What can dandelions do for our bodies?
In the upper right abdomen, taking up most of the space under the ribs, resides a massive, three-pound organ: the liver. Among its many life-critical tasks, it processes virtually everything we put into our bodies, from vital nutrients to last night's wine. At any given time, the liver holds 13 percent of our blood supply, breaking down toxins and converting nutrients before releasing them back into the blood to be stored or eliminated.
But might we be taking this ceaseless process a little bit for granted? And would we feel better and more vibrant if we gave our livers a short break—or even lent them a hand?
Santa Cruz-based naturopathic doctor Aimée Gould Shunney says yes, to all of it. In fact, she believes poor liver and digestive health are the root cause of any ailment.
"Those who are 'anti-cleansing' seem to feel that our livers are designed to cleanse and detoxify, and therefore cleansing programs are bogus and unnecessary," says Shunney, who leads regular, food-based cleanses through her program Cleanse Organic, as a way to restore and reset the body's vital functions. While Shunney agrees that the liver does an amazing job in the detox department, she also believes it is heavily burdened in this day and age.
"Let’s start with the hundreds of thousands of environmental chemicals to which we are exposed," says Shunney. "Add to that our medications, alcohol and recreational drug use, nutrient-depleted diets, and our high stress levels.”
Symptoms of an overtaxed liver include dry skin and acne, constipation, gas and bloating, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue, and an inability to lose weight.
So what can be done? An anti-inflammatory diet that excludes alcohol, caffeine, refined sugar and red meat will effectively give our livers a much-deserved break, says Shunney. But liver health isn't all about deprivation; there are actually several foods we can eat to support the detoxification process. "Specific liver-supportive stars to include in your diet are beets, dark green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, sweet potatoes, citrus, and one you probably don't eat very much—dandelion," says Shunney.
That's right, dandelion. Long before the war of herbicides and well-manicured lawns began, the tenacious dandelion was embraced as a medicine by many ancient cultures. And for thousands of years, dandelions have been used in Chinese medicine as a liver and blood-cleansing tonic.
"Dandelion is a natural diuretic that removes excess toxins and water from your body, which purifies the blood," says Shunney. The entire plant is edible, and the flowers contain flavonoids, the same antioxidants found in green tea that help fight disease. The roots make for an excellent colon cleansing tea. "By purifying the blood, your liver has to do less work."
Today, the familiar toothy leaves have become a common sight in produce aisles and farmers markets. They contain more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and tons of iron (twice that of spinach), as well as calcium and potassium, and they are also a good source of vitamin E.
Dandelion greens also contain choline, a liver stimulant, as well as inulin and levulin, which help the body produce insulin and balance blood sugar. Shunney recommends them for people with diabetes.
Interestingly, while Western cultures often avoid bitter-tasting foods, the bitter substance present in dandelions—taraxacin—stimulates digestion, which is a crucial component in nutrient absorption and removal of waste from the body. According to naturopathic doctor Jennifer Brett, the very presence of a bitter taste in the mouth promotes the flow of bile from the liver and gallbladder, which helps break down fats.
Try throwing dandelion greens into a smoothie—the best way to mask the bitterness—or enjoy a nice bitter spring salad before you sip that wine. Your liver will thank you.
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