The artichoke is one of the oldest cultivated plants.1 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.1 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.

Artichoke leaf (as opposed to cynarin) continues to be used in many countries.

Germany's Commission Ehas authorized its use for "dyspeptic problems."2Dyspepsiais a rather vague term that corresponds to the common word "indigestion," indicating a variety of digestive problems including discomfort in the stomach, bloating, lack of appetite, nausea, and mild diarrhea or constipation. At least one substantial double-blind study indicates that artichoke leaf is indeed helpful for this condition.13

Another fairly substantial study indicates that artichoke leaf may help lower cholesterol.7

Based on a general notion that artichoke leaf is good for the liver, it has become a popular treatment for alcohol-induced hangovers. However, a small double-blind, placebo-controlled study failed to find it more effective than placebo.12

A number of animal studies suggest that artichoke protects the liverfrom damage by chemical toxins.8 Artichoke's liver-protective effects, however, have never been proven in controlled clinical trials.