The common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is an herb belonging to the Asteraceae family and is native to Europe. It is versatile and often grown as fodder for livestock. Traditionally, most parts of the plant are used in cooking and medicine.
Chicory has a woody stem, long taproot and bright blue flowers. More rarely you may find it with white or pink flowers.1 Currently the plant is cultivated throughout the Netherlands, France and Germany and is so common it may be found growing along the roadside in temperate regions to a height of 3 to 5 feet.2
Chicory is a healthy addition to your meals as it contains a variety of vitamins including A, B6, C, E and K. The plant also contains calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. It is rich in inulin, which is why it’s believed to carry numerous digestive health benefits.
Some varieties are cultivated for salads and others for the long taproot that is baked, ground and either added to coffee or used as a coffee substitute.3 Chicory has a long list of roles it plays in human health, including as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. It’s also gastroprotective without all the side effects you might experience with medicines made from chemicals.
The history of chicory can be traced back to ancient Egypt in writings in the Ebers Papyrus dated about 4,000 BC. A Greek doctor was the first to write about the restorative powers of the plant.4
Horace, Virgil and Pliny the Elder all wrote about the health benefits of chicory. By the 1600s monks were raising the plants and the Dutch discovered chicory could be added to coffee to change the taste. One of the benefits when used in coffee is that it's more soluble, which means you can use less of it when brewing coffee.
The mixture of chicory and coffee likely began in Holland, but it wasn't until 1801 when it was introduced to France that it became popular. Once brought to the U.S. in the 1800s,5 it grew in popularity with coffee aficionados and became synonymous with New Orleans traditions.6
By 1840, New Orleans was importing more coffee than all but one other city in the U.S., with some using chicory to flavor their favorite beverage. It was during the U.S. Civil War that chicory became popular as a way to stretch coffee supplies, since shipments were being held up by the Union Army before reaching port.
During shortages in the Great Depression, chicory coffee was used again as it's more economical and helps to stretch supplies. But New Orleans natives, having embraced chicory as an essential part of coffee history, believe it's all about tradition and taste.
Inulin Feeds Beneficial Bacteria
The gut-brain axis is a point of bidirectional communication between your primary brain in your head and what is referred to as your “secondary brain” in your gut. This communication links your cognitive center and emotional responses with your intestinal function.7
The importance of your gut microbiota to these interactions cannot be overstated. Clinically, the evidence of dysbiosis in central nervous system disorders such as anxiety and depression, is evident. Thus, it is important to care for your gut microbiota for more reasons than you may have thought.
For instance, alterations in diet have been found to reduce symptoms in children with neurological issues such as autism and seizure disorders.8 By addressing the gut-brain interaction through correcting digestive imbalances, you can impact physical and mental health. Chicory offers a unique and powerful means of changing your gut microbiota and improving your gut-brain axis.
Many of the health benefits are associated with the prebiotic fiber called inulin. Although it is indigestible, it helps nourish beneficial bacteria found in your gut. Once in your intestines, inulin ferments and is converted to short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and then to healthy ketones to feed tissue. Lona Sandon, Ph.D., from the University of Texas, commented on the way SCFAs are used:9
“When this fermentation takes place, short chain fatty acids [SCFAs] are formed. These seem to produce more of the appetite-controlling hormones that help us feel full. Because fermentable carbs don't start to break down right away, they don't contribute to the big spikes and crashes in blood sugar. They also act as prebiotics, which feed the healthy probiotic bacteria in the gut and keep things running smoothly.”
Caring for the Gut Supports Brain and Immune Health
Inulin has also been found to increase the concentration of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Using 12 volunteers who ingested 10 grams per day of inulin for 16 days, scientists compared their fecal samples with those in a control group who did not take any supplements. They wrote:10
“In 10 volunteers carrying detectable levels of bifidobacteria. B. adolescentis showed the strongest response to inulin consumption, increasing from 0·89 to 3·9 % of the total microbiota (P = 0·001).”
A second bacterial species11 that responds well to the addition of inulin to the diet is Bilophila. Both bacteria are beneficial to your gut microbiota, and ultimately to your health.
The growth of beneficial bacteria helps reduce your risk of leaky gut by producing nutrients that protect the lining of your intestines. Acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion appear to respond to the addition of inulin to your daily nutrition as it helps reduce the body’s acidity.12
The anti-inflammatory properties of chicory root13 and its ability to boost beneficial bacteria may influence symptoms of inflammation in the bowel. Chicory’s sedative qualities may help reduce anxiety, relieve stress and provide a natural alternative to sleeping pills.14
Constipation — The Bane of Western Society
It’s estimated that 16% of the general population deals with chronic constipation.15 While many will experience this as a temporary problem linked to a change in diet or hydration, chronic constipation is characterized by hard, dry, difficult-to-pass stools that happen less than three times per week.
Some of the more serious health problems associated with chronic constipation include colorectal cancer16 and kidney disease.17 Although the condition can cause significant health problems, thankfully the most common causes — not getting enough fiber and/or water — are easily addressed.18
The first step is to add fiber. Foods rich in inulin are a good choice for adding bulk to the stool and improving intestinal movement, which in turn helps reduce constipation. It’s important to stay hydrated as well or the additional fiber will make things worse when your body attempts to maintain hydration by pulling water from your intestines.
Since inulin is resistant to digestion it's fermented in the colon, accounting for the increasing microbial biomass in the stool.19 In one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial using an inulin supplement, the researchers wrote:20
“Inulin significantly increased stool frequency compared to placebo … This was accompanied by a softening of stools and trend toward higher satisfaction versus placebo (p = 0.059). In conclusion, Orafti® Inulin was effective in volunteers with chronic constipation and significantly improved bowel function.”
In addition to affecting older adults more than others, the risks associated with chronic constipation are greater in the elderly.21 The loss of mobility, the use of multiple medications and/or ignoring calls to defecate may increase risks leading to impaction and incontinence. As stool gets lodged in the colon or rectum, liquid stool can bypass the impaction and be mistaken for diarrhea.
In the elderly, an impaction can increase the risk of confusion, ulceration, intestinal obstruction or bowel perforation. These problems can become life-threatening if left untreated. In one study,22 supplementation with 15 g of chicory inulin was assessed in an elderly population, evaluating bacterial levels in the stool as well as the impact consumption would have on constipation.
After 28 days the researchers found that those taking inulin experienced satisfaction with their digestion and reported a reduction in difficulty with having a bowel movement. Some reported flatulence (gas) but not enough discomfort to stop taking the supplements.
Weight Management Helped by Chicory
Obesity is more than a major global health issue — It’s actually considered an epidemic.23 The World Health Organization reports there are 2 billion overweight adults worldwide, of which 650 million are obese. These numbers mean 39% of all adults ages 18 and older are overweight.
Following a reasonable weight loss and weight management program increases your potential for successfully reaching your goal. Including foods high in inulin, like chicory or chicory coffee, can help you achieve your desired results. This is because inulin can help promote weight loss and increase feelings of satiety.
Inulin helps regulate ghrelin, a hormone associated with food seeking behavior. In one animal study,24 researchers analyzed the impact chicory could have on the weight loss process by reducing ghrelin and thus the drive to overeat. They found that ghrelin was lowered when the rats were fed oligofructose, a subgroup of inulin.25
In a recent pilot study26 involving animals, researchers sought to address the prebiotic effects chicory has on the gut microbiome as well as its possible effect on appetite control. Over the course of five weeks with an intervention, researchers studied the modulation of bacterial groups in the animals. At the same time, they used tissue samples in the lab to study the effect inulin had on satiety hormones produced by the cells.
They found chicory root had a positive effect on the gut microbiome of the mice. In the lab, tissue digestion of chicory root significantly increased the levels of satiety hormones, which may have in turn reduced appetites.
Consider the Side Effects of Chicory
Although there are many benefits, like anything else too much of a good thing is not necessarily a better thing. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or are breastfeeding should not consume chicory. This is because it can cause muscle contractions that may stimulate menstruation and lead to a miscarriage.27
If you have a history of allergies to daisies, ragweed or marigolds, an allergic reaction chicory is not uncommon as they belong to the same family. Consult with your physician if you have any underlying medical conditions that may be affected by chicory, such as gallstones, since too much chicory can exacerbate gallstone symptoms.
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