Artichokes are a versatile food, and although some would consider them a vegetable, they are actually a variety of thistle. For nutritional purposes, they are primarily consumed due to their associated benefits of protecting against various forms of cancer, bolstering the immune system strength, lowering cholesterol, and protecting against diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke. Artichokes have also long been famous for detoxifying the body and improving the health of the liver and aiding in digestive issues like indigestion, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and diarrhea. Furthermore, these miraculous little thistles can reduce blood pressure, eliminate hangovers, and stimulate urination.
What are Artichokes?
Artichokes are known in their natural form as cardoon, and their scientific classification is Cynara cardunculus. They are a native to the Mediterranean region, which is primarily why they play such a major part in their cuisine. Artichokes can be found throughout Europe, the Middle Eastern countries, and America, but they are less frequently encountered in Asian nations.
The edible part of an artichoke is the bud 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 generally more expensive.
Nutritional Value of Artichokes
Artichokes are low in saturated fat and cholesterol while being a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They contain vitamins which include vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B-6, B-12, A, E, D, and vitamin K. They also provide minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.
Health Benefits of Artichokes
The common health benefits of these thistles are mentioned in detail below.
Artichokes have the highest antioxidant levels out of all vegetables, according to a study done by the USDA, and out of 1,000 plants of different types of foods, they ranked 7th in antioxidant content. Antioxidants are one of the primary means of defense for the immune system against the effects of free radicals, which are natural byproducts of cell metabolism that can lead to a number of dangerous conditions and diseases in the body. The antioxidant properties of artichokes come from a number of sources, one of which are polyphenols, which are found in high numbers in them. Polyphenols have chemopreventive qualities, which means they can slow down, stop, or completely reverse the effects of cancer in any patient. Their antioxidant ability comes from another source as well, their high levels of quercetin and rutin, two specific antioxidants that have been proven to reduce the chances of developing cancer.
Vitamin C is also a well-known antioxidant and it is found in significant levels in artichokes. Vitamin C has been shown to actively discourage conditions like mucositis and fibrosis, and also to reduce the chances of breast cancer. Finally, other studies have shown that the extract from artichoke leaves can be used to induce cell apoptosis (cell death) as well as cell proliferation when injected in cancerous masses, and can reduce the chances for and effects of prostate cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia. The flavonoids in them have been found to reduce chances of breast cancer as well.
Improved Heart Health
Apart from their impressive abilities at fighting cancer, artichokes are also considered a heart-healthy addition to your diet for a variety of reasons. Certain ingredients in their leaves have been found to reduce the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL or omega-3 fatty acids). Cholesterol is a type of fat that builds up in the arteries of the cardiovascular system, blocks blood flow, increases blood pressure, and can lead to potentially fatal heart attacks and strokes. Any method of reducing bad cholesterol is worthwhile, so give artichokes a chance at improving your heart health.
Regulated Blood Pressure
On a related note, artichokes are rich sources of potassium, the essential mineral that has an impact on numerous organ systems throughout the body. Potassium helps to neutralize the effects of excess sodium, which is notorious for increasing blood pressure. Artichokes, therefore, act as a vasodilator and are particularly useful for those already taking hypertension medicine to prevent the effects of potassium deficiency. Diabetics are also encouraged to eat artichokes to prevent the complications associated with blood pressure and that disease. Finally, a reduction in blood pressure can reduce the chances of heart attacks and coronary heart diseases.
Improved Liver Health
Artichokes were used as liver tonics for centuries, but the exact mechanism of their impact was never fully understood until modern science could properly research this versatile plant. Two antioxidants found in artichokes, cynarin, and silymarin, have been shown to improve the overall health of the liver by reducing the presence of toxins and facilitating their elimination from the liver and the body. Some studies have even shown these antioxidants to actively promote regrowth and repair of damaged liver cells.
Smooth Bowel Movements
Artichokes are a rich source of dietary fiber, which is one of the most beneficial nutritional staples for improving the health and functionality of your digestive system. Fiber adds bulk to the food you eat, which helps to keep your bowel movements regular and decrease the symptoms of constipation, fiber can reduce chances of a variety of stomach and intestinal cancers, as well as bloating, cramps, excess flatulence, and general discomfort in the stomach. Furthermore, if you have problems with loose stool or diarrhea, fiber can absorb excess liquid and form healthy, predictable bowel movements in patients. Fiber also acts as a clean up crew for excess LDL cholesterol, thereby cleaning your arteries and further reducing your chances of heart diseases.
Another extra benefit of artichokes in terms of digestion is its impact on the gallbladder. Artichokes soothe inflamed gallbladders and can solve the common problem of a blocked duct in the organ, thereby allowing normal function. Therefore, in a way, artichokes can be said to stimulate the production and secretion of gastric juices, as well as bile, which also aids in smooth digestion.
As mentioned earlier, artichokes can be a great salve to the liver and can reduce any blockage, as well as reduce the levels of toxins in the blood by eliminating them quickly. Therefore, artichokes make a perfect hangover cure. Some people choose to chew on a few artichoke leaves after a night of heavy drinking.
Prevention of Birth Defects
As if all of these other health benefits weren’t enough, artichokes even help pregnant women have healthy, normally-formed children. The high levels of folic acid found in artichokes can prevent neural tube defects from occurring in newborns. The neural tube closure process in vitro requires a certain amount of folate to occur properly, so folic acid is an essential part of a pregnancy diet.
Increased Bone Mineral Density
Artichokes are one of the best foods in the market for acquiring vitamins and minerals like magnesium, phosphorous, and manganese. These minerals are essential parts of increasing bone health and density, thereby reducing the chances of conditions like osteoporosis.
Magnesium and manganese are essential parts of the body’s metabolic processes and they are found in a significant amount in artichokes. Magnesium is an important part of protein synthesis throughout the body, as well as optimizing the intake of calcium by the body, further strengthening the bones. Manganese is slightly more involved than magnesium, and it impacts the metabolic rates of cholesterol, amino acids, and carbohydrates.
Improved Brain Function
There are a number of aspects of artichokes that make them beneficial for brain health. Their quality as a vasodilator allows more oxygen to reach the brain for elevated cognitive function. Phosphorus, an essential mineral found in artichokes, is found in the brain cells. Phosphorous deficiencies have been associated with a serious decline in cognitive ability, so if you want to keep your brain healthy and firing on all cylinders, eat the next artichoke you see.
Artichokes- Serving Suggestions
Before cooking artichokes, wash and cut the little thorns which are at the end of the leaves. Also, cut the excess steam as that may be bitter in taste. Artichokes can be cooked in a pan of water, you may also add herbs and spices for added flavor. Once cooked they can be eaten hot or cold and can also be served with dips and sauces.
Word of Caution: Although these benefits seem tremendous, there are dangers connected to almost any food item, and it is important to do your research. Some people are sensitive to the effects of artichokes due to allergies, particularly in terms of artichoke leaf extract as it is in a concentrated form. Since artichokes are technically a thistle, not a vegetable, they are closely related to ragweed, daisies, marigolds or chrysanthemums. Many people who suffer from those allergies may also have a bad experience with artichokes.
Those with liver disease or gallbladder conditions already should not begin adding artichokes to their diet because they can exacerbate certain negative aspects of the disease. They should be used as a preventative method for liver and gallbladder disease, not a cure. Finally, they make people urinate frequently, so if you already suffer from an overactive bladder, artichokes could make that minor condition even worse.
Other than those specific warnings, artichokes are a valuable and irreplaceable element of your cuisine. Eat up and stay healthy!