Rebecca Powell-Doherty, PhD shares some uses for the dandelion, dives into the chemistry and breaks down the studies.
Dandelion: A Not So Humble Weed
Head out to the nearest green patch available to you starting around the early days of Spring, and you will, undoubtedly, identify that bright yellow flower that has unceremoniously been labeled a ‘weed’. Wait a bit longer, and the yellow beauties will turn into soft white puffs of seed that children and adults alike love to blow on and spread all around. The bane of those trying to keep a well-manicured lawn, I am of course speaking about that Spring perennial, Taraxacum officinale, or dandelion.
If you’ve read Tiffany Cruikshank’s book, Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life, you may remember that when she discusses the use of herbs, teas, and tinctures, she indicates that keeping it simple with dandelion might be a great way to go (Cruikshank, 2014). There is a myriad of scientific investigation to support such a statement. Additionally, teas and tinctures made from dandelion have been reported for use in liver, spleen, and kidney ailments dating back to the 10th century (Schütz et al, 2006).
The Chemistry of Dandelions
There’s quite a bit of chemistry that breaks down the how’s and why’s of dandelion’s good work. The Schütz article cited here is a great place to start if you want to dig deeper. For those who just want the core info, though, I can safely say that there is study after study that demonstrates the efficacy of dandelion teas and tinctures as being hepatoprotective, mildly diuretic, anti-diabetic, anti-rhematic, and choleretic. For our purposes, though, I’d like to focus on that concept of hepatoprotection and link it somewhat conclusively to the antioxidant properties of this humble but ridiculously useful ‘weed’.
Antioxidants are, as you might already know, compounds or substances that inhibit oxidation of other substrates. They, therefore, protect against oxidative stress. In terms of the human body, oxidative stress is most closely associated with the function of mitochondria, those “powerhouse” organelles you learned about in biology. The production of ATP, the preferred form of cellular energy, uses oxygen in the process, but it also loses electrons in the process here and there, producing reactive oxygen species (ROS). Those compounds go on to oxidize other very stable molecules, therefore causing a fair amount of damage at the cellular level. These kinds of interactions have been linked to all sorts of issues, from aging to cancer.
Antioxidants & the Liver
That said, our bodies have really great mechanisms for dealing with these guys. Our cells have redundant enzyme mechanisms that are antioxidant in their activity and capable of dealing with reactive oxygen species fairly easily. These include enzymes like glutathione peroxidase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase. Our livers have one of the highest concentrations of mitochondria in the body, and therefore, very high concentrations of these enzymes as well.
Generally, a well-functioning liver filters all sorts of things from our bloodstream with ease, from cellular waste by-products to alcohol. However, sometimes even the liver can fall behind and become less effective. It does, however, take a great deal to permanently damage your liver. This is certainly true for individuals who suffer from cirrhosis or other liver diseases, but it can also be true for otherwise healthy people who just aren’t firing on all cylinders. Stress, anxiety, lack of exercise, and dietary issues can all contribute.
So, if we find ourselves in that position, science and history both tell us that incorporating dandelion into our diets is a great way to give our livers a bit of support. A study in Food and Chemical Toxicology (You et al, 2010) examined the role of ‘aqueous extract’ from T. officinale on alcohol-induced oxidative stress. The study extracted dandelion root in both ethanol (a tincture) and water (a tea). In both cases, pre-treatment with the dandelion extract protected hepatic (liver) cells from oxidative damage.
It is worth noting that the tincture produced more robust results than the tea, but both demonstrated benefit in reduction of ROS in cells, improved cell viability, and protection of antioxidant enzyme levels in the liver. The study was conducted using a pre-treatment approach, so it suggests that incorporation of teas or tinctures into one’s diet regimen should be done consistently and not in the hopes of alleviating damage that has already occurred. That’s not to say damage can’t be undone; the liver is a remarkable organ for regeneration, but certainly prevention and mild injury are easier things to address.
A second study, appearing in the same journal (Gargouri et al, 2012), examines how dandelion mitigates damage associated with lead poisoning in neonates. So, while alcohol goes straight to our livers; lead more readily affects our brains and, specifically, the development of young brains. While I mentioned we would focus on the hepatic protection component of dandelion, it makes sense to link antioxidant activity to other organs that also have high concentrations of mitochondria, and our brains most certainly qualify! In this case, rather than testing teas and tinctures, the researchers decided to explore what simply adding raw dandelion or spirulina to the diet of pregnant rats could accomplish.
Remarkably, doing so improved the weight of lead-poisoned neonates back to control levels at birth. It also significantly reduced peroxidation levels (damage by ROS) in the brain and cerebellum of those neonates (more so in male offspring), and restored brain protein levels in offspring to control levels. The effects were also observable in the levels of antioxidant enzymes, restoring them to control levels in every instance. This study was conducted during gestation of the rat neonates and through 14 days postpartum. This points to the power of both herbs to mitigate the damage of lead poisoning during gestation, and more excitingly, during lactation.
The studies we discuss here are really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amazing powers of dandelion. They speak to how different preparations can slightly alter the efficacy of the herb. They also suggest that there’s no need to get fancy about how you decide to consume it if you choose to do so. Teas and tinctures are very effective, but so is tossing it, washed and clean, onto your salad now and again.
Certainly, eating it means you need to consume more of it to achieve that same concentrated therapy, but don’t we all need more greens in our life?! As always, you should add any sort of supplement or herb to your regimen after a chat with your doctor. It is important to remember that herbs absolutely count as medicine. Once you get the go-ahead, head back out to the yard (pesticide and lime-free) and enjoy what nature offers up so freely and abundantly.
Other articles by Rebecca Powell-Doherty:
Yoga for Chronic Disease Management
Does Yoga Improve Recovery and Shorten Wound Healing Time?
Cruikshank, Tiffany. Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life: A 30-Day Program to Detoxify and Replenish Body and Mind. Createspace Independent Pub, 2014.
Gargouri, Manel, et al. “Spirulina or dandelion-enriched diet of mothers alleviates lead-induced damages in brain and cerebellum of newborn rats.” Food and chemical toxicology 50.7 (2012): 2303-2310.
Schütz, Katrin, Reinhold Carle, and Andreas Schieber. “Taraxacum—a review on its phytochemical and pharmacological profile.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 107.3 (2006): 313-323.
You, Yanghee, et al. “In vitro and in vivo hepatoprotective effects of the aqueous extract from Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) root against alcohol-induced oxidative stress.” Food and chemical toxicology 48.6 (2010): 1632-1637.