The artichoke is one of the oldest cultivated plants. ^ It was first grown in Ethiopia and then made its way to southern Europe via Egypt. Its image is found on ancient Egyptian tablets and sacrificial altars. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered it a valuable digestive aid and reserved what was then a rare plant for consumption in elite circles. In sixteenth-century Europe, the artichoke was also considered a "noble" vegetable meant for consumption by the royal and the rich.
In traditional European medicine, the leaves of the artichoke (not the flower buds, which are the parts commonly cooked and eaten as a vegetable) were used as a diuretic to stimulate the kidneys and as a "choleretic" to stimulate the flow of bile from the liver and gallbladder. (Bile is a yellowish-brown fluid manufactured in the liver and stored in the gallbladder; it consists of numerous substances, including several that play a significant role in digestion.)
In the first half of the twentieth century, French scientists began modern research into these traditional medicinal uses of the artichoke plant. ^ Their work suggested that the plant does indeed stimulate the kidney and gallbladder. Mid-century, Italian scientists isolated a compound from artichoke leaf called cynarin, which appeared to duplicate many of the effects of whole artichoke. Synthetic cynarin preparations were used as a drug to stimulate the liver and gallbladder and to treat elevated cholesterol from the 1950s to the 1980s; competition from newer pharmaceuticals has since eclipsed the use of cynarin.
Germany's Commission E recommends 6 g of the dried herb or its equivalent per day, usually divided into 3 doses. Artichoke leaf extracts should be taken according to label instructions.
Warning: People with gallbladder disease should use artichoke only under medical supervision (see Safety Issues below).
In Europe, vague digestive symptoms are commonly attributed to inadequate flow of bile from the gallbladder. Evidence tells us that artichoke leaf does indeed stimulate the gallbladder. ^ This by itself does not prove artichoke helpful for dyspepsia. In 2003, however, a large (247 participant) double-blind study evaluated artichoke leaf as a treatment for dyspepsia. ^ In this carefully conducted study, artichoke leaf extract proved significantly more effective than placebo for alleviating digestive symptoms.
A previous study of an herbal combination containing artichoke leaf also found benefits. ^
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Artichoke?
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 143 people with high cholesterol , artichoke leaf extract significantly improved cholesterol readings. ^ Total cholesterol fell by 18.5% as compared to 8.6% in the placebo group; LDL cholesterol by 23% vs. 6%; and LDL-to-HDL ratios by 20% vs. 7%. In a subsequent study of 75 otherwise healthy people with high cholesterol, artichoke leaf extract significantly reduced total cholesterol compared to placebo, but it did not affect LDL, HDL, or triglycerides levels. ^ Another placebo-controlled study of 44 healthy people failed to find any improvement in cholesterol levels attributable to artichoke leaf. ^ The researchers note, however, that study participants, on average, started the trial with lower-than-normal cholesterol levels (due to a statistical accident); improvement, therefore, couldn't be expected!
Artichoke leaf may work by interfering with cholesterol synthesis. ^ Besides cynarin, a compound in artichoke called luteolin may play a role in reducing cholesterol. ^