By: Ishi Khosla
Artichoke, a leafy vegetable, is native to Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Canary Islands. In India, they form a part of the ‘exotic vegetable category’. However, their special health benefits merit attention. Artichoke is considered to be one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables, grown by the Greeks and the Romans, and believed to be a favourite of Greek God Zeus — who called it the “Vegetable of the Gods’. Artichoke comes in two varieties: large, round ‘globe’ artichoke and the more commonly eaten, elongated and tapered artichoke.
Artichoke is extremely high on nutrition and low in calories. They are a good source of magnesium, potassium, folate, (a B vitamin), vitamin C, iron and antioxidants. Artichoke edible parts are also one of the richest sources of polyphenols, fibre, minerals and inulin (prebiotic — help in digestion). Artichoke has been found to have highest concentration of antioxidants (cynarin and silymarin). A recent study published in 2013 reported that the concentration of phenolic compounds was highest in artichoke compared to spinach and garlic. Rich in folate and magnesium, many practitioners of herbal medicine believe that artichokes have healing powers.
For a long time, the French have used artichoke as a liver tonic because of the herb’s ability to improve bile flow. Artichoke has been used traditionally, and in alternative medicine, for managing digestive disorders such as indigestion, nausea, flatulence, as well as liver and gallbladder ailments, including jaundice and hepatitis. Artichoke, including its leaves, has also been thought to be an aphrodisiac, diuretic, aid in digestion and blood cleansing, improve liver function and reduce blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. For medicinal purposes, extracts of the artichoke leaf extracts (ALE) are used.
In recent years, globe artichoke has become important as a medicinal herb, following the discovery of its cynarin content, which is found in the leaves. The content stimulates the gallbladder and improves liver function. In other words, it promotes the flow of bile (liver juice which helps in digestion) from gall bladder into the gut, also known as ‘cholagogue’, perhaps due to its cynarin content. This property assists the body in improving fat metabolism. The bile stimulating action of the plant has been well documented in clinical studies and supplements of artichokes are easily available.
By helping the body to metabolise blood fat, the cynarin content in artichoke is also believed to reduce blood lipids, serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels and is thought to be helpful in controlling arteriosclerosis (hardening of arteries).
A recent animal study (2014) conducted at the University of Tokyo, published in the Journal of British Nutrition reported that artichoke has the potential of attenuating lipid disturbances, insulin resistance and inflammation, though the exact mechanisms still need to be understood.
Other qualities attributed to artichoke include hypoglycemic activity that may assist in lowering blood glucose levels. It is also said to be useful in cases of postoperative anaemia.
Ishi Khosla is a former senior nutritionist at Escorts. She heads the Centre of Dietary Counselling and also runs a health food store. She feels that for complete well-being, one should integrate physical, mental and spiritual health. According to her: “To be healthy should be the ultimate goal for all.”
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