How does it feel?
Dandelion is a bitter remedy, although also a gentle one. If you taste a leaf there is an instant bitter hit, settling into an earthy bitter quality, a slight acridity and a subtle sweetness. In the case of the root the bitterness is even more modified by a more mucilaginous sweetness, which varies depending on the time of year it is collected: a spring root will have used up more of its carbohydrate (inulin) stores over winter and will be more bitter. Even then the presence of inulin can linger on the tongue long after the bitterness has faded.
All around the world the actions of traditional medicines were understood by their immediate sensory impacts. Click on each of dandelion’s key qualities below to learn more:
Dandelion’s bitterness is due to sesquiterpene lactones, unique to this plant, but the contribution of the inulin in the root reminds us that this is above all a gentle bitter, an ideal stepping stone if this approach seems worth trying.
What can I use it for?
Dandelion leaf and root have been used around the world for skin conditions and joint problems. These respond best however when there are underlying liver, bile and urinary factors.
The root particularly is one of the safest and surest ways to improve biliary elimination (choleresis) and relieve an overworked liver. Use it whenever there is intolerance to fats and alcohol, associated digestive congestion or dyspepsia, and even to relieve the symptoms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD – sometimes associated with metabolic syndrome and build up of belly fat). In many cases the increased bile flow will translate as looser stools, sometimes tinged with yellow or green, and here dandelion can relieve stubborn constipation.
The choleretic effect of dandelion means that it is one of the standard remedies for gallbladder problems, such as gallstones and cholecystitis. It is certainly a standby gentle remedy if there is a tendency to these problems, and with due care can be used even during a crisis. It combines well with artichoke leaf in this work.
Many skin conditions are linked with poor liver detoxification and here dandelion can be transformative.
Dandelion leaf is more often associated with diuretic properties: it is a frequent component of blends to reduce fluid retention, oedema and to help flush the urinary tract where there are stones and infections. Its application to arthritis (particularly osteoarthritis and gout) relates to ancient associations of these conditions with the build up of acid wastes in the body. A classic combination in these problems is with celery seed.
Dandelion is a bitter, the basis of its benefits for the liver, and as such is also a gentle but effective bitter digestive remedy, a component in any blend to improve appetite and digestive functions, and as an aid to convalescence.
Into the heart of dandelion
Dandelion is one of the cornerstones of herbal treatment in many cultural traditions, certainly seen as such by herbal practitioners in the UK. Many have seen modern life bearing down hard on the liver, as it has to detoxify increasing quantities of ingested industrial pollutants, and for some late 20th century practitioners dandelion became almost a constant feature in a prescription, a general detox component, both gentle and effective.
This reverence is not new. The great herbal archivist of the 17th century, John Parkinson, sums up dandelion’s effect in his first line of description: “by the bitternesse doth more open and clense, and is therefore very effectuall for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleene, and the diseases that arise from them, as the jaundise and the hypochondriacall passion...”. He moves straight on from extolling these hepatic virtues of dandelion to say: “it wonderfully openeth the uritorie parts, casing abundance of urine, not onely in children … without restraint or keeping it backe they water their beds, but in those of old age also upon the stopping or yeelding small quantitie of urine; …it also powerfully clenseth apostumes and inward ulcers in the uritorie passages, and by the drying and temperate qualitie doth afterwards heale them“.
It is interesting to note too that various species of dandelion have been used around the world, and consistently for skin, liver, digestive and urinary problems.
The genus name Taraxacum is derived from the Greek words taraxis = inflammation and akeomai = curative.
Arabian physicians of the 10th and 11th centuries referred to dandelion to treat liver and spleen ailments. The German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs (1543) described its use, among others, to medicate gout, diarrhoea, spleen and liver complaints. In native North American medicine, infusions and decoctions of the root and herb were applied to remedy kidney disease, dyspepsia and heartburn. Furthermore, the drug is considered to be a “blood purifier” and is employed as a mild laxative, for treating arthritic and rheumatic complaints as well as eczema and other skin conditions in popular medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine knows dandelion, sometimes in combination with other herbs, to treat hepatitis, to enhance immune response to upper respiratory tract infections, bronchitis or pneumonia.
In Chinese medicine a dandelion is also used, Taraxacum mongolicum Hand.-Mazz. (as well as other species), called pu gong ying. The character of the plant is similar to European dandelion and many of the popular usages are similar. In Chinese terms the plant is seen as having cooling and cleansing effects and it is much used in toxic, inflamed and chronically infected conditions, those classified as Damp Heat problems in particular. This accords with the qualities adduced to dandelion above, given the detoxifying roles of liver and kidney (and Parkinson’s assertion of it “clensing the malignant humours”), and the cooling and drying properties of all bitters. There is a tradition for using pu gong ying as a stimulant to lactation that is not recorded in Europe.
What practitioners say
Briefly dandelion can be seen as gently improving both liver and kidney functions. Although there is a tendency to use respectively the root and leaf for these purposes, there is enough overlap to recommend both plant parts. In the case of the liver and digestion it combines well with and overlaps the activity of artichoke leaf.
With its role in diluting both the bile and urine, thus reducing the propensity for crystal and stone deposition in each, it is easy to appreciate that dandelion’s reputation for treating stones.
- Digestion: as a gentle bitter digestive dandelion root is a standard first step in exploring this approach, perhaps as a test run for stronger bitters like andrographis, gentian root, and wormwood. Bitters were traditionally described around the world as cooling (and drying), suggesting they could be suitable in poor appetite linked to fever and inflammatory conditions, where heat or humidity is exacerbatory, and traditionally where there is a yellow tongue coating. They are also particularly used where there is a liver-bile element, marked perhaps by intolerance to rich food, fats and alcohol, and in managing more overt problems like jaundice linked to hepatitis, gallbladder conditions and inflammatory gut diseases. Artichoke and chicory are of comparable strength and are often combined in traditional bitter digestive blends.
- Metabolic and inflammatory: dandelion’s bitter quality also lends it to being a common ingredient in herbal regimes for managing chronic inflammatory problems around the body, notably skin conditions like eczema. Again it is useful to check whether the symptoms are linked to any of the background factors outlined above, looking especially for signs of liver strain and sluggish bowel as clues.
- Musculoskeletal: there is a persistent extension of the inflammatory modulating role of dandelion in its use in osteoarthritis and gout. This is linked to its further reputation on the urinary functions below, and to the impression that it helps the kidneys to excrete acid metabolites. There is a strong naturopathic tradition that some arthritic problems are linked with inadequate elimination of acid wastes produced by cell metabolism. Much of this is expired as carbon dioxide from the lungs, with the rest removed in the bowel, sweat and urine. The aim in these traditions is to consume higher proportions of foods that leave alkaline residues after digestion (plant foods) and reduce acid-forming (animal) foods, in other words a more vegetarian diet. (There is a rationale to this approach: digestion is an enzymatically controlled combustion leaving the same mineral ‘ash’ residues – for example, burning a lemon will leave an alkaline ash, a steak acidic ash). Dandelion is one of a number of familiar remedies that were seen to improve the elimination of acidic metabolites (eg phosphates and urates) by the kidneys, along with common folk remedies celery seed, nettles, and birch.
- Urinary and fluid retention: all parts of the dandelion, especially the leaf, have demonstrated diuretic effects. This is a variable property, not affecting everyone, but sometimes the response is very noticeable. This has led dandelion to be used in fluid retention, oedema and even to reduce high blood pressure. It is worth noting that one needs to take relatively high doses to see this.
Did you know?
‘Dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ (lion’s tooth) and refers to the characteristic shape of the leaf. Once seen never forgotten: you will be able to spot dandelion in any sward even without flowers or the seedheads. Its common French name ‘pisenlit’ derives from its diuretic properties and contains the implicit instructions not to take dandelion too close to bedtime!
For most purposes the root should be picked in early spring rather than autumn because of the improved bitterness at that time (due to the plant using up the slightly sweet and starchy inulin during the winter months). The leaves are picked in the spring or early summer preferably before flowering.
I love my liver tea
Our liver takes the brunt of the grunt work for metabolising wastes, so use this tea when you feel sluggish, your digestion is poor or you feel that you need a detox.
- Dandelion root 4g
- Schisandra berries 3g
- Dandelion leaf 2g
- Fennel seed 2g
- Turmeric root powder 1g
- Rosemary leaf 1g
- Licorice root 1g
This will serve 2–3 cups of liver-loving tea.
- Put all of the ingredients in a pot. Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
- Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
Recipe from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole
A very safe remedy. Occasional allergic reactions have been reported.
It may be prudent not to use this remedy in severe biliary conditions in case of exacerbation.
Traditional Ayurvedic characteristics are
- Rasa (taste) bitter, sweet
- Virya (action) cooling
- Vipaka (post-digestive effect) pungent
- Guna (quality) light, dry
- Dosha effect: strengthens vata and reduces excessive pitta and kapha
- Dhatu (tissue) plasma, blood
- Srotas (channels) digestive, urinary, circulatory
In spite of its widespread use around the world clinical evidence for the effects of dandelion are minimal, with most of the research being laboratory studies. These point to diuretic, choleretic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that are at least consistent with traditional uses.
In one pilot human study involving 17 subjects, administration of dandelion leaf extract led to a significant increase in the frequency of urination in the 5-hour period after the first dose. There was also a significant increase in the excretion ratio in the 5-hour period after the second dose of extract. The third dose failed to change any of the measured parameters.
To see the references used in this summary check our downloadable Expert Herbal Reality Resource pdf
Traditional adult doses are 12–30 g/day of dried leaf or 6–24 g/day of dried root, prepared by infusion (leaf) or decoction (root).
There are some differences between the constituents of root and leaf though much overlap
- sesquiterpene lactones (eg taraxacin, mongolicumin B, and taraxinic acid derivatives)
- triterpenoids (eg taraxasterol, taraxerol)
- phenolics such as chlorogenic, chicoric, and caffeoyltartaric acids, coumarins (aesculin and cichoriin), lignans (eg mongolicumin A), and taraxacosides
- taraxalisin: a serine proteinase in the fresh latex (particularly in spring).
- taraxinic acid 1′-O-beta-D-glucopyranoside (an allergen)
- inulin (in the root)
The bitter sesquiterpene lactones, mostly of the eudesmanolide and germacranolide types, are quite distinctive compared with those of other plants.
Dandelion has been described as an unusually high source of potassium in herbal texts, with the implication that this could be a useful complement to its diuretic action. However analyses have shown that although levels are relatively high they do not compete with, for example, those in tea and coffee.