Cynara scolymus is the scientific name of this perennial horticultural plant that belongs to the Asteraceae (Compositae) genus, which also include chicory, lettuce, endive, and thistle among others; what they have in common is that their flavor is somehow bitter due to the presence of cynarin, a substance that we will explain later on in this article.
Also known as globe artichoke, this plant can grow up to two meters, but it normally reaches one and a half on average.
The edible part of the artichoke is the flower buds, before the flowers bloom. These flower buds are formed by overlapping leaves that are called bracts; those that are located more internally have a softer consistency and they are called "heart of the artichoke" as a whole, which is the most valuable part, gastronomically speaking.
Where do artichokes come from?
The etymology of the word “artichoke” comes from the Arabic term “al-kharshûf” which means something like “little earth tongue”, which refers to the aspect of its unique leaves.
The artichoke plant is native to Northwest Africa, from where the Arabs traded with the rest of Europe. It was so successful that its cultivation became common in the European continent. Other fruits would be cultivated in this region that would also become popular in Europe later on.
However, it is known that the Greeks and Romans already knew about the properties of artichoke, since they believed that its consumption had aphrodisiac effects. There is evidence that the artichoke is a genetic modification of wild thistle (Cynara cardunculus), which is an exuberant species that spontaneously grows in a lot of European grounds that are not cultivated.
It is probable that a crossing and selection process has been carried out between this and another type of thistle, which has produced a highly improved species that is also edible. One of the areas in the world that has a remarkable production of this vegetable is on the West coast of the United States, specially California, where it arrived through Spanish and French sailors.
Nevertheless, its main production is located in the Mediterranean basin, that provides over three quarters of the world’s production of this vegetable and others, like tomatos for example.
Italy is the leader of this ranking, followed by Spain, which is also considered the number one exporter, with the "Levante" and the Ebro valley as the main cultivating zones.
The original uses of Artichoke
Evidence has been found of its consumption for therapeutic and preventive purposes in ancient times, apparently known by Egyptians and Mesopotamians, who already recognized in the artichoke interesting health effects, especially related to the digestive system.
As previously mentioned, for Greeks and Romans it was considered a luxury for its aphrodisiac gifts. And in ancient Greece it was believed that its consumption by women who wished to remain pregnant would allow them to conceive sons. Leaping forward to the sixteenth century, a document written by a doctor said about this vegetable that "it has the virtue of provoking Venus for men and making women more desirable."
In ancient Greece, the artichoke was eaten raw, but once incorporated to Rome this habit was abandoned because it was said that it dyed teeth, thus under the rule of the emperor Augustus it started to be cooked before it was consumed. Although in our days the consumption of artichoke is common, it was not always so, well into the eighteenth century it was classified as a delicacy only within the reach of the social elites.
At the beginning of the twentieth century multiple informative documents were found in scientific publications in which the artichoke acquired a prominent role. Among others, a prestigious French doctor of the period claimed that the artichoke leaves were an effective remedy against atherosclerosis and attributed it with a regulatory action on the metabolism of urea and purine bases, as well as cholesterol.
What is Artichoke used for nowadays?
After this historical review, it is time to focus our attention on the role played by the artichoke and its extracts in the food of the 21st century.
Apart from it being a culinary delight, highly esteemed by a large part of the population, as revealed by the high demand in the market, the artichoke has made its place in many slimming regimes, where it fits in perfectly if consumed in a context of low-fat and high-fiber foods.
The latter especially acts with a potent synergy with the active ingredients of the artichoke, being responsible for preventing the reabsorption of fats, thus allowing bile to act on them to end up being eliminated from the body throught feces. It can be said that the consumption of artichoke promotes the purification of the organism by two complementary routes: its soluble fiber exerts a purge of waste products in the intestine and its biliary stimulus eliminates excess fats from food.
Its intense capacity of controlling the secretion of bile, which may be its main virtue, grants this vegetable with an almost therapeutic role for people with difficulties to assimilate fats or that are affected by jaundice or “congested liver”, and therefore can not fully perform its metabolic functions.
Thus, when it is associated with some sort of purpose, that is not that of contributing to slimming programs, it is usually consumed to improve the digestion of fats and even for its capacity to stimulate the regeneration of the damaged liver cells. It is highly advisable for fatty liver (a pathology of a higher degree of severity than congested liver), helping to downgrade the waste products and avoiding the potential toxicity that entails greater problems.
It also has an extraordinary recognition in nutritional strategies oriented to the prevention of degenerative diseases.
The artichoke contains, among the active principles that will be described later, chlorogenic acid. This substance is capable of producing a powerful antioxidant action at a cellular membrane level, blocking the formation of these free radicals that become the triggering factor of processes such as cancer or some heart diseases.
People that are prone to unstable blood glucose levels should keep artichoke in mind for their diet.
The fiber contained in this vegetable, in addition to eliminating waste, plays an important role in the intestinal tract: it sequesters the excess of carbohydrates that are metabolically destined to convert to glucose and, consequently, cause an increase in blood glucose. Therefore, it is a highly interesting food for diabetics due to its hypoglycemic effect.
There are also important arguments in favour of taking Artichoke for these two high-incidence diseases: Arthritis and gout. Thanks to its diuretic character it can drag certain substances, that may have a toxic behaviour, along with it, such as uric acid.
For this reason, some people seek, through the consumption of Artichoke, to equip themselves against these chronic joint conditions. Another fact that may contribute is: the anti-inflammatory properties of one of its flavonoids, cynaroside, that can mitigate the intensity of the joint damage, and therefore, the pain. Because of its contribution in fighting liquid retention, it may be of interest to consider taking artichoke regularly when suffering from arterial hypertension, the same as if we require to lower the cholesterol or triglycerides blood levels.
Because of the combination of these factors, we may consider the relevance of artichoke to prevent cardiovascular disease, which is one of the main causes of death in most of Europe and the developed world.
Properties and Benefits of Artichoke
A statement that could well serve as corollary to this article is that artichoke is an essential food in the planning of a balanced diet because of the enormous benefits that it can supply to our health. We will explain these properties one by one.
The first fact to be taken into account is that the dominant component of the artichoke is water, which represents 87% of its weight. And what makes up the remaining 13%, that is apparently so important? Remarkably the immediate principles that shape the energy value of a food, which are fats and simple carbohydrates, occupy an unimportant place in its composition: the first, only 0,1%, and the second, 2%. Consequently, the caloric value of the artichoke is quite poor (about 40 kilocalories per 100 grams).
Proteins, on the other hand, represent near to another 2%. The strongest role is played by the complex carbohydrates, of which it is necessary to mention inulin, followed by soluble fiber. The first of these is crucial in restricting the synthesis peaks characteristic of diabetes mellitus. It is a glucose and fructose reserve polysaccharide.
The micronutrients section requires of special attention.
Vitamins, minerals and certain specific substances explain the reasoning for this view of artichoke.
Among the Vitamins, we may highlight the presence of Vitamin B (B1, B3) and E. The first two are crucial for the effectiveness of the metabolic routes for the usage of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, and especially B1, for the correct functioning of the nervous system. Regarding Vitamin E, it has a known antioxidant function in all of the tissues.
Within the minerals in Artichokes, potassium has the highest presence, and yet Artichokes are catalogued as one of the most rich in magnesium, phosphorus and calcium vegetables. This gives an idea of the amounts of potassium supplied, which is essential within the body as a regulator of the liquid levels, as a hypotensor and in the transmission of the nervous impulse. Regarding calcium we must mention that because of its vegetable origin its usage is reduced compared to the content in food with animal origin.
In relation to Magnesium, it has a wide range of functions, as it noticeably affects the functioning of intestines, nerves and muscles, it is key for calcium fixation in bones and teeth, and it strengthens the immune system, among other things.
Precisely, because of its richness in these three micronutrients, it is an advisable food product during pregnancy, especially in the second trimester. To this we need to add another benefit from artichoke during pregnancy, derived from the flavonoid apigenin, which acts as an artery relaxant. Being of great importance all of the nutritional features we have already described, these alone would justify recommending taking artichoke. However, the most relevant elements of its composition are a series of substances, that are found in close to imperceptible quantities in comparison to the rest, but that produce very healthy effects.
We are referring to:
Cynarin and cynaropicrin: They are aromatic compounds that cause the bitter taste that is specific to the artichoke flavour. Medically they are considered to have choleretic and cholagogue effects, which means that, on the one hand, they stimulate the production of bile acids and salts in the hepatocytes (the noble cells of the liver), and on the other, they stimulate the evacuation of the bile stored in the gallbladder. Most of the concentration of cynarin lies in the leaf pulp, not being exempt of it, the dry leaves and stems. Cynarin, due to these properties, facilitates the digestion of fats. Bile is excreted into the duodenum after ingestion of food to metabolize the triglycerides contained therein. To give us an idea of the beneficial effects caused by cynarin, on the normal bile volume produced by the liver, with a regular and significant consumption of artichoke it can be increased by 50%, reaching a liter a day. Apart from this, there are research projects focused on cynaropicrin that show, until now, serious indications of its potential effectiveness in the prevention of tumors.
Chlorogenic acid: It is a compound with an antioxidant power that makes it act as a "healer" of cell membranes.
Phytosterols: These are substances that can be called plant cholesterol because of its tremendous analogy with cholesterol, its importance lays in the fact that they obstruct the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine.
Organic acids: Basically malic and citric, which work synergistically with cynarin and cynaroside. The diuretic function is related to acids of the malic, citric, glyceric, succinic and lactic type.
Flavonoids: Derived from luteolin, they potentiate diuresis of the above acids along with other substances called scolimosides and potassium-rich salts. In particular, the cynarosides have anti-inflammatory properties. It is obvious that, in light of everything described above, the artichoke has gained a status of medicinal plant, fundamentally once the benefits of cynarin have been confirmed.
Possible side effects
In nature, all coins have two faces, in the case of artichokes, the good face is much more noteworthy than the bad one, but this does not mean that it should be forgotten. Some people, may suffer from allergic reactions from artichoke.
They usually coincide with individuals who have already shown hypersensitivity to other plant species such as marigolds, daisies, ragweed, chrysanthemums and the like. Allergic manifestations following the consumption of artichokes have the same profile as in the generality of allergies, including rashes, urticaria, intense itching, edemas, asthma and respiratory distress, leading to anaphylactic shock in the most extremely severe cases.
Apart from allergies, other possible side effects, which are more common, should be taken into account. These are circumscribed to intestinal problems: flatulence, diarrhea, inappetence or nausea. It can sometimes reveal a hidden problem, cholelithiasis, which are gallstones in the gallbladder. In fact, it is known that eating artichokes is harmful for those people who have a certain degree of obstruction of the bile duct, as its cholagogue function (remember the cynarin section), increases the emptying of the gall and that may suppose a bile jam.
Waiting for stronger data to corroborate what is so far an indication, artichokes could raise the risk of bleeding in patients who suffer from some type of hematological disorder or are being treated with anticoagulants such as warfarin.
On the consumption of artichoke during lactation, it is recommended to be avoided because of the risk of some transfer of the bitter taste to the milk.
It could be mentioned, rather than as a side effect as a physiological consequence associated to the consumption of artichokes, an increase of diuresis, both in quantity of urine produced and in frequency of evacuation.
Artichoke extract supplements
In recent years, an endless number of concentrated products have reached the market, mostly for slimming purposes, carrying an artichoke tag and presented in the form of tablets, vials, capsules, powders, teas and some others. Many artichoke extract supplements are among the natural remedies endorsed by trustworthy clinical trials that prove the benefits of its consumption.
The artichoke leaves are used for therapeutic purposes to obtain an extract that is rich in the sought substance, the cynarin (whose attributions we have explained in detail). In addition to cynarin, the selection of the artichoke extracts includes cynaropicrin, which provides the consumer with an eupeptic (encouraging digestion) and appetite stimulant effects. This double function is what determines the moment of ingesting these substances.
Before a meal they will behave like stimulants of the digestive juices (what is popularly known as appetite-opening), but if eaten during a meal or once its finished, the eupeptic action will prevail, limiting the formation of gases and improving in general the digestion process. An interesting particularity of artichoke extract, originated by the presence of mucilage in its formula, is that when mixed with water it generates colloidal substances that translate into a better transit of the food bolus through the intestine.
For what and how are these Artichoke extract supplements used?
The artichoke extract can be used as a natural diuretic in those cases that are advised to reinforce a treatment that avoids water retention and boost the kidney function. While taking artichoke extracts, we should take the precautions of drinking plenty of water and to ingest sufficient energy to cover the metabolisms needs. Otherwise, the weight loss process will be slower, if this is the purpose of its consumption.
Regarding the permissible quantities, the recommendations for an adult, talk of 3 daily intakes of 500 to 650 milligrams of a standardized artichoke leaf extract, during a period of a month or month and a half.
Guideline supplementation of artichoke leaf extract may be the best non-pharmacological alternative for people who, due to their clinical situation, require substances of choleric action (stimulate bile formation), hypocholesterolemic (reduce cholesterol levels), anti-dyspeptic (improve digestion), carminative (favour the expulsion of gases) and spasmolytic (control the pain caused by intestinal spasms). If there are conclusive clinical studies on the benefits of artichoke extract supplements, those are the ones related to the decrease in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
As an example we can make reference to the study carried out in the year 2000 on 143 adults whose cholesterol levels far exceeded the physiological limits. They were given a daily intake of 1800 mg of an artichoke leaf extract over a period of six weeks. The study showed very significant reduction figures; for total cholesterol, 18,5%, and for LDL, 22,9%.
Certainly, an effectiveness comparable to that credited by some statins, although these lack the tolerability of the artichoke extract, whose side effects are sorely lacking. But not only are cholesterol levels affected by the action of artichoke extract. A similar emphasis should be given to the effects on hypertriglyceridemia (excess triglycerides in blood), common in obese, diabetic and hypercholesterolemic patients, and a clear predisposing factor for thromboembolism and pancreatitis.
For non-pharmacological treatment, phytotherapy is often used, based on plant supplements rich in mucilages, among which the artichoke extract stands out. Doctors often advise that artichoke extract capsules be taken half an hour before meals to allow the extract to leave the capsule and mix with the gastric juices during digestion.
On another note, there is a field in which we can obtain therapeutic successes with the artichoke extract: the treatment of migraine, a condition that affects a large percentage of the population, especially women. Their application is as a long-term treatment (their use should be ruled out in migraine attacks). Artichoke extract seems to show evidence of working as a probiotic, ie, stimulant of the intestinal flora, so it is used by people suffering from chronic constipation or irritable bowel syndrome.
How to distinguish good and bad artichoke extract supplements
A general rule before purchasing any medicinal herb supplement is to be sure of its origin. It seams evident that any manufacturer of a substance of this nature has to pass previous controls from the relevant sanitary authorities. However, unfortunately, there are individuals trying to sell products illegally and underground.
Another point that we should not ignore is the content of the label.
The formula will indicate each of the active ingredients that it contains, something that the consumer should have easy access to, as to avoid any type of adverse reaction due to allergies or other circumstances.
When buying an artichoke extract supplement, it is important to ensure the authenticity of this ingredient, as there are commercial formulas that are supposedly prepared with artichoke leaves, but whose main ingredient is actually a mix of different ingredients unrelated to artichoke.
Most of the extracts are produced in gel capsules or tablets. The first of these, contain the concentrated extract available to be mixed in with the digestive juices in a short space of time. For this reason they are the best formula to obtain a maximum precision in the dosage, as they are covered by a coating that provides the capsule with the physical resistance for a controlled release of the content.
On the other hand, we should always seek supplements that contain a standardized cynarin content. This means that it accurately guarantees a constant supply of active principals, especially cynarin, of which a 15mg daily supply should be assured. Normally, the extracts that we find on the market range from a 5 to a 2,5% of cynarin, with a 1:8 ratio, which means that the mass of the obtained extract is 8 times smaller that the plant used for its elaboration.
Possible combinations with artichoke extract supplements
Among the artichoke supplements aimed at performing digestive actions, we may find formulas combined with ginger, ideal to lead hepatic and gastric functions. It is highly advisable to make use of the synergy that exists between artichoke and dandelion in pursuit of purifying the body, acting as a hepatic and eupeptic tonic combination.
Very suited, also, for diet planning to fight abdominal fat. Among those supplements destined to make use of their diuretic properties, with the goal of purifying the body and/or slimming, it is frequent to mix artichoke and horsetail, another powerful diuretic. Those aimed at simultaneously correcting the hepatic function and reducing cholesterol levels usually come in capsules with a varied composition, as they may include artichoke extract, pitahaya, flax, prickly pear or green tea.
Other very common mixed formulations include black radish, boldo, milk thistle and fennel. In addition, some preparations incorporate as an enriching agent, choline, with excellent benefits for a proper liver and gall bladder function.
We will conclude by mentioning the application of artichoke extract in body mesotherapy as a technique in aesthetic medicine that is based on the intradermal application of pharmacological preparations with the aim of fighting cellulite and localized fat deposits.
It works with artichoke extract solutions that contain a support of hyaluronic acid and L-carnitine, which promote blood and lymphatic circulation, contributing to the metabolism of triglycerides. In particular, L-carnitine intervenes in the metabolism of fatty acids, ensuring, with its presence as part of a coenzyme, their transport to the mitochondria, the cellular organelles where oxidation takes place.
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