By Amanda McQuade Crawford
Have you ever tried to dig up pesky dandelion roots? They break off to grow another day unless one digs deep and patiently. As a child I was paid by my parents, who loved the appeal of a suburban perfect lawn, to dig out dandelions.
Little did we know what I would one day do for a living: champion the deliberate spread of dandelions in all organic residential yards. It seems ironic – no, ridiculous, that weed-killers target this sunny yellow flower with exactly the health benefits so many people today need.
History of Dandelion Use – Culinary & Medicinal
Dandelion is a true tonic from the west, since it native to Europe yet found now as far away as in Northern India. It is such a successful traveler to diverse environments that it is found in the Himalayas as well as South American plains. Dandelions were brought to Canada by the French in the 1700’s where it was used in salads and as a health remedy to cope with cold weather and a lack of familiar vegetables.
Dutch and German immigrants packed precious roots and seeds in their luggage before embarking on the voyage to Pennsylvania in the 1850’s. Europeans settlers grew dandelion to use as a supplement to food as well as for medicine. Historically, the leaves of dandelion have been added to spring salads to increase digestive, renal (kidney), and immune activity after a long winter of dried and preserved foods.
This was especially needed before refrigeration and post-post-modern food production became our new normal. The roots have been brewed into tea and a dozen different “root beers” to relieve simple constipation and sluggish elimination at any time of the year.
Traditional Medicinal Uses
Dandelion’s relationship with sugar is especially valuable for people with Type II diabetes. Insulin-dependent diabetics can benefit from dandelion since the root and leaf together support stabilized blood sugar levels.Taken in small quantities before meals since ancient times by Celts, Romans, Greeks, and Mediterranean people, dandelion was used to improve, or balance, the appetite for other vegetables and fruit, grain dishes and proteins. An antidote to excess sugars, dandelion was one of the remedies used as early as the 2nd century AD. Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Dandelion: Folklore & Current Knowledge
Dandelion’s common name comes from the French Dent-de-lion, or “lion’s teeth,” since the jagged edges of leaves loosely resemble the teeth of a carnivore.
There are many similar-looking backyard relatives, so it is important to know your weeds, and pick the right plant (Taraxacum officinale, Weber, T. Densleonis, Desf; Leontodon taraxacum, Linn. Note: the italics are botanical names - the first in bold is the current one, with the botanists’ names abbreviated after each).
Of course, we avoid using any herb, but especially dandelion, from roadsides of places where pesticides and herbicides may have been used. This is because the plant “detoxifies” the soil, concentrating chemicals in its plant parts. That’s great for the soil but bad in our pot of tea. This same ability of dandelion to act as a detoxifying herb is one reason it is beloved by herbalists who know many illnesses improve when our bodies start the process of detoxification.
Some theories explaining Dandelion’s name suggest it is from the Greek for taraxos (abnormal health condition), and akos (remedy), or even taraxo (I have caused) and achos (pain), an odd way of referring to the plant’s reputation for stimulating the body’s response to complex pain: increased elimination.
Dandelion Medicinal Benefits: How does it do that?
As a mild bitter vegetable (both root and leaf), dandelion stimulates the tongue’s taste buds that discern bitter tastes (as opposed to salty, sweet, sour, and sharp flavors). Triggering bitter taste buds sends a nerve signal to the Central Nervous System’s Vagus nerve. This Cranial Nerve in turn sends many messages to the digestive system to function.
Salivary glands produce moisture rich in enzymes to begin breaking down starches for easier digestion. The stomach receives messages to produce good-quality digestive juices to metabolize proteins.
The liver is “turned on,” producing a number of far-reaching health effects: stabilizing blood sugar, improving fat digestion (in concert with the gall bladder and pancreas), and notifying immune pathways to actively protect us from germs we may have unwittingly eaten or consumed.
Dandelion Root: A Solid Herbal Foundation
Dandelion is so common, humble, and under-appreciated that it is given by some herbalists to people whose health challenges suggest they have lost their connection. Dandelion can act as the “grounding” in an electric cord: rich in minerals, dandelion root can balance us, literally with the salt of the earth. Dandelion is for the “nervous,” the “flighty,” and the person who looks for pie in the sky but has lost appreciation for the wonders of the planet below his or her feet.
Dandelion root is notoriously difficult to eradicate, even with the incentive of an increased childhood allowance. Called “earth nail” by knowing gardeners, dandelion sends a tenacious taproot, like a carrot but creamy-white under its light-brown skin, deep into the soil. It is this very deep-seated quality that gives dandelion one of its oldest historical associations that we use today.
Dandelion – Nutritional Benefits
Nutritionally, the dandelion has remarkable value. The fresh spring leaves contain Vitamin C, almost as much iron as spinach, and four times the Vitamin A. Dandelion leaves and root together contain trace vegetable protein, fat, and significant complex carbohydrates bound in the fiber. Its minerals are mainly calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and sodium.
In springtime, eating raw leaves tossed in with other lettuce has a pleasant contrast. Steamed leaves with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice, and a sprinkling of sliced almonds or crushed pine nuts makes a delicious “hot salad” that is delicious as well as medicinal. For a heartier side dish on cool spring evenings, I steam leaves and a few sliced roots with ginger and garlic, tossed with low-sodium tamari, shoyu, or gomasio to taste.
Dandelion & Mood: An Herbal Antidepressant
Throughout various regions, cultures, and centuries, dandelion root has been used for “liverish” people: those who are irritable, resentful, or prone to dark moods. Textbooks do not list dandelion as an herbal antidepressant, but it has been used for that mind-body lethargy when getting grounded and appreciating the simple things in life lead to a sunnier outlook.
This is one case when root and dandelion wine made from the bright yellow flowers act as a “tonic to the heart.” Indeed, a low-alcohol wine made from flowers is traditional for improving anemia and fatigue after illness.
Dandelion Leaf – Different Medicinal Uses
The young spring shoots of the dandelion which grow in a rosette with a single flower per plant (unlike look-alikes) have a pleasant “green” flavor and a strong diuretic effect. The common French name “pis-en-lit” translates loosely as “peeing in the bed.” Rest assured: using Blessed Herbs products at recommended doses during the day only helps kidneys flush toxins from the body.
Natural Diuretic – Without Loss of Healthy Nutrients & Minerals
Dandelion leaf is as strong as some standard pharmaceutical diuretics (furosemide). Yet it is more gentle than prescription diuretics, with far less of the side effects. In the early years of moving from natural remedies to drug diuretics, the increased kidney output caused patients to lose their balance of salt and body fluid, or electrolyte balance. Without getting too complicated, these unexpected drug side effects were due to a loss of potassium.
Dandelion is naturally rich in potassium, a mineral we normally lose in urine. How did Nature know to load this great natural diuretic with extra potassium? As a vegetable diuretic, dandelion leaf remedies provide a healthy net increase in potassium (instead of sodium) along with the main effect of losing water weight. Dandelion leaf also is used to reduce water retention in the tissues. In practice I have used dandelion leaf for people suffering with water retention (edema) after cancer treatment involving removal of lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes normally help regulate how much moisture our tissues and organ systems keep and how much fluid we need to flush out. Dandelion leaf can go far to restore balance to boggy tissues.
Dandelion & Your Healthy Skin
Because of these and other cleansing effects, dandelion leaf has been useful for people with chronic skin problems. The skin is an organ of elimination just as much as the kidneys, colon, and lungs. Sometimes our skin becomes over-burdened with pollutants or excess refined food and drink.
Helping the skin by improving the natural cleansing function of the kidneys and digestive tract without adding stress to those mighty organs is the basis for many detoxification programs. Cleansing regimens address complex illnesses as well as the appearance of skin. As a time-honored herb to improve how our body regulates flushing excess fluid and toxin expulsion, dandelion leaf has been used for people with compromised kidneys or liver damage.
Dandelion leaf has even been used as a heart-healthy diuretic for people with high blood pressure and some of that condition’s complications, such as varicose veins and risk of stroke. Considering the headlines regarding the health risk of statin drugs, I believe dandelion leaf, often combined with dandelion root, may have much to offer.
Dandelion Root – Different Medicinal Uses
Dandelion root is best collected before flowering in spring when they are most tender. Alternatively, roots collected after one makes a wish on the white, fluffy seed head in the autumn contain a higher inulin content. Inulin is the plant starch that is one constituent shown by research to help lower high blood sugar.
Higher inulin levels also make roasted or raw root a great coffee substitute. The roots of either spring or fall have an affinity for the liver. Both folklore and scientific research seem to agree that roots produce a healthy response to inflammation in the liver as well as throughout the body. Herbalists often combine Dandelion with other remedies that suit the person and the problem more specifically.
Dandelion for Liver, Gall Bladder & Digestive Health
As a stimulant to liver and gall bladder function, one of the main uses of root is to relieve the symptom of constipation without the drastic effects of harsh laxatives.
The liver has several life-saving functions in addition to helping us eliminate waste from the body. The bulk of our immune health occurs requires a properly-functioning liver, so it may be no surprise that dandelion root is given to those with long term immune challenges including auto-immune conditions.
Organically grown dandelion roots tend to have relatively high amounts of choline, a compound of great interest to natural product scientists for its many health benefits. All Blessed Herbs Dandelion Extracts and other products are certified Organic.
Dandelion: Extract vs. Fresh parts
Dandelion is one of the most universal herbal medicines. The Dandelion leaves have different health benefits than Dandelion root, and Dandelion flowers are another remedy altogether. Not only is Dandelion Wine a third medicine after 1) diuretic leaves and 2) liver-supporting root, but the way dandelion plant parts are processed brings out different health properties. What is the difference between fresh leaf or root and extracts?
As we have seen, the part of the plant makes a difference to the effect on the body. How leaves, roots, and flowers are processed also changes the final product. No wonder some consumers feel confused!
Dandelion: Fresh, Dried, or Processed?
Dried leaves have the same minerals and many of the same compounds as fresh leaves. The same idea holds true for roots. However, for detoxification many herbalists consider fresh, raw, or steamed fresh leaves and products made from fresh root to work more quickly in the short term (days to weeks). Dried leaf tea or tincture also has a diuretic effect.
Dried raw or roasted root makes a fabulous ingredient for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Roasted dandelion root makes a sweeter, darker hot drink than raw dried root. Dried raw root makes a fine liver-healthy tincture as long as there is no liver disease aggravated by alcohol. That tea (or tincture) is what is called an extract.
The term “extract” is defined in most countries by pharmaceutical standards to mean: the whole complex of plant compounds extracted from the fibrous material of the plant. Extracts may be in a dry form, in liquid forms, or semi-solid. There may be allowed solvent residue (not harsh chemical solvents such as acetone).
In some cases, herbalists extract herbs to make sure to select for more desirable compounds and leave problem compounds out of the finished product. In the case of dandelion leaves and roots, extracts provide a full spectrum as close to nature as possible in a form patients can use over time with ease.
Dandelion’s Environmental Benefits: Last, But Not Least
Environmentally, dandelion is critical for bees (whose pollination feeds the human species directly and indirectly). It flowers regardless of season or rising temperatures which is one more reason to grow it in every front and back yard of North America starting today.
Dandelion: Essential Ingredient in a many Blessed Herbs Products:
*(Reference: Traditional Medicines for Modern Times: Antidiabetic Plants, Edited by Amala Soumyanath, CRC Taylor and Francis Group, Boca Raton London New York, 2006. Amanda McQ C is one of the contributing authors)