As anybody who has experienced its irritating sting will attest, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is often viewed as a pest that does little more than antagonize gardeners and hikers alike. However this slender green plant has been used medicinally throughout Europe for hundreds of years, primarily as a diuretic to remove excess water from the body and also to relieve joint pain. The herb contains a host of nutrients, such as vitamins A, B6, and K, and minerals including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc.
Stinging nettle is used medicinally in a traditional manner to this day. The root is utilized to treat prostate enlargement, joint ailments, and as an astringent. The above ground part of the plant, including the leaves, is used to tackle urinary tract inflammation, kidney stones, allergies, hay fever, and osteoarthritis. So let’s take a look at some of the modern scientific research that backs up stinging nettle’s long history of use.
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH)
BPH can be an extremely unpleasant condition for males. An enlarged prostate gland puts pressure on the urethra, the tube that urine passes through upon exiting the bladder. This causes problems both with bladder storage and emptying. Symptoms can include difficulty starting the urine steam, pain during urination, and disturbed sleep due to nocturnal urination.
Stinging nettle root is commonly used throughout Europe to treat this condition. A paper published in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, entitled “The Efficacy of Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica) in Patients with Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia: A Randomized Double-Blind Study in 100 Patients,” details the plant’s effectiveness. For this double-blind study, the patients suffering from BPH were divided randomly into two groups of fifty. One group was administered nettle (via two 300mg capsules, two times a day), whilst the other received a placebo (packaged in identical capsules) over a period of 8 weeks. Significant improvements were observed after 8 weeks in the group that was given nettle, while little change was noted in the group who received the placebo. No adverse side effects were reported. The author concluded that nettle had a better effect in relieving clinical symptoms of BPH compared to placebo, stating: “As a whole, nettle is recommended to be used more in treatment of BPH patients, given its beneficial effects in reducing BPH patients’ symptoms and its safety in terms of its side effects and its being better accepted on the side of patients.”
Nettle may provide pain relief against the stiffness, grating sensations, and bone spurs that osteoarthritis is associated with. Ironically, the very mechanism that causes the stinging sensation that occurs when the small hairs of the leaves of a nettle make contact with bare skin may also provide relief for those already experiencing pain. Scientists believe the contradictory effect is due both to anti-inflammatory compounds found in stinging nettles and because the mechanism that can cause irritation to skin also has the ability to interfere with the transmission of pain signals.
A paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine documents a study conducted at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. 27 patients with osteoarthritic pain at the base of the thumb or index finger were chosen for the double-blind crossover study. Subjects applied stinging nettle leaf to the effected area daily for one week, after which reductions in pain and disability were noted that were significantly greater than those observed after use of a placebo.
A research letter titled “Stinging Nettle Cream for Osteoarthritis” also documents the therapeutic use of nettle leaf. The authors, who prepared a topical cream for use in their study, noted that stinging nettle could prove beneficial to patients with osteoarthritis in two ways: pain relief and disease process modification. The researchers hypothesized that the sting of the intact leaf hair’s might provide “a counter-irritation that decreases pain by depleting substance P.” Substance P is an undecapeptide that transmits information to the central nervous system. Capsaicin, another natural irritant that is found in chili peppers, has similarly been shown to deplete substance P and thus counter pain.
The authors go on to explain that: “An extract of the leaf, despite lacking the intact hairs, still contains multiple potential modulators of inflammatory or pain pathways. The stinging hairs of Urtica dioica are known to contain the chemicals histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. The precise cause of irritation and pain is unknown, but one study suggested that the initial phase of the skin reaction may be due to histamine in the plant’s hairs, and the persistent sensation phase may be caused by other substances in nettle fluid directly toxic to nerves or capable of secondary mediators. Pharmaceutical properties attributed to stinging nettle tops include analgesic, anti-inflammatory, local anesthetic, hemostatic, antibacterial, and antiviral.”
Hay fever can occur at different times of the year depending on what type of pollen the sufferer is allergic to. Symptoms include sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, sinus pain, eye irritation, and more. Hay fever is traditionally treated using antihistamines. These work by blocking histamines, which are chemical neurotransmitters produced by the body during an allergic reaction. Though effective, antihistamines may cause uncomfortable and potentially dangerous side effects — from drowsiness and dizziness to blurred vision and confusion. Furthermore, mixing alcohol with antihistamines vastly increases their sedative effect, which can prove deadly.
Nettle may well offer hay fever victims a natural and safe alternative. A randomized, double-blind study performed at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Oregon tested the effects of a freeze-dried preparation of nettle against allergic rhinitis, the type of inflammation caused by pollen, dust, and other triggers of hay fever. The study consisted of 98 participants, of which 68 completed the study. The participants assessed the severity of their symptoms in a daily diary, which was summarized by the researchers after one week. The authors found that nettle “was rated higher than placebo” in these “global assessments.”
Reset contacted naturopathic practitioner, holistic real food nutritional consultant, and blogger, Melissa Malinowski of Integrative Nutritional Therapies, to find out more about the health benefits of stinging nettle.
“What I love most about stinging nettle for my clients is that it is naturally high in chlorophyll (a natural blood purifier) and vitamins A, C and K,” says Melissa. “It helps aid in cleansing the blood, it is anti-inflammatory, and greatly helps support and cleanse the kidneys. I find it is very useful for allergies and asthma and lung support, but I really love its diuretic and blood pressure reducing abilities. I find it is very calming to the nervous system, but yet provides support for natural vitality. Nettle leaf is even part of my pregnancy protocol for a pregnancy tea I recommend for my female clients.” Here’s the recipe:
Melissa’s Pregnancy Tea
Ingredients: 3-4 parts red raspberry leaf, 1 part alfalfa leaf, 1 part nettle leaf, and 1 part or less of peppermint.
Directions: Blend herbs and add to infuser, add hot water, let steep 10-15 minutes, then drink hot or cold.
How To Use Nettle
Nettle tea is a simple and easy way to reap the benefits of this easy to forage herb. Boil either fresh or dried leaves for 10-15 minutes, strain, and serve. Alternatively nettle soup is an excellent way of consuming a large quantity of this highly beneficial plant (see recipe). You can also buy dried leaves, blended nettle tea, capsules, and liquid extract at health food stores.