in a range of nutrients including the flavonoid luteolin, vitamin C, vitamin A, manganese, potassium, and folic acid. The key active component in the artichoke is cynarin. This can stimulate bile secretion from the liver which improves digestion of dietary fats and reduces a range of symptoms and conditions.
Artichoke also contains inulin, a soluble fibre that slows down digestion when it is eaten as a food, helping to control blood sugar after meals and therefore useful for people with diabetes. Artichoke extract has also been shown to reduce indigestion and symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There is also some evidence to show it can reduce high cholesterol levels.
Inulin is thought to help speed up the passage of food through the digestive tract (as it contains soluble fibre) which could be why some people taking artichoke leaf extract say it eases feelings of bloating and fullness. This action, combined with the increase in bile production, is thought to explain the extract's cholesterol-lowering effects.
One study found cholesterol levels were reduced by an average of 4.2 per cent among artichoke users, compared to 1.9 per cent in a placebo group. A review of studies into the effectiveness of artichoke leaf extract for reducing high cholesterol concluded it had a modestly positive effect on cholesterol levels, but for now, experts say the results are not compelling enough for it to be recommended as a treatment for high cholesterol.
Indigestion and IBS
Artichoke leaf extract appears to reduce indigestion symptoms such as nausea, flatulence and stomach pain. That some of these are also symptoms of a hangover has led people to believe artichoke extract is also a useful hangover cure, although there is no hard evidence to support this. Research in its early stages suggests artichoke extracts could also reduce symptoms associated with IBS-like bloating, cramping, abdominal pain and heartburn.
Getting artichoke from your diet
You can obviously eat the fleshy flower bud or heart of the artichoke but it is the stems and leaves, which are less edible, that contain the majority of the therapeutic compounds like cynarin, and this is where artichoke extract supplements can be helpful.
For some people, artichoke extract can cause intestinal gas and allergic reactions (for those also allergic to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies). People suffering with gallstones are advised to use artichoke extract with caution as it can irritate their condition by increasing bile flow. There is also concern that artichoke extract could make bile duct obstruction worse. If you suffer with this condition talk to your doctor before taking artichoke extract.
There is currently no UK Recommended Daily Allowance. A dose of two 340mg artichoke tablets, each containing 7.2mg of cynarin daily is typical.
Experts recommend taking artichoke supplements with Milk Thistle supplements, which help with over-indulgence.