It’s hard to take seriously any herb with a name like pissenlit, which translates as “piss in bed”—a nod to dandelion’s diuretic action. But don’t let the silliness of its name fool you. Dandelion is enormously important to modern herbal medicine.
Dandelion in Traditional European Medicine
Herbalist Nicholas Culpepper put dandelion under the dominion of Jupiter. He believed that dandelion demonstrated “opening and cleansing” qualities and recommended dandelion for “obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen” and the diseases that result from these obstructions.
Like other herbalists of his day, Culpepper acknowledged dandelion’s diuretic properties and used decoctions of the roots and leaves to “open the passages of the urine both in young and old”. Culpepper goes on to describe dandelion as a powerful cleanser that “cleanses imposthumes and inward ulcers” of the urinary tract. Quaintly, Culpepper also recommends dandelion for a condition known as Cachexia or what he describes as “an evil disposition”.
Culpepper also used distilled dandelion as both an internal treatment for fever and as a wash for sores.
Dandelion in Native American Medicine
Today, dandelion has been naturalized throughout much of the world, but dandelion didn’t make its way to the Americas until the late 1600s when it was brought here by European settlers. After dandelion’s introduction to Native America, the Mohegans embraced dandelion as a “special tonic” and used its leaves to make a healing tea. The Cherokee, however, used the entire plant and used the flowers, roots and leaves as food as well as medicine. There is considerable evidence that they also used the roots to treat heartburn.
Other Native Americans also used dandelion. There is evidence that dandelion was used by various Native Americans for fever, boils, diarrhea and eye diseases. Dandelion’s diuretic properties were also recognized and dandelion was used to treat water retention and related issues. There is also evidence that the milky “sap” of the dandelion stem was used to treat various skin conditions.
Dandelion in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine knows dandelion as Pu gong ying (5) and the Chinese were among the first to document the use of dandelion as a medicinal herb. The earliest known reference to dandelion is found in Chinese medical texts dating back to 659 A.D. According to legend, Chinese physicians used dandelions in much the same way healers in other cultures did. A Chinese doctor of the time might have prescribed dandelion for digestive disorders, breast diseases and even appendicitis.
Even today, dandelion plays a prominent role in traditional Chinese medicine. Dandelion is used for tumors of the lung and breast as well as jaundice, hepatitis and various infections. Of course, Chinese medicine also uses dandelion for its diuretic properties and prescribes dandelion for urinary tract infections, kidney diseases and related health issues.
Dandelion in Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, dandelion is regarded as a bitter herb with sweet, cooling and pungent energetics. Dandelion is thought to act primarily on the circulatory, digestive, urinary and lymphatic systems. Dandelion is considered to have alterative, diuretic, lithotriptic, laxative and bitter tonic actions.
Primarily, dandelion is used for detoxifying Pitta and Ama conditions. Specifically, dandelion is utilized for breast issues like cysts, tumors and swollen lymph glands. Dandelion is also used to influence lactation.
Like other systems of botanical medicine, Ayurveda recognizes dandelion as a diuretic that cleanses the urinary system, the liver and the gall bladder. Diabetes, hepatitis and edema are just a few of the health issues for which dandelion is used in Ayurveda.
Dandelion in Alternative Medicine Today
Today’s herbalists use dandelion in many of the same ways as their predecessors. Today’s herbalists know that the plant is a good source of vatimans A, C and D and is also a good source of many of the B-vitamins. Dandelion can also be a good source of minerals like iron, potassium and zinc.
Ask any herbalist about dandelion and he or she will tell you that dandelion root is used to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion. Dandelion root is thought to act as a mild laxative and is believed to help with flatulence, constipation and other symptoms of upset stomach.
Like the herbal healers of long ago, today’s herbalists see dandelion as a natural diuretic that encourages the excretion of urine. Unlike other diuretics, dandelion contains enough potassium to help prevent the potassium loss that prescription diuretics can sometimes cause.
What Science Says About Dandelion
To date, no credible studies have found dandelion an effective remedy for any medical condition. A handful of studies listed with the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health have mentioned dandelion, but in these studies, dandelion was looked at in terms of safety—not efficacy.
Emerging research also suggests that dandelion may support glucose control and improve lipid profiles. To date, no human testing of dandelion for these medical conditions have been done but the research is intriguing.