The Sunflower is a striking, iconic plant that is loved by gardeners and adorns parks and gardens the world over.
Did you know that it is also an important source of food and medicine and is used by environmental scientists to detoxify contaminated land?
The sunflower is native to the prairies of North America and was first cultivated as a crop by indigenous peoples around 3,000 BC. They cultivated the sunflower from its original bushy, multi-headed wild type to the single-stemmed plant with a large flower we are mostly familiar with today.
There are many different species of sunflower. They all belong to the genus Helianthus, named after the Sun (Greek, ‘helios’). The most renowned is the Common sunflower, Helianthus annuus.
A sunflower is not a single flower, but a flower head (inflorescence) comprised of a densely packed cluster of many small, individual flowers or ‘florets’.
Sunflowers belong to the daisy or Asteraceae plant family, a large family that includes many other well-known garden, edible and medicinal plants. It includes medicinal herbs such as dandelion, echinacea, arnica, marigold, calendula, yarrow, chamomile, wormwood, feverfew, milk thistle, artichoke, burdock, chicory, wild lettuce, goldenrod, boneset, gravel root, mugwort, amongst others.
Sunflowers are ‘heliotropic’ – meaning that they move in response to the movement of the Sun, starting the day facing east and ending the day facing west. During the night they return to their east-facing position. The sunflower’s heliotropism only happens during the flower budding stage: once the mature flowers emerge they remain east-facing to meet the rising Sun (why a field of sunflowers all face the same direction).
No-one quite knows why sunflowers adopt their final sun-facing position. It could either be to help evaporate morning dew and reduce susceptibility to fungal disease, or to maximise optimal temperature, or make them more attractive to pollinators – or for other reasons that are yet to be understood.
Whatever the case, the sunflower’s strong affinity for the Sun provides an insight into its medicinal properties.
The sunflower is often used as a symbol of happiness, due to its strong association with the Sun. There is even a condition known as ‘Sunflower syndrome‘ – a rare photosensitive epilepsy syndrome characterised by highly stereotyped seizures, photosensitivity and heliotropism (an attraction to light).
In mental health, the sunflower is also a globally recognised symbol for non-visible disabilities, also known as ‘hidden disabilities’ or ‘invisible disabilities’ (disabilities that are not immediately apparent). These include autism, chronic pain, learning difficulties, as well as mental health conditions, mobility, speech impairments, and sensory loss such as speech, sight loss, hearing loss, or deafness. They also include respiratory conditions, as well as chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain, and sleep disorders when these significantly impact day-to-day life.
“People living with these often face barriers in their daily lives including a lack of understanding and negative attitudes. So some choose to wear the Sunflower lanyard to discreetly identify that they may need support, help, or just a little more time in shops, transport, or public spaces.”
‘Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’ is an old axiom ascribed to Hippocrates (400 BC) and the sunflower is a good example of this.
Including sunflower seeds as part of breakfast provides the necessary nutrients to help sustain physical and mental energy throughout the day. They are a nutrient-dense food with a potential role in chronic inflammatory conditions, bacterial and fungal infections, cardiovascular diseases, skin diseases and even cancers.
Various studies have demonstrated the therapeutic usefulness of sunflower seeds in multiple clinical conditions, which are attributed to the presence of phytosterols, unsaturated fatty acids, proteins and a range of vitamins and minerals.
Sunflower seeds are a rich source of antioxidants and stress-reducing vitamins including vitamin B (especially vitamin B1 or thiamine) and vitamin D, as well as selenium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. They also contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that results in the production of serotonin – a hormone that plays a role in mood, emotions, appetite, and digestion.
Deficiency of these micronutrients is linked to depressive symptoms arising from sustained stress. Research has investigated the mental health benefits of sunflower seeds.
Hence the sunflower’s status as a symbol of happiness is more than just symbolic.
Sunflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (linoleic acid, omega-6) and monounsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid, omega-9). The proportions of each varies in the four types of sunflower oil available. Sunflower’s health benefits are associated with varieties containing higher fractions of oleic acid.
Both the poly- and mono-unsaturated fats in sunflower oil are good for heart health. Studies shave shown that the omega-9s in sunflower oil increase ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and are anti-inflammatory  . Oils containing at least 70% oleic acid may reduce coronary heart disease, a health claim supported by The US Food and Drug Administration.
Sunflower oil is also a good source of vitamin E, which further supports heart health in addition to brain and nerve health.
It is important to note that you should only cold pressed sunflower oil for dietary and health purposes.
If cooking with sunflower oil, only use low-heat methods as it releases the highest amount of aldehydes into cooking fumes compared with other plant-based oils. Aldehydes are toxic compounds that cause cellular and DNA damage and associated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease (whereas the cold-pressed oil is supportive for these conditions).
While sunflower oil has many health benefits, over-consuming it or using it in unhealthy ways can be detrimental. Sunflower oil (often low-grade, heat-treated) is often used as an ingredient in highly processed foods.
The take home message is that cold pressed sunflower oil with a high oleic acid (omega-9) fraction has multiple health benefits, whereas low quality, heat-processed sunflower oil can be detrimental to your health.
Sunflower seeds are high in unsaturated fatty acids, containing oils that build up the adrenals and kidney function. It has traditionally been used in bronchial, laryngeal, and pulmonary affections, coughs and colds . The seeds can be used, or the cold pressed seed oil.
According to American herbalist Matthew Wood , sunflower seeds “are oily and moistening. They rehydrate the skin and mucosa, lessen irritation in the throat and lungs”.
Accordingly, it is indicated in situations where there is a weak and stressed nervous system, with adrenal exhaustion, dry skin and mucosa.
It also has a reputation for being beneficial for eyesight .
In the past sunflower seed has been used to make a cough syrup. Sunflower seeds and/or cold pressed sunflower seed oil can be used during the colder months as a tonic to fortify the body against the weakening effect of winter viruses.
One of its applications is for chronic, irritable dry coughs that are difficult to shift. This may be a legacy of winter colds and flus or other respiratory infections that leave the body and lungs chronically weakened.
Writing during a time when botanical medicine was widely used throughout the western world by physicians and in households, American physician Dr William Cook  noted that sunflower seed, “acts quite efficiently upon the kidneys–promoting the flow of urine, and soothing inflamed and irritable conditions both of the kidneys and bladder … used warm, this decoction [seeds and husks] gently promotes the action of the oil-glands upon the surface”. Hence, he considered it useful in “chaffy affections of the skin as tetter [eczema]”.
Dr Cook also notes,
“It is asserted that when a house is surrounded by many sunflowers, its inmates suffer no intermittent [fevers that come and go], even in the worst ague [malaria] districts. Without pretending to know any reason for this, I name it as an observation that has been made repeatedly by men of science and the most reliable travellers”.
Dr WT Fernie wrote, “The growing herb is highly useful for drying damp soils, because of its remarkable power of absorbing water; for which reason several acres of Sunflowers are now planted in the Thames Valley. Swampy districts in Holland have been made habitable by an extensive culture of the Sunflower, the malarial miasmata being absorbed and nullified, whilst pure oxygen is emitted abundantly.” 
Dr TJ Lyle similarly observed: “It is also frequently planted near houses and other drains as a means of air purification.” 
Sunflowers grow best in woodlands and moist soils, such as those near waterways that are also vulnerable to pollution.
Sunflower is also a powerful detoxifier – both physiologically and environmentally.
Scientific studies have verified that sunflower helps the body detoxify heavy metals, bacteria and viruses. It can also be used to help the body detoxify after excess alcohol consumption.
In Ayurvedic medicine, sunflower oil is used for detoxification. It is held under the tongue or swished around the for 15-20 minutes then spat out. This is followed by rinsing the mouth and brushing the teeth to remove the toxins drawn out by the oil. It is also good for the gums .
In a parallel vein, environmental scientists refer to sunflowers as ‘hyperaccumulators’ – plants that have the ability to take up high concentrations of toxic materials from the soil into their tissues. Sunflowers are hyperaccumulators of some of the most common metal pollutants, such as cadmium, nickel, zinc, and lead.
However, they do not accumulate all contaminants equally, thus they do not appear to take up metals like arsenic and mercury.
How successfully sunflowers absorb these contaminants depends on which specific variety of sunflower is used – effectiveness is variety-dependent, which is an active area of research.
In 2000, a phytoremediation company called Edenspace Systems completed a successful cleanup of a lead-laced plot in land in Detroit. Sunflowers were planted followed by Indian mustard, which are both known bio-accumulators of lead. The lead concentration in the soil was reduced by 43 percent, bringing it below federal and state safety limits.
After the Chernobyl nuclear accident, fields of sunflowers were planted to help absorb toxic metals and radioactive contamination from the soil. This was so successful that the sunflowers had to be placed in nuclear waste sites.
Fields of sunflowers were also planted after the Hiroshima and Fukushima nuclear incidents. Interestingly, the sunflower is also an international symbol for nuclear disarmament.
 Jenkins DJ, Chiavaroli L, Wong JM, Kendall C, Lewis GF, Vidgen E, Connelly PW, Leiter LA, Josse RG, Lamarche B. Adding monounsaturated fatty acids to a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods in hypercholesterolemia. CMAJ. 2010 Dec 14;182(18):1961-7. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.092128. Epub 2010 Nov 1. PMID: 21041432; PMCID: PMC3001502.
 Allman-Farinelli MA, Gomes K, Favaloro EJ, Petocz P. A diet rich in high-oleic-acid sunflower oil favorably alters low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triglycerides, and factor VII coagulant activity. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 Jul;105(7):1071-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jada. 2005.04.008. PMID: 15983523.
 Wren, RC (1915). Potters cyclopaedia of botanical drugs & preparations.
 Wood, Matthew (2011). The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II (p. 183). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.
 Cook WMD (1869). Physiomedical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy, in Accordance With the Principles of Physiological Medication.
 Fernie, WT (1897). Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 2nd edition
 Lyle, TJ (1897). Physio-Medical Therapeutics, Materia Medica & Pharmacy
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