The common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a tall flowering plant with beautiful lavender, blue flowers and several wonderful health benefits. Chicory roots, leaves and flowers all possess impressive medicinal properties, but the root is the most potent of all with some very impressive benefits on the digestive system. Chicory root extract is used as a natural treatment for constipation, intestinal parasites infestation, stomach upset and liver problems.
In addition to this, the root is used as a substitute for coffee because of its similar flavor. Its mildly sedative effect is perfect for inducing relaxation, while its inulin content is said to boast probiotic effects and contribute to digestive health. Chicory root boasts antibacterial and anthelmintic properties as well as several other medicinal uses. Its health effects are a result of the unique combination of nutrients and other elements, notably calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, zinc, vitamin C and B vitamins, but also inulin and sesquiterpene lactones.
Is chicory the same as endives? The common chicory, simply called chicory (Cichorium intybus), and endives (Cichorium endivia) are two different species belonging to the Cichorium genus (see benefits of endives). Chicory, true endive and wild endive are three distinct, but somewhat related species. Escarole and curly endive are two cultivated varieties of endive, Cichorium endivia (see benefits of curly endive). While Belgian endive, radicchio and puntarelle are three cultivated varieties of the common chicory (Cichorium intybus). The confusion stems from the fact that the names for both chicory and endive are used interchangeably in some cultures.
What does chicory look like? Chicory looks a lot like an ordinary field flower. It has rough-looking, hairy stems, tiny, dandelion-like, elongated green leaves and beautiful lavender or blue flowers, rarely white or pink. Both the flower and leaf shape suggest a resemblance with the dandelion plant to which chicory is related. Other common names for chicory include blue dandelion, blue daisy, succory, blue sailors, blue weed, coffeeweed or cornflower.
What does chicory taste and smell like? While chicory root and flowers boast medicinal properties, the leaves are used for culinary purposes. Like both dandelion greens and endive varieties, chicory has a bitter taste which doesn’t make the plant very popular. The root of both wild and cultivated varieties is often roasted and ground and used as a coffee substitute or to add flavor to various dishes or beverages or boiled and consumed as a vegetable. The leaves are eaten fresh in salads.
What are the benefits?
As far as health benefits are concerned, chicory is a popular medicinal plant. Its uses range from digestion tonic to hepatoprotective and antibacterial. Here are 7 things chicory can do for you:
1) Relieves constipation and promotes weight loss. Chicory is a generous source of dietary fiber, inulin in particular (see benefits of inulin). Dietary fiber prevents some of the fat from the foods we eat from being absorbed by the intestines, indirectly promoting weight loss. Moreover, dietary fiber helps add bulk to stools, encouraging their expulsion and relieving constipation. Fresh chicory contains between 13% and 23% dietary fiber (inulin) (Chicory Root Yield and Carbohydrate Composition is Influenced by Cultivar Selection, Planting, and Harvest Date). Dietary fructans such as inulin are also believed to help with conditions ranging from diarrhea to non-insulin-dependent diabetes (Concepts in functional foods: the case of inulin and oligofructose).
2) Boasts probiotic properties and maintains digestive health. Oligosaccharides in chicory have been found to promote fermentation in the digestive tract, contributing to healthy gut flora. This helps maintain the health of the digestive tract, keeping it functioning optimally. (Health benefits of non-digestible oligosaccharides. Adv Exp Med Biol 1997) (The bifidogenic nature of chicory inulin and its hydrolysis products. J Nutr 1998) Moreover, the same compounds have been shown to inhibit cancer formation in the colon (Prevention of colon cancer by pre- and probiotics: evidence from laboratory studies. Br J Nutr 1998).
3) Has a mild sedative effect. Ground chicory root is believed to counteract the stimulating effects of coffee and exert a mild sedative effect that can help lower heart rate, contributing to good cardiovascular health. Apparently, chicory extracts act like quinidine, an antiarrhythmic medication, suggesting the plant extract may also be useful for the management or even treatment of heart rate-related problems such as arrhythmia, tachycardia or fibrillation. (Preliminary phytochemical and pharmacological investigations of the roots of different varieties of Chicorium intybus. Planta Med 1973)
In addition to this, lactucin and lactucopicrin, two sesquiterpene lactones found in chicory have been found to exert a mild sedative action on the central nervous system, positively influencing cardiovascular conditions such as arrhythmia (Analgesic and Sedative Activities of Lactucin and some Lactucin-Like Guaianolides in Mice, Journal of Ethnopharmacology).
4) Anti-parasitic action. Chicory root has been found to possess toxic effects against intestinal parasites. For this reason, extracts have been used to treat parasitic infestations in farm animals (Individual administration of three tanniferous forage plants to lambs artificially infected with Haemonchus contortus and Cooperia curticei). Similar effects may be observed in humans. However, intestinal parasites infestation is best dealt with conventional medicines under doctor supervision.
5) Holds antibacterial properties. According to research, chicory holds quite impressive antibacterial properties, inhibiting Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Micrococcus luteus, Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhi bacteria (Phytochemical and Antibacterial Studies of Chicory (Cichorium intybus L.) – A Multipurpose Medicinal Plant).
6) Hepatoprotective action. Animal studies have shown that chicory root extract possesses quite potent anti-hepatotoxic effects (Curative potential of Kashni (Cichorium intybus Linn.) extract against carbon tetrachloride induced hepatocellular damage in rats ,Pharmacologyonline 2010).
7) Other uses. Traditional medical practices recommend applying a poultice made from crushed chicory leaves to the skin to reduce swelling. Various preparations of the plant are also used to increase bile production, stimulate appetite and treat dyspepsia (indigestion) and as contraceptive protection. However, there are is no research backing up these folk remedies.
Potential side effects
As is the case with most herbs, chicory too can cause an allergic reaction in individuals with a certain sensitivity to components of the plant. Sesquiterpene lactones, compounds from chicory, may also cause contact dermatitis. Moreover, being an emmenagogue, the plant may act as a natural contraceptive and is not recommended during pregnancy because it stimulates blood flow in the pelvic area and may cause a miscarriage.