Food as Medicine

Cooking for Healing: How to Use Dandelions in Daily Meals

BY Sina McCullough TIMEMarch 10, 2022 PRINT

Herbs and spices were used by ancient cultures to heal the body, mind, and spirit. Roughly 80 percent of people worldwide still use traditional or ancient medicine and more than 80 percent of pharmaceuticals are derived or developed from natural products, including plants. In this series, we’ll explore the healing power of herbs and spices while learning how to incorporate these ancient remedies into our daily diet. 

Dandelions have been used as food and medicine for millennia. While many homeowners and gardeners consider dandelion to be an unwanted “weed,” this perennial herb was once revered for its many uses, such as using its flowers for wine, its leaves for cooking, and its roots for medicinal remedies.

Thought to be native to Asia and Europe, the oldest recorded use of dandelions is documented in the Tang Materia Medica from 659 B.C. In the 10th century, Arabian physicians noted its use as a liver tonic, laxative, and diuretic. Likewise, in traditional Chinese medicine, dandelions have been used for thousands of years to treat digestive and liver issues, eye inflammation, abscesses, and upper respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia, and as a diuretic.

Dandelions were often grown in home gardens alongside vegetables. They were used for numerous ailments, such as baldness, toothaches, depression, lethargy, weakness, and fevers. Teas and tonics made from dandelion roots were used to remove toxins from the liver and bloodstream, aid with digestion and blockages, and reduce inflammation in the body.

Modern Science Catches Up to Ancient Wisdom

While the healing power of dandelions was harnessed in ancient cultures for thousands of years, modern medicine has been slow to recognize its benefits. However, the perception of dandelions is changing as scientists have begun validating the wisdom of the ancients through studies that demonstrate the numerous healing abilities of dandelions. Researchers have now confirmed that dandelions have many medicinal capabilities.

They fight cancer. A study published in Pancreas in 2012 concluded that dandelion root extract induced “apoptosis and autophagy in human [aggressive and resistant] pancreatic cancer cells with no significant effect on noncancerous cells.”

In other words, dandelion root targeted and killed cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone, which is in contrast to modern cancer treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy, which are nonselective—they affect both cancerous and healthy cells, leading to unwanted side effects.

The anti-cancer potential of dandelion root extract and its non-toxic effects have also been demonstrated in other types of cancers, such as pediatric cancers, colorectal cancer, leukemia, and chemoresistant melanoma.

They protect against chronic disease. Dandelions were declared a “powerhouse” food because they’re “strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dandelions contain numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which play an important role in protecting the body from chronic disease.

For example, a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Science suggested that dandelion roots and leaves could protect against heart disease after reporting decreased triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels, increased HDL, and increased antioxidant enzyme activity in rabbits that were fed a high-cholesterol diet

They balance the microbiome. Dandelions can help build and balance the microbiome. Up to 45 percent of dandelion root consists of a soluble fiber known as inulin. Inulin is a complex carbohydrate that supports the growth of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and helps rebalance the microbiome.

A study published in 2018 by Experimental Biology and Medicine reported that dandelion, along with mulberry, alleviated dysbiosis of the gut microbiome in rats caused by chronic alcohol intake.

The microbiome in the rumen (the first part of the stomach) of lactating cows was significantly enhanced following supplementation with dandelions, according to a study published in Microorganisms in 2020.

They stave off obesity. Dandelions have been recognized as a possible “natural anti-obesity agent.” They were have been linked to lower body weight, triglycerides, and cholesterol levels in mice through regulation of fat metabolism, according to a study published in 2021 by Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The scientists concluded that dandelions may be a potential remedy in the “prevention and treatment of obesity.”

Likewise, a study published in Nutrition Research and Practice in 2008 concluded that dandelions lowered triglycerides by inhibiting pancreatic lipase. Interestingly, Orlistat, an approved anti-obesity prescription drug, also inhibits pancreatic lipase. However, the use of Orlistat is limited because of gastrointestinal side effects, while dandelions have minimal, if any, reported side effects, making them a possible superior alternative.

They detoxify the body. Dandelions, especially their roots, support the liver’s ability to remove unwanted toxins, such as pesticides, through a variety of mechanisms, such as lowering liver inflammation, boosting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, and enhancing the effects of lipogenesis, according to a scientific review.

They assist with urological disorders. A study published in 2009 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found dandelions to be an effective diuretic in humans and that they can be useful in lowering blood pressure. Dandelions may also be effective against kidney stones. A study in Renal Failure found that dandelions decreased the number and size of calcium oxalate crystals in vitro (in a petri dish or otherwise outside of the body).

They assist with diabetes. Dandelions can increase insulin sensitivity by slowing the flow of sugar from the intestines to the bloodstream because of the presence of inulin, the soluble fiber mentioned earlier. A 2016 review suggested that dandelions help control blood sugar by stimulating the pancreas to produce insulin.

They alleviate gastrointestinal issues. A total of 24 patients with colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, were treated with dandelions in an herbal combination in a study published in 1981. By the 15th day of treatment, symptoms had disappeared in approximately 96 percent of patients, including the disappearance of pain in the large intestine, along with diarrhea, cramping, and constipation.

They protect against liver drug side effects. Acetaminophen, an over-the-counter medication for pain commonly found in Tylenol and Advil, is known to induce liver damage. However, a study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine in 2021 concluded that consuming dandelion extract prior to acetaminophen protected the liver against injury.

Foraging Fun

Dandelions are a medicinal herb that my family consumes in their entirety, including their flowers, leaves (greens), and roots. My children and I forage for dandelions in our yard: It’s one of our favorite food activities. While many people spray their lawn with chemicals to eliminate dandelions, we blow on the dandelion puff balls to intentionally spread dandelion seeds on our lawn—it’s free food and medicine!

If you forage, make sure the lawn isn’t sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. If you don’t want to forage, you can procure dandelions in some grocery stores, health food stores, farmers markets, and local farms.

Precautions and Possible Interactions

People who are allergic to ragweed and related plants (such as daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, yarrow, and chamomile) or iodine might also be allergic to dandelions. People who suffer from heartburn, stomach ulcers, kidney stones or kidney disease, gallstones, or obstruction of the bile duct shouldn’t consume dandelions. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult their health care provider before consuming dandelions. They may interfere with medications metabolized by the liver, as well as other medications, such as quinolone antibiotics, blood thinners, diuretics, lithium, antacids, sedatives, heart and blood pressure medications, and medications that regulate blood sugar levels.

Add Dandelions to Dishes

Add dandelion greens to a salad. If the bitter flavor is unappealing, choose young dandelion greens, which are less bitter than older greens. If the leaves are still too bitter, offset the flavor by adding sweetness to the salad in the form of citrus fruit, such as oranges paired with avocado or a citrusy vinaigrette. If you still can’t tolerate the bitter flavor, try blanching the leaves by boiling them in saltwater for between 30 seconds and two minutes. Quickly drain and transfer to ice water.

Add young greens to a sandwich alongside lettuce.

Steam young greens, then drizzle with a healthy source of fat, such as olive oil or A2/A2 raw butter from grass-finished cows, along with salt, garlic, lemon zest, and pepper.

Braise the greens in beef or chicken broth alongside leeks and serve them as a side dish.

Sauté greens with onions and garlic in olive oil. Eat them as a side dish or add them to an omelet.

Make pesto by tossing in young dandelion greens alongside basil.

Add dandelion greens to a stew or a soup. This pairs especially well with spinach or kale soups.

Garnish salads and desserts with dandelion petals. Young petals have a honey-like flavor, while mature blossoms are bitter. Eat petals fresh or dry them by laying the petals in the sun or using a dehydrator.

Dandelion Tea

This tea uses roughly two teaspoons of dandelion root per cup of water.

Pull up as much of the root as possible and wash it, preferably using filtered water. Finely chop the roots. Add to boiling water and simmer with the lid on for three minutes, then remove from heat and steep for additional 15 minutes. Strain to remove the solid roots and consume the liquid. To cut the bitterness, add a bit of local raw honey.

Save extra roots for later use by drying the chopped roots.

Spread the roots on a cookie sheet and bake them in a warm oven (200 degrees Fahrenheit) for three to four hours, stirring occasionally. Once the dandelion roots are browned and dried throughout, let them cool. Store them in an airtight glass container.

Dandelion Root Coffee Replacement

Dry the roots by roasting them in the oven, grind them into a fine powder using a food processor, then use the grounds to make dandelion coffee in the same manner that you would use coffee grounds to make coffee. Add spices such as cardamom or cinnamon for a warm, spicy flavor.

Dandelion Root Extract

Make dandelion root extract, which is a potent infusion where the ratio of herbal ingredients is higher than it is in a traditional tea or infusion.

Dig up fresh dandelion roots from your yard. Remove the greens from the roots and wash the roots (alternatively, you can use the whole plant—root, stem, leaves, and flowers). Finely chop or grind the clean roots to release juice and expose the surface area.

Fill a clean glass jar 1/3 to 1/2 full with the fresh roots. Pour alcohol (such as vodka) or raw apple cider vinegar to the very top of the jar, making sure to cover the roots completely. Seal the jar and place it in a cool, dark cabinet for four to six weeks, shake the jar several times each week, and check the liquid level. If liquid has evaporated and the herb isn’t completely submerged, top off the jar with more liquid to prevent mold or bacterial growth.

After four to six weeks, strain the liquid using a cheesecloth; squeeze and twist the cheesecloth until all of the liquid has been collected. Store the liquid extract in an air-tight, dark-colored glass container in a cool, dark place.

Side note: Alcohol-based tinctures can be stored for several years without spoiling, while a vinegar tincture has a shorter shelf life—roughly one year at most. Vinegar tinctures are also typically less potent than alcohol tinctures.

Orange-Mint Salad Dressing

The bitter flavor of dandelions is a deterrent for me, so I created a citrus salad dressing that masks that bitterness. Using this dressing, even my children will eat dandelion greens! Please don’t try this recipe if you’re allergic or sensitive to any of the ingredients.

Ingredients (makes 1 cup):

  • 8 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon orange zest
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 4 tablespoons raw apple cider vinegar or coconut vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons raw honey
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 20 fresh mint leaves, finely diced

Directions:

Add all ingredients to a glass jar, secure the lid, and shake until combined. Apply generously over salad.

This dressing pairs well with greens (dandelion, spinach, or arugula), fruit (pears or strawberries), nuts (walnuts or almonds), and cheese (feta or crumbled bleu).

Supercharge your salad by adding microgreens to boost the nutrient density.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of the online program, "GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease,” and author of Hands Off My Food,” and “Beyond Labels.” She earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from UC Davis. She is a Master Herbalist, Gluten Free Society Certified Practitioner and homeschool mom of three.
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