Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a herb and root that has been known for its curative benefits since the first century A.D.. It is a member of the Asteraceae family. A scraggly plant with blue flower heads, chicory flourishes in the wild, as well as in gardens all over the world. It may be found in Europe, the Near East, northern and southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America.
The dried leaves and roots of the chicory plant are collected in autumn for medicinal purposes. When flowering, the whole plant is collected and dried. With a height that may reach up to 5 ft (1.5 m), chicory can be recognized by its oblong leaves that resemble a crosscut saw or slit, with numerous stiff hairs on the underside. Chicory, whose common names include succory, chicory root, chicory herb, blue sailors, wild chicory, or hendibeh, is well known for its bitter taste and use as a coffee substitute.
The ancient Egyptians ate large amounts of chicory because it was believed that the plant could purify the blood and liver, while others have relied on the herb for its power to cure "passions of the heart." Chicory continues to be a popular herbal remedy due to its healing effects on several ailments.
Chicory is taken internally for the following disorders.
In addition, the leaves of chicory may also be used as compresses to be applied externally to ease skin inflammations and swellings.
According to folklore, chicory was recommended as a laxative for children, and it is also believed to increase the flow of bile. As a mild diuretic, it increases the elimination of fluid from the body, leading to its use as a treatment for rheumatism and gout.
Women who suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) may find that regular use of chicory root as a bitter and a liver tonic may assist in maintaining hormone balance and lessening the symptoms of PMS. In addition, altering the diet by eating a "bitter" salad that includes fresh dandelion, chicory, and sorrel is believed to strengthen the liver and discourage the growth of candida.
Chicory also supports the body's ability to absorb calcium, a nutrient that helps build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Raftilin inulin and raftilose oligofructose are fibers extracted from chicory root that cannot be digested by the small intestine. Instead, they are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, leading to the increased absorption of calcium and other minerals. Oligofructose is an example of a prebiotic, or nondigestible food ingredient that benefits health by supporting the growth of one or several types of bacteria in the colon.
A study published in 2002 indicates that inulin appears to lower the risk of colon cancer. The precise nature of its protective effects is not yet known, however.
In addition to enhancing digestive processes, chicory helps to keep the liver healthy. The inclusion of chicory root supplements in the diet supports the proper metabolism of cholesterol.
While the medicinal uses of chicory are numerous, the plant is also often used as a food additive, as a flavoring agent, and in meals. Inulin can be used to improve the texture of processed foods as well as sweeten them. It can also be used to make biodegradable nonfood substances with many industrial applications. This versatility is important to environmentalists because chicory is a renewable natural resource.
Wild and cultivated chicory leaves may be added to salads or sautéed and served alone. Moreover, the roasted and ground root of the plant is a common addition to coffee in Europe and in the United States.
Studies have shown that chicory complements coffee when it is used as a supplement due to its lactucin and lactucopicrin. These two substances are responsible for the bitter taste of chicory, and may serve to counteract the stimulating effects of caffeine. Chicory by itself actually has a sedative action on the central nervous system.
Chicory is available over the counter in bulk as green leaves and dried roots. To prepare the herb as a tea, also known as an infusion, for home use: steep 1 tsp (5 ml) rootstock or dried herb with 0.5 cup (4 fl oz) water and strain after 10 minutes. To treat jaundice, spleen problems, gallstones, or gastritis, drink 8-12 oz (225-350 ml) of chicory tea per day.
As a dietary supplement, 1 tsp (5 ml) of juice from chicory stems may be squeezed by hand and taken in milk or water three times a day.
Chicory has shown to be safe for a variety of medicinal uses and as a food source. There are no necessary precautions to observe when including the herb in the diet.
There are no known health hazards or side effects when chicory is added to the diet. The only possible minor side effect is skin irritation. If the hands become irritated after handling chicory, it is best to cover them with gloves and treat the affected area as needed.
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American Botanical Council. P. O. Box 201660. Austin, TX 78720-1660.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD