This November Dr. Duke will help lead a “biblical botany” tour of Israel, so we’ve been brushing up on our Holy Land herbology. The plants mentioned in the Bible have special significance for many because they are thought to represent gifts from God to man. Although plants such as date palm, olive, and flax are well-known and widely used, what of the bitter herb chicory (Cichorium intybus)?
All parts of chicory have proven useful for centuries—the leaves as a salad green during Passover harvest celebrations, the root as a blood and liver cleanser. In modern times, the ground-roasted taproots have been and still are used both as a flavoring and substitute for coffee. Chicory root is also our richest source of inulin, a complex, mainly indigestible sugar that is a good source of soluble fiber.
At the turn of the twentieth century, researchers first identified cichoric acid (also spelled chicoric) in chicory leaves and discovered that it fought viruses. But there was little medicinal interest in cichoric acid or chicory, leading one to believe “God’s gift” was only its stunning blue flowers.
Recent research, however, focusing on a new class of HIV medications called integrase inhibitors, may provide a forum for chicory—cichoric acid in particular—to finally show its real worth. Unlike other HIV medications that work by killing cells and, in turn, make the patients very sick, integrase inhibitors block the enzymes that allow viruses to invade cells and “integrate” their DNA with the cells’ DNA. If this entry is prevented for HIV, then AIDS is prevented. A group of biologically active chemicals including cichoric acid, chlorogenic acid, and caffeic acid blocks the enzymes inconsistently.
Caffeic acid is universal in higher plants, and chlorogenic acid is common, but cichoric acid and other similar compounds are not. In 1996, researchers extracted these compounds from two rare Bolivian plants used as traditional medicinal plants by the Kallawaya tribe. In cell cultures, these compounds were found to be effective HIV integrase inhibitors at low, nontoxic dosages. The researchers then manufactured a synthetic form of cichoric acid called L-cichoric acid. This synthetic form also showed integrase activity.
Yet plants much closer to home, including chicory, echinacea (Echinacea spp.), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), and pear leaves and fruit are known to contain significant amounts of cichoric acid. The most readily available concentrated source of cichoric acid is echinacea, a botanical relative of chicory. Unlike chicory, echinacea is one of the best-selling herbs and is used mainly to thwart viral infections—especially colds and flu.
Cichoric acid is somewhat soluble in water, but it isn’t easily absorbed by the body. In order to effectively utilize echinacea products, it’s important to use at least the manufacturer’s recommended dosage. Also, echinacea is not an herb to be taken on a daily basis but at the onset of cold or flu symptoms or during the early stages of infection, usually for two weeks with a resting period of one week. If you weigh more than 150 pounds, we suggest increasing the recommended total daily intake of echinacea by 1 dose per 50 pounds. That means if the recommended daily dose is 1 teaspoon three times a day, someone weighing 200 pounds would take 1 teaspoon four times a day.
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant in Clovery, Maryland. James Duke spent thirty years working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board. For information about his “Biblical Botany Tour”, call 800-348-7865 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bell, E. A., and B. V. Charlwood. Secondary Plant Products. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1980.
Robinson, W. E., et al. “Inhibitors of HIV-1 replication that inhibit HIV integrase.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 93, 6326–6331, 1996.
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