A Medal for Nettle - An incredible edible and medicinal herb         More Articles

Reprinted from "Taste for Life" magazine

Because of its sting, nettle (Urtica dioica) has been a common metaphor for forbidding landscapes and uninhabitable lands. Its family name means “to burn” in Latin. Chemically, one of the toxins in nettle’s microscopic hairs is also found in bee stings. Why, then, am I singing the praises of stinging nettle?

Well, for starters, the ancients recognized its benefits as well as its sting. Similar to flax or hemp, nettles plant fiber has long been the stuff of paper and textiles, for example. In Russia and Sweden, nettles are grown and dried as fodder for livestock and poultry. Alcoholic extracts of nettle (along with burdock, chamomile and thyme) make useful hair and scalp preparations.

Cooked like spinach, young nettle tops make a tasty green vegetable. The Scots combine it with broccoli or cabbage, leeks or onions, and rice for a nutritious dish. If you want to try this, gather the young tops before the greens get six inches high. Also substitute young nettle leaves for spinach in vegetable lasagna.

Today we know that this herb is rich in vitamins A, C, and E as well as other antioxidants that can help prevent cancer. The Irish drink nettle tea to clear up the rash that characterizes measles. For tea, use dried leaves, which no longer sting.

North Carolina folk healers swear by nettle root for everything from diarrhea and jaundice to hemorrhoids and other painful conditions. And perhaps no plan (with the possible exception of dandelion, dock, and elder) has been as medicinally important in the British Isles as urtica. Stinging nettle shows up in several plots in my “Green Farmacy Garden” 0 allergy, arthritis, asthma, benign prostate hypertrophy (BPH), bronchitis, human immunodeficiency virus, impotence, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, and premenstrual syndrome- indicating that I consider it useful for these ailments. Homeopathic practitioners prescribe a tincture of the flowering plant for bee stings, burns, colic, gout, hemorrhaging, lactation, rheumatism, sore throat vertigo, and whooping cough, among other uses.

Herbal Medicine
Here are some benefits that science is beginning to help us better understand.

Allergies and asthma. Stinging nettle contains natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory substances, including quercetin, that open up constricted bronchial and nasal passages. Some herbal experts assert that no other natural remedy eases hay fever symptoms so markedly. Clearly, Andrew Weil, MD, feels that freeze-dried nettle is proven relief for hay fever, and this has been confirmed in at least one controlled clinical trial.

Recently suffering from what I call ‘incontenence of the nose’ after spending weeks on my hands and knees in my Maryland garden, I cleared up what’s clinically knows as rhinorrhea with stinging nettle instead of one of those expensive antihistamines. Could stinging nettle pot ‘likker’ (from cooking its leaves) be as effective for allergies and hay fever as Allegra or Benadryl? I would add urtica dioica to the list of herbs that should clinically compared to pharmaceuticals, many of which come with significant toxicity and undesirable side effects (depression interference with mental activity, and sedation). Somehow, I don’t thin that will happen. After all, who besides the American public would benefit it relatively inexpensive stinging nettle proved a safe and efficacious as pharmaceuticals?

Joints and Bones. Anti-inflammatory agents in nettle combine with its rich concentrations of boron and silicon to help ease the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as tendonitis and bursitis. Boron also helps our bones retain calcium, so it’s no surprise that nettle has shown some benefit against osteoporosis.

In many native cultures, people with arthritis often sting themselves with nettle. It appears that the body mounts and antihistamine attack in response to the injection of the histaminic compounds in nettle’s mild toxins. It seems that the antihistamines the body creates go to the arthritic joint, while others go to soothe the nettle’s sting. In this case, the histamines work a little differently from way they do with allergies and asthma.

Some of the nettle’s natural antihistamines go to the arthritic joints as well. Researchers have observed local anesthetic and analgesic effects. And at least on phenol in this herb has been shown to stall leukotriene synthesis. A combination of these and other actions may explain nettle’s anti-inflammatory benefits.

BPH and Urinary Problems. Extracts of nettle root are reliable diuretics that encourage excretion, especially of uric acid (a culprit in gout). Stimulating urination helps treat bladder and kidney stones as well as urinary tract infections. Substances in nettle root increase the volume of urine and maximum urinary flow, while reducing residual urine. But, simultaneously, this herb also discourages nighttime urges to urinate. This somewhat unusual dichotomy makes stinging nettle a notable aid against such disparate conditions as bedwetting gout, and (according to one small study) the overnight urinary pressures of BPH (enlargement of the prostate).

Nettle extracts also appear to inhibit the binding of sex hormone globulin on human prostatic membranes. Since research suggest that testosterone and other hormones are an important issue in prostate cell growth, nettle may be particularly useful for men as they grow older. My physician tells me to ‘keep up whatever you’re doing to prevent BPH” after my annual exam, so this is another reason to keep adding nettle to my soup and greens.

One randomized, multicenter, double-blind clinical trial compared a combination saw palmetto-nettle supplement with the drug finasteride in men with BP. The herbal product appeared to be just as effective, with fewer adverse effects (including erectile dysfunction and headaches). If you don’t have stinging nettle growing out behind the barn like I do, ask your favorite natural products store to recommend a product, and follow label directions carefully. But always consult a healthcare provider about prostate enlargement and urinary problems. Never self-medicate for BPH: Establishing baseline prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels is advised before considering herbal treatment.

Safety Rating
There are no known contraindications, health hazards, or side effects in conjunction with careful use of therapeutic doses of nettle. However, some rare complaints of upsets from root products have been reported.

In the Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook, I give nettle my highest safety rating, meaning it’s safer than drinking coffee. Since hospitals kill hundreds of thousands of Americans annually not, not to mention deaths due to prostate cancer, I’ll settle on drinking nettle tea, and snacking on a few pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts, for prostate protection.

Selected sources

Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical databases, Duke The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook by James A. Duke PhD Herbs of the Bible, 2000 Years of Plant Medicine by James A. Duke PhD


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