Friday, 24 July 2015

Burdock, dandelion, Diabetes and gut bacteria - how my brain chews on a mystery

(Originally published 21 October, 2014 here )

There are two types of Diabetes;

Type 1, sometimes erroneously called Juvenile Diabetes, in which the pancreas simply stops producing insulin. Blood sugar levels, left unchecked, rise, causing kidney, circulation and heart problems. It is now thought to be auto-immune in origin, meaning the body does not recognise the difference between self and not self, and for some reason attacks and destroys the beta cells within the insulin producing islets in the pancreas.

Type 2, sometimes erroneously called Adult Onset Diabetes, where-in the pancreas produces insulin, but the body is "resistant" to this insulin and the blood sugar rises, causing kidney, circulation and heart problems. In this case, it is thought to be induced by a diet high in sugar, simple carbohydrates and fats. (Although some people are re-visiting this)

Now, I can wrap my head around auto-immunity (strangely enough) but I don't understand "insulin resistance".

So, off I go to Wikipedia, where I find it explained : (please note the bit I've italicized)

"Type 2 diabetes is due to insufficient insulin production from beta cells in the setting of insulin resistance.[3] Insulin resistance, which is the inability of cells to respond adequately to normal levels of insulin, occurs primarily within the muscles, liver, and fat tissue.[26] In the liver, insulin normally suppresses glucose release. However, in the setting of insulin resistance, the liver inappropriately releases glucose into the blood.[4] The proportion of insulin resistance versus beta cell dysfunction differs among individuals, with some having primarily insulin resistance and only a minor defect in insulin secretion and others with slight insulin resistance and primarily a lack of insulin secretion."

The liver! Hmmm. Why is it that no one ever mentions this involvement of the liver? This is exciting!

So what do I not know about the auto-immune form? Back to Wiki .. you know, I have a love/hate relationship with Wiki. As anyone and their uncle can add to an article, it's often filled with contradictions and you really have to know how to read, rather than skim. So, after plowing through what I know to be already outdated material (grrr), I find these interesting tid-bits (again, please note the italicized portion):

"The pathophysiology in diabetes type 1 is a destruction of beta cells in the pancreas, regardless of which risk factors or causative entities have been present.

Individual risk factors can have separate pathophysiological processes to, in turn, cause this beta cell destruction. Still, a process that appears to be common to most risk factors is an autoimmune response towards beta cells, involving an expansion of autoreactive CD4+ T helper cells and CD8+ T cells, autoantibody-producing B cells and activation of the innate immune system.[17][22]

After starting treatment with insulin a persons own insulin levels may temporarily improve.[23] This is believed to be due to altered immunity and is known as the "honeymoon phase".[23]"

T-cells! Of course!

But wait, on reread of the next paragraph (and now, even my eyes are glazing over, I pity the reader trying to follow along!)

"Other potentially important mechanisms associated with type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance include: increased breakdown of lipids within fat cells, resistance to and lack of incretin, high glucagon levels in the blood, increased retention of salt and water by the kidneys, and inappropriate regulation of metabolism by the central nervous system.[4] However, not all people with insulin resistance develop diabetes, since an impairment of insulin secretion by pancreatic beta cells is also required."

"Incretin"?? What's that?

Here we go again ... and EUREKA

"Incretins are a group of gastrointestinal hormones that stimulate a decrease in blood glucose levels."


"In 1970, GIP was isolated and sequenced from intestinal mucosa (JC Brown)."

Okay, lets review -

 Type 2 - Gastrointestinal hormones. Intestinal mucosa.       = gut bacteria involvement.
                Insulin resistance                                                    = liver

Type 1 - Autoreactive CD4+ T helper cells. CD8+ T cells.   = gut bacteria involvement

Now why is all this so interesting to me?

Because in all the herbal lore and literature, there's reference to Burdock and Dandelion being "good for diabetics". There is rarely, if ever anything else said about this, except a vague reference to something called inulin. which they both contain in their roots (and to an extent, leaves). Not insulin, and if I see one more amateur blogger get the two mixed up, I will launch an attack in their comment section they won't soon forget

Inulin is a pre-biotic, a form of starch that is not digestible by the body, but it is digestible by certain gut bacteria.

Gut bacteria are responsible for our immune and autoimmune activity as well as the maintenance of the intestinal mucosa. Could it be, then, that it is the relatively recent lack of inulin in the Western diet is starving out these regulators, and so leading to a prevalence of diabetes in both forms? That the reason these two herbs, burdock and dandelion are "good" for diabetics is that they feed and so help to replenish the bacteria?

Maybe - of course no one knew about gut bacteria a couple hundred years ago - but they knew these plants helped diabetics.

There is more, (of course), that is helpful about these plants. Each of them, but especially in tandem, are are excellent tonics for the liver (glucose regulation, remember?) and the kidneys (vulnerable in diabetes, remember?).

So all the more reason that these detested weeds should be seen as the treasured medicine plants they are.

And that, my friends, is the sort of thing I love to play with. The marriage of traditional wisdom and the new science of the microbiome.

(By the way, onions and garlic are excellent sources of inulin.)


  1. Jerusalem artichoke, AKA sunchoke, is a great inulin source as well. And Jicama, though you have to be pretty far south in the Northern Hemisphere to grow them. But I do buy them occasionally. And my sunchoke patch is just getting going. They're one of those you don't want to put anywhere that you may not want them. They spread and grow pretty aggressively.

    1. Hi Nathan

      For sure, sunchokes are the kings of inulin. Not everyone can handle them, but I love them, especially roasted with a chicken, along with many many cloves of garlic. I think the secret to being able to tolerate sunchokes is to nibble them right out of the ground with some of their native soil bacteria still on them. But it's only a theory.

      And you're right, they have a will to live! It's a wonder they haven't taken over the world. They're runners, too, mine are coming up in every bed.

    2. Yes I see now as I've read further posts that you're well aware of sunchokes' proclivity for rampant growth. Shoulda known you'd have this one in your inventory. :-)

      I planted them in a couple of areas where I'm not worried about them taking over - I hope. BTW I found my way here via Tim's VegetablePharm blog.

    3. One plug from Tim and things get pretty busy around here :-)

      A while back I had this "bright idea" that my echinacea plants would be happier with their natural companions, sunchokes. They were, but that's when the sunchokes got the idea that they were welcome everywhere.

      For what it's worth, I have managed to control them by harvesting heavily, then planting potatoes under a heavy straw mulch. Well, not control exactly, but set them back a little. Something to keep in mind just in case you ever change your mind about where you want them.

    4. I'll try to keep that in mind. I knew that I was letting the genie out of the bottle when planting them. But they've got plenty space so it should be OK.

      On the ornamental side I'm kind of wishing I hadn't let loose Forsythia. That's things a beast that slows marches ever outward! I've eradicated a couple of clumps and am contemplating doing same to more. Beautiful in spring, and nice in the landscape thru summer. If only it would behave itself!

    5. When we bought this place I gleefully (and with some effort, I might add) dug up and tossed many a mature hydrangea. Oh, and hostas too. Beastly things, both of them. I have only one forsythia but it's having a rather good year and I'm eyeing it suspiciously now ..

  2. For got to check the Notify me box. Hope you don't mind the extra comment here.

    1. Not at all, glad to have you chime in.

  3. I made a jar of dandelion tincture after reading your posts and a few other herbalists' writings on it. Last night, someone asked what Dandelion tincture is good for. My answer was 'everything'. I guess there is truth to it, but it was my lazy brain answering the question. Ha!
    It has been almost 8 weeks. The tincture is ready to be used. The white stuff, Inulin, is sitting in the jar. Pretty! Not sure how to drain the liquid without wasting any inulin.
    Should I keep the dandelion roots in the jar? If not, how do you drain yours? Hope you would see this comment.
    Thank you heartily,

    1. The inulin makes it through just fine if you give the jar a good shaking first. It's probably kind of caked on the bottom of your jar right now but it dissolves back into the alcohol quite readily. You'll see. I just use my mesh kitchen strainer for the job.

      'Everything' is just about the right answer for what dandelion tincture is good for! Taking care of our liver and gall bladder pretty much takes care of everything else.