Health Benefits of Artichokes

artichokes benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Artichokes are a vegetable with the appearance of a flower, consumed for thousands of years as a medicine and versatile food, from “artichips” to pizza, dips to sauces and stir-fries
  • Artichoke extracts contain many properties that can help lower cholesterol, protect your liver and fight against such diseases and disorders as Alzheimer’s, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and indigestion, to name a few
  • Folic acid in artichokes protects against neural damage in unborn babies; luteolin helps prevent inflammation and cancer, while antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-allergic agents, including inulin, improve gut health

By Dr. Mercola

You've probably tasted artichokes and enjoy them in soups and on pizza for their zesty, unique flavor. But you may not be aware there are artichoke supplements, which are helpful as a powerful probiotic and antioxidant. The probiotic part helps your gut regain equilibrium, while the antioxidants are instrumental in fighting free radicals that cause many diseases, including cancer, heart attack and Alzheimer's. A plethora of nutrients simultaneously benefit your health in many other ways.

For a little background on this interesting plant, there are two botanical varieties: the globe artichoke, suggested for culinary use, is Cynara scolymus and the cardoon is Cynara cardunculus. They're beautiful plants, depicted by artists for their interesting construction and vibrant colors: pale gold on the inside; thick rubbery "petals" in shades of pale green, sometimes tinged with purple, on the outside.

If the plant reminds you of a thistle, it's because it belongs to the same perennial family. Artichoke history springs from the Mediterranean, with a surge in popularity in the 1500s after having waned following the fall of Rome. Today, California has the perfect climate to produce most of the artichokes grown in the U.S. Organic Facts explains how the edible part of artichokes are the buds that form within the flower head, before it fully blooms:

"Timing is key in cultivating them, as they turn hard and nearly inedible once the flower has fully bloomed. Also, one of the most sought after parts of the thistle is the 'heart,' which is the base from which the other buds spring. It is often considered a delicacy, or at least the most delicious part of the plant, and is typically more expensive."1

Artichoke — A Most Versatile Plant

One of the most sought-after aspects of this unique food is its amazing versatility. Cooked artichoke leaves can be used individually as "artichips" for dipping salsa or any creamy concoction you love instead of tortilla chips. Use them as an edible bowl, serving cold or hot soups or chicken salad. The hearts are great sliced up as a pizza topping or in stir-fries. You can pickle or ferment artichokes with other veggies, and they're also good roasted, or chopped up and added to soups, casseroles or quiche.

The fact that artichoke supplements are available hints at a little-known fact: They contain silymarin (also contained in milk thistle), which provides even more antioxidants than blueberries, dark chocolate and red wine, per serving,2 and artichoke ranks No. 7 on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) top 20 antioxidant-rich foods list. Depending on which list you look at, artichokes are nearly always in the top 10 most antioxidant-rich foods.3

You've heard about artichoke hearts, which are very healthy on their own, but Self Hacked notes that artichoke leaf extracts contain more health benefits than eating the artichoke heart alone.4 Speaking of hearts, one study shows that the globe artichoke variety has a better balance between potassium and sodium than many foods, which is important for optimal health.

Artichokes and Blood Pressure, Brain Benefits and More

While the luteolin in artichokes reduce cholesterol, which can contribute to plaque formation in your arteries, it also increases eNOS activity, the enzyme responsible for producing nitric oxide, which acts to widen your blood vessels for decreased blood pressure (although in 2009, researchers weren't sure how it worked).5 Enzymes known as metalloproteinases are major contributors to heart disease. Self Hacked explains:

"These enzymes play a key role in plaque accumulation and rupture in the arteries, which can trigger heart attacks. MMP-9, a metalloproteinase, is involved in the body's natural process of tissue repair and breakdown. It breaks down proteins, which can contribute to disease progression. High levels of metalloproteinase 9 (MMP-9) are also correlated with heart attack and stroke. Artichoke (cardoon) extract inhibits the MMP-9 activity in rats, likely due to its antioxidant properties."6

Ocean Mist,7 the California farm called the "artichoke capital of the world," notes a study on elderly individuals who were given artichoke supplements, after which researchers determined that the vitamin K they contain — 12 percent of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) — has important functions in the brain, such as sulfotransferase activity, as well as the activity of a growth factor/tyrosine kinase receptor. Additionally:

"The hypothesis is now proposed that vitamin K deficiency contributes to the pathogenesis of AD [Alzheimer's disease] and that vitamin K supplementation may have a beneficial effect in preventing or treating the disease. Vitamin K may also reduce neuronal damage associated with cardiovascular disease."8

Artichokes contain 107 micrograms of folic acid in every serving, which is more than a quarter of the DRI, serving to protect pregnant women from neural tube defects in their unborn fetuses and other problems related to pregnancy and childbirth, including pre-eclampsia and congenital heart defects.9

Beneficial Compounds in Artichokes

A myriad of factors (such as optimal and consistent hours of sleep, low sugar intake and regular consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables) can make or break your body's ability to fight disease. When you eat antioxidant-rich foods like artichoke, your potential for better health is improved. A number of artichoke benefits are listed below:

Improved gut health10

Lowered blood pressure

Stronger bones

Enhanced immunity

Reduced cholesterol

RNA and DNA health

Protection against lead toxicity11

Weight loss12

Heart protection13

Improved skin health

Indigestion relief

Protection against pain reliever overdose14

Some of the star players, when it comes to antioxidants, are the polyphenols, which have chemopreventive properties, meaning they can stop, slow and even reverse cancer. One study showed that properties in artichoke can cause programmed cell death in cancer cells, called apoptosis, halt the formation of new cancer cells and in breast cancer cells, may inhibit their ability to divide without harming normal cells.15 Further:

"Artichoke leaf extract also has antitumor effects in mesothelioma (a type of cancer caused by asbestos in tissues that line the lungs, stomach or heart) cancer cells. It reduced cell growth and migration."16

The polyphenols in artichokes come largely from quercetin and rutin, two specific antioxidant types that studies have revealed can reduce your risk of developing cancer. Of the multiple clinical findings reporting on the presence of rutin and quercetin in artichokes, one noted their ability to exhibit "mitigating radiation-induced mortality and cytogenetic damage, which may be attributed to the scavenging of radiation-induced free radicals."17

Liver function is important for anyone wanting a healthy body, and artichoke helps by boosting the production of bile, which eliminates dangerous toxins and digestive fats due to their cynarin content. Additionally, the aforementioned silymarin which Health Fitness Revolution18 explains "hinders the process of lipid peroxidation from occurring in the cell membranes of liver tissues."

Still another study19 showed rutin to be an antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-allergic agent;20 another indicated its capacity to "exhibit significant anti-diabetic activity, presumably by inhibiting inflammatory cytokines, improving antioxidant and plasma lipid profiles."21

Rutin was found to also have potential for neurodegenerative disorders, improve endothelial function, increase thyroid iodide uptake without greatly affecting thyroid function, induce bone formation, improve renal function and show therapeutic potential for cognitive deficits, and that's only part of the benefits scientists have uncovered.22

Gut Health: An Important Advantage of Artichoke Intake

One comprehensive review on artichokes began by saying that artichoke leaf extract was one of the few herbal remedies where both "clinical and experimental trials have complemented each other." While deemed inconclusive in 2015, the study asserted that mentioning the artichoke's digestive and bowel advantages were justified, and that eating it helped to accelerate "gut movement," and supported both fat digestion and vitamin absorption.23

Self Hacked24 notes several studies explaining different nuances regarding stomach troubles and the ways eating artichokes can help. Indigestion, bloating, nausea and heartburn are the symptoms which, collectively, define dyspepsia. Even irritable bowel syndrome, which seems much more prevalent in recent years, is alleviated by artichoke consumption. Additionally, both globe and cardoon varieties have been used to treat gout, stomach distress and diabetes.25

Compounds in artichoke include luteolin, caffeoylquinic acid, chlorogenic acid, apigenin, sterols and inulin, as well as multiple hydroxybenzoic acids, hydroxycinnamic acids, lignans, flavones and flavonols, according to a study at the University of Granada, Spain's, department of analytical chemistry. Minerals include potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, zinc, copper and manganese.26

Numerous other compounds and phytonutrients that contribute to artichokes' ability to decrease inflammation and promote gut health have been cited in studies, which in turn relates to cancer prevention, in part by binding toxins for removal from your body. The inulin, in particular, is a sweet-tasting substance that can increase the number of beneficial microorganisms in your intestines. Then there's the fiber, about which Health Fitness Revolution notes:

"Oats, step aside. Prunes? Yeah right. Artichoke wears the crown for highest natural fiber content of any vegetable and over most grains. Many people are absolutely shocked to learn that a mere 120 grams of artichoke has over 10 grams of fiber, or nearly half of your daily requirement. Hail to the fiber king!"27

Fiber is great, but it's only beneficial if it's actually ingested. As it stands now, the average American consumes only half of the 30 grams (just over an ounce) of dietary fiber recommended by the USDA for men, and the 38 grams recommended for women.28 A single artichoke (about 120 grams) can have a huge impact, as it provides 10.3 grams of fiber.

How to Select and Prepare Artichokes

When selecting to eat, choose the heaviest and most firm, just as you would when choosing a cabbage; however, there are four sizes, ranging from baby (golf ball-sized) to jumbo (softball-sized). They should appear fresh rather than dried-out looking. At home, before refrigeration, carve a thin slice off the stem, sprinkle the leaves with water and store in an airtight plastic bag to use within the week.

The methods for cooking artichokes vary, and every one of them has an impressive presentation, whether they're stuffed, grilled, steamed or baked. Depending on the way you want to serve them, you may want to cook them first (or not), but first, use a soft vegetable brush under cold water to remove the invisible film produced as the vegetable grows. Use a sharp knife to "top and tail," or slice the stem off (straight if you want them to sit up) as well as the top inch of the leaves so the layers of petals are exposed.

If you want, you can use sharp kitchen shears to cut off the "thorns" on the outside of the lower leaves, although they do soften with cooking. However you cook them, cool them completely before refrigeration.

Steamed — You can steam artichokes, stems up, in a double boiler, one of the best ways to retain the most nutrients as they're lost to the water if you boiled them. Boil the water in the bottom pan and allow them to steam, covered, for about 30 minutes if they're small and 45 to 60 minutes for the jumbo variety. Check for doneness with a sharp knife inserted through the base (sort of like a baked potato).

Roasted or baked — Break off the tough outer leaves and, after cutting that inch off the top, spread the petals apart somewhat and drizzle on a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. Next, place them on a safe baking dish into a preheated 425-degree (Fahrenheit) oven, cover with tented foil. Again, the size determines the baking time, with the smallest ones baking at around 45 minutes and the jumbos for an hour and 15 minutes.

Raw — To use artichokes in the raw, cut the top inch off the petals, then use a spoon to carefully scoop out the "fuzzy" choke without removing the artichoke heart. What's left is a pretty bowl-shaped vegetable, ready for stuffing or adding a dip.

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