Nettle, also known as stinging nettle, is a family of perennials native to Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Stinging hairs, which cover the green parts of the plant, contain a combination of serotonin, histamine and three mild irritants: formic acid, the substance secreted in the bites of fire ants; oxalic acid; and tartaric acid. Nettle offers several potential health benefits.
Nettle leaves have a sweet, salty flavor that is prized among wild edible plant aficionados and can be eaten like spinach, notes the American College of Healthcare Sciences. To prepare nettle, steam or saute the leaves and add them to any of your favorite leafy green dishes. While the easiest way to eliminate its sting is to cook it, if you wish to eat your nettle raw, soaking it first will help neutralize its stinging effect. Nettle is highly nutritious, providing about 430 milligrams of calcium, 310 milligrams of potassium, 11 milligrams of zinc and 43 milligrams of iron in a 3.5-ounce serving. Nettle is also a good source of vitamin C and carotenoid, which are both antioxidants. Always wear gloves when harvesting nettle.
A study published in the 2005 issue of the "Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy" found that supplementation with nettle decreased inflammation associated with benign prostatic hypertrophy. Participants in the 18-month double-blind study showed improvement in urinary symptoms and slight decrease in prostate size. However, nettle supplementation did not decrease levels of prostate-specific antigen or testosterone. Researchers concluded that nettle is useful for managing the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia.
Surprisingly, the raised, itchy patches associated with the sting of nettle may provide relief from some forms of chronic pain, according to Gusel M. Kavalali, editor of the book "Urtica: The Genus Urtica." Warmth and tingling generally last 30 minutes where your skin has contacted the hairs of the plant, with warmth persisting for up to 24 hours, followed by decreased sensitivity to pain. With repeated use, you might find that the stinging sensation decreases while the pain-relieving effects increase. One theory offered by researchers at Plymouth Postgraduate Medical School is that the heat and chemicals involved in the body's reaction stimulate pain sensors, which then adapt to the irritation and become desensitized. Another theory posed by the same scientists suggests that the pain response depletes chemical pain messengers, rendering the area insensitive to pain.
Some allergies may respond well to treatment with nettles, according to a study published in the July 2009 issue of the journal "Phytotherapy Research." The tissue culture study found that nettle extract inhibited inflammation associated with seasonal allergies. Specifically, nettle inhibited COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, the same enzymes targeted by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Researchers noted that their study was the first of its kind to identify a mechanism by which nettle reduces allergy symptoms. Further studies are needed to confirm these preliminary results.
- American College of Healthcare Sciences: What Can I Do With My Wildcrafted Nettles?
- University of Wisconsin Bioweb: Serving Urtica dioica for Dinner
- Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide; Rosemary Gladstar
- Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy: Urtica Dioica for Treatment of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia: a Prospective, Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study
- Urtica: The genus Urtica; Gulsel M. Kavalali
- Phytotherapy Research: Nettle Extract (Urtica Dioica) Affects Key Receptors and Enzymes Associated With Allergic Rhinitis
- Pennsylvania State University: Zinc Content in Stinging Nettle (Urtica diocia L.) as Affected by Soil Characteristics: Spatial Distribution and Statistics
- Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: Randomized Controlled Trial of Nettle Sting for Treatment of Base-of-thumb Pain
Tracey Roizman, DC is a writer and speaker on natural and preventive health care and a practicing chiropractor. She also holds a B.S. in nutritional biochemistry.