Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are often seen as pesky weeds by gardeners. They are a common sight in the UK and countries with temperate climates, with a variety of sub-species, often appearing in gaps between paving slabs, in borders, meadows or wasteland. Frequently they are pulled up and tossed aside. This blog post is about the therapeutic actions that the humble dandelion can provide.
Actions: powerful diuretic, bitter tonic, bile duct stimulant, anti-eczema, detoxicant, urinary anti-septic, digestive, cholagogue, mild laxative.
At this time of year (early autumn) dandelion flowers have long gone to seed but the leaves are still clinging on. This makes it an ideal time to harvest dandelion roots. The leaves themselves are best harvested earlier in the year (ideally in spring before the plant blooms). The distinctive yellow flowers are typically present from April until June.
If you decide to harvest the roots yourself, try not to cut through them with your trowel or fork. Clean them carefully, ensure that the dandelion has not been treated with any weed killers and that you have permission to pick them! Preparations are readily available from good herbalist shops if you don’t fancy making your own. More details on how to make your own tinctures and decoctions coming soon!
What are the therapeutic properties of dandelions?
A remarkable detoxifier and liver tonic with many indications.
Both the leaves and the roots of the dandelion are high in bitters and tannins. These bitter tastes trigger the secretion of bile from the liver and increase the production of digestive enzymes, helping to calm dyspepsia (indigestion). Dandelions are traditionally used to treat liver problems and reduce the likelihood of developing gallstones. By supporting liver function, dandelions work as a general tonic and detoxifier, assisting in the breakdown of excess hormones etc. Potential noxious compounds are subsequently more easily transferred to stools. A recent study on animals showed that the increase in bile due to dandelion consumption was an effective aid to weight loss, as bile increases fat metabolism (Balch, 2012). Conversely, increased appetite can result if this is desired, due to the stimulation of the digestive enzymes (Bartram, 1998). The German Commission E has approved dandelions for use in stomach, liver and gallbladder complaints as well as loss of appetite and urinary infections (Balch, 2012). Dandelions are thought to also be anti-rheumatic and have painkilling properties due to certain phytochemicals they contain.
The leaves: Dandelion leaves can be used as a diuretic (causing an increase in the passage of urine). A study by Clare et al (2009) concludes that there was a significant (p<0.001) increase in the urine excreted by humans within a five hour period of taking two doses of dandelion extract. Conventional diuretics, generally with a single active ingredient, often have the accompanying side effect of potassium depletion. Dandelions, however, are naturally very high in potassium and therefore this side effect is avoided as even with increased urination the leaves provide an overall net-gain of this vital mineral. Diuretics can be used to assist the healing of urinary tract infections and kidney complaints. They counteract urine retention in bladder infections and can relieve fluid retention in premenstrual-syndrome (PMS). Young dandelion leaves are excellent in salads, all you need to do is wash them. They are a rich source of Vitamin C, A and B and beta-Carotene. Dandelion leaves commonly come in tea form (you could even dry and store your own leaves). They can also be made into a wash to alleviate irritation from skin complaints such as eczema and acne.
The roots: Dandelion roots are usually taken in decoction or tincture form, but some enjoy them chopped on salad. They can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (Podlech, 2014). They are therapeutically useful in relieving premenstrual constipation that some women experience, as an increase in the amount of bile produced assists constipation without causing diarrhea. The roots are sometimes used as a hang-over cure as by stimulating the liver, alcohol is broken down more rapidly, although ensure that you keep drinking plenty of water due to the potential diuretic effect.
The sap: This is found in the stem of the dandelion and is traditionally used to treat warts and verrucas by applying it directly to the skin (Bartram, 1998).
The flowers: The flowers are less commonly used. Occasionally they are added to teas or turned into wine.
Caution: Not to be taken if you have a blocked bile-duct, or gallstones within the gallbladder. The increase in bile flow could cause the stones to shift and create a blockage. Should not be taken in combination with some antibiotic treatments, or if you are allergic to plants in the daisy family e.g. chamomile. Dandelions have been associated with skin irritation and stomach ulcers in some people. Always check with your doctor before taking herbal remedies, especially if you are on any medication or are pregnant.
Balch, P.A. 2012. Prescription for Herbal Healing, 2nd Edition, London: Penguin Books.
Bartram, T. 1998. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, London: Constable and Robinson.
Clare, B.A., Conroy, R.S. and Spelman, K. 2009. The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum officinale Folium over a Single Day. Complementary Medicine. [Online]. Volume(8), pp.929-234. [Accessed 12 October 2015]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3155102/
Podlech, D. 2014. Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe, London: HarperCollins Ltd.