A close-up of the dahlia flower's petalsShare on Pinterest
Dahlias may be able to improve blood sugar regulation, new research finds. Sepia Times/Getty Images
  • The petals of dahlias contain three molecules that together may help people with prediabetes or diabetes control their blood sugar levels, according to new research.
  • These molecules reduce brain inflammation, which in turn improves insulin function.
  • The discovery may bring a measure of blood sugar control to millions of people worldwide who lack access to medications that are both expensive and often unavailable.

Dahlias, D. pinnata, are more than simply beautifully symmetrical flowers.

A new study describes a trio of molecules found in the petals of these flowers that may improve blood sugar regulation in people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

During a randomized, controlled, cross-over clinical trial, the researchers found that an extract containing the three dahlia molecules significantly improved the study participants’ blood sugar regulation.

In 2015, the authors of the study, from the University of Otago in Aotearoa — the Maori name for New Zealand — established that a dietary flavonoid called butein could reduce brain inflammation and that this could improve blood sugar levels in people who have issues with blood sugar level control.

The new study pinpoints the petals of the dahlia flower as a source of butein and two other molecules that boost its efficacy.

The study is published in Oxford Academic Life Metabolism.

Study author Dr. Alexander Tups said that the realization that dahlias might provide the butein for which his team had been searching was rather random. Over coffee, he mentioned it to a colleague, who then asked him, “Did you know that dahlias may contain that molecule?”

“This was a start of a fantastic journey: International dahlia experts were growing dahlias in the far South of New Zealand, and were happy to supply the flowers,” said Dr. Tups.

The team formulated an extract containing butein and tested it successfully on mice. A collaboration with a team of plant chemistry experts next identified the other two molecules that could enhance butein’s effect.

The researchers determined in a preclinical setting that all three molecules are required to optimize the blood sugar-lowering effect.

“We could furthermore show that they [the molecules] helped reduce brain inflammation in mice, and that the glucose-lowering effect was dependent on it acting in the brain.”
— Dr. Alexander Tups

Trials in humans found the extract produced no observed side effects and was effective.

The team has since patented their discovery, published their findings, and brought an extract for improving blood sugar control to the market called Dahlia4. Dahlia4 is available in tablet form. It has not yet been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Thomas Lutz, full professor for veterinary physiology at the University of Zurich, who was not involved in the study, noted that there are other plant extracts that have been identified and investigated, but “the question is always about the availability, the efficacy, and potential toxicity.”

“In these aspects, I see great value in the discovery made here,” said Dr. Lutz.

Dr. Tups said blood sugar control may not be all there is to the dahlia molecules.

“Since it showed promise in helping to improve brain function, we are now conducting a clinical trial in people with chronic fatigue syndrome or long COVID syndrome,” he said.

“We know that ‘brain inflammation’ is associated with many metabolic disorders, e.g., access to high energy/high fat food, obesity, type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Lutz explained.

“The reduction of brain inflammation has been shown to improve/restore the sensitivity to various hormones involved in the physiological control of metabolism, in particular, insulin and leptin,” he continued.

“This concept has been known for many years. The question was how it can be tackled in a way that is beneficial for the patients involved,” said Dr. Lutz.

According to Dr. Lutz, “potentially, the discovery described here may be of benefit for a very large number of people.”

Beyond the new dahlia extract, he explained that there were many treatment options currently under investigation pre-clinically or clinically or that have received approval recently.

“Many of these are pharmacological approaches based on agonists of endogenous hormones,” he said, before adding: “Efficacy and safety is very good, [but] cost is high, and availability has been an issue.”

“Here we are not talking about drugs (from a legal perspective), but food additives. This may be beneficial for their widespread use,” said Dr. Lutz.

“Globally, there are literally millions of people who could benefit from supporting healthy levels of blood sugar and insulin,” said Dr. Tups.

“Hence, the discovery is of importance for all patients suffering from metabolic diseases, in particular type 2 diabetes mellitus, but potentially other diseases as well, where brain inflammation plays a role.”
— Dr. Thomas Lutz

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 96 million Americans have prediabetes, and another 37.3 million have diabetes.

Of those, the CDC estimates 8.5 million people have yet to be diagnosed. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 422 million people worldwide had the disease in 2014 and diabetes was the direct cause of 1.5 million deaths in 2019.

Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to kidney failure, blindness, strokes, heart attacks, and lower limb amputation.

Avoiding such outcomes depends on continual monitoring of blood sugar, lifestyle changes, and typically taking insulin or drugs that can help with blood sugar control.