Choosing the right herb for an ailment isn't always straightforward.
There are complexities in every situation worthy of considering if we want to unlock the true potential of any given plant. For example, the person's constitution and the plant's energy play a prominent role in how effective plant medicine is for one person over the next.
A seasoned herbalist knows that what might work best for Sarah does not necessarily mean it will work best for Sally.
Lucky for those of us whose plant knowledge might be lacking, there is a saying amongst herbalists that we can turn to when searching for the perfect plant to cure what ails someone. It goes like this:
When in doubt, choose nettle.
As folks who live in the Pacific Northwest, we might occasionally feel bummed about our long, cold winters and the lack of tropical plants in our backyards (or am I the only one who dreams of growing bananas, pineapples, and avocados?).
Sure, we might lack the ability to grow some nifty plants due to our far northern location, but for all our hardships, I can't emphasize how lucky we are to have the mighty Stinging Nettle growing abundantly in our backyards.
Albeit one of the most beneficial plants we have at our fingertips, my intuition is that many people hesitate to incorporate stinging nettles into their diet. You might have encountered the "sting" of nettles in the past (which would understandably make you want to avoid it), or perhaps it's on your radar as a pesky weed, and you never gave it a second thought as a nourishing food.
Whatever the reason we might look away from this plant as both food and medicine, the undeniable health benefits of nettles make them worth another glance.
Lucky for us, spring has just sprung, and the arrival of the season marks an excellent time to introduce nettle into your diet. Considered a "cleansing herb," it makes an effective spring tonic that cleanses the system, purifies the blood, and increases the efficiency of the kidneys and liver (something we all need after a long winter's diet of indulging in heavier "comfort" foods!).
Are you not convinced? Read on, and let's see if we can change your mind about the virtues of Stinging Nettle.
Latin Name: Urtica Dioica
Common Names: Nettle, Stinging Nettle
Parts Used: Leaves, roots, seeds
Energy & Flavours: Nettle is a slightly cooling plant that is very drying. Similar tasting to spinach, but with more depth and punch, they are described as having a rich, umami, and slightly salty flavour profile.
- Leaf: High amounts of chlorophyll, Acids (carbonic, caffeic, chlorogenic, formic, silicic, citric, fumaric, malic, oxalic, succinic), Amines (Ach, betain, choline, lecithin, histamine, serotonin), lignans, flavonoids (quercetin, kaempferol, and rutin), Nutrients (Vitamins A, B2, B5, C, K+, Ca+, silicon), dietary fiber & protein, iron, potassium, nitrates, sterols, tannins, glucoquinones
- Root: Polysaccharides, lectin, lignans, coumarins, triterpenes, sterols, tannins, phenolic acid
- anti-inflammatory (used to reduce inflammation)
- anti-septic (prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms)
- diuretic (causing increased passing of urine)
- anti-hemorrhagic (tending to prevent or arrest hemorrhage)
- hemostatic (capable of stopping the flow of blood)
- detoxifier (to diminish or remove the poisonous quality of any substance)
- vasodilator (something that promotes the dilation of blood vessels)
- circulatory stimulant (an agent that increases blood flow to and from tissues and organs)
- hypotensive (lowering the blood pressure)
- nutritive (providing nourishment; nutrition)
- galactagogue (promotes lactation; increases mother's milk)
- astringent (causing the contraction of skin cells and other body tissues)
- expectorant (an agent that promotes the discharge or expulsion of mucus from the respiratory tract)
- anti-allergenic (used to prevent an allergic response)
- antihistamine (neutralizes the effects of histamine)
- anti-rheumatic (alleviating or preventing rheumatism)
- tonic (a medicinal substance taken to give a feeling of vigour or wellbeing)
- pectoral (herbs that have a general strengthening and healing effect on the respiratory tract and pulmonary system)
- rubefacient (a substance that, when applied topically, causes redness of the skin)
- alterative (herbs that gradually restore the proper function of the body and increase health and vitality)
Looking at that exhaustive list above, perhaps now we are beginning to see why Stinging Nettle is revered?
Medicinal Preparations: Capsules, powder, cooking herb, oil infusion, syrup, tea/infusion, tincture, vinegar, extract, cream, salve, and other skin/hair applications.
Habitat & Growing Conditions: There are about 500 species of nettle in the world, most of them tropical, but others, like our common Stinging Nettle, are widely spread in temperate climates. Nettles grow in thickets near stream banks, disturbed soils, and rich, damp soils. They are often found around old historical sites and homesteads. Our acreage has plenty!
The History of Nettles: Historically, nettles have been used to make clothing for almost 3,000 years. Ancient nettle textiles from the Bronze Age (3000BCE - 1200 BCE) were found wrapped around cremated bodies in Denmark graves.
Nettle textiles are very similar to Hemp or Flax, and are used to make cloth. However, nettle is unique in that it can be made into different textures, from silky to coarse, while also having the ability to be dyed or bleached like cotton. Nettle fabric was considered warmer than linen and softer than wool and was probably used to wrap babies.
In the 1800's, the poet Thomas Campbell wrote:
'I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth.'
In Hans Andersen's fairytale of the Princess and the Eleven Swans, the princess had to weave coats of nettle to break the spell cast on her brothers.
Today, nettle is making a comeback in the sustainable fashion textile industry as demand for sustainable, natural fibres increases. With its ability to be grown in cooler, northern climates, the need for fewer crop inputs, and its biodegradable properties, nettle is becoming increasingly more desirable than its plastic-fibre counterparts such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester.
Between 58 and 45 BCE, there are records of nettle's stinging properties assisting Julius Caesar's troops in helping them stay awake and alert during the night. Roman soldiers were documented as beating themselves with nettles on their bare skin - a process called urtication - to alleviate the pains of rheumatism brought on by cold, damp weather.
The practice of intentionally flogging yourself with nettle stings is still used today to treat inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. It might sound crazy, but it has been proven effective in clinical studies!
Medicinal Uses: Nettles can be used over a long period of time as a health-giving tonic that will benefit the whole body. Nettles particularly shine for the digestive, respiratory, urinary, and glandular systems. The abundance of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins are a welcome addition to our modern-day lacklustre diets, strengthening our overall health and wellbeing. It has been reported that nettles are likely one of the most mineral-rich plants available to us on the planet!
The high concentration of nutrients - specifically iron - makes it ideal for treating anemia and lethargy. In addition, nettles make an excellent ally for women as they can ease menstrual cramps and prevent heavy bleeding during menstruation. Due to their diuretic properties, they are a perfect remedy for women who suffer from premenstrual water retention.
Clinical studies have shown that nettle can decrease menopausal hot flashes and increase the quality of life of postmenopausal women better than a placebo. How cool is that?
The plant also has many benefits for expectant mothers as it not only guards against excessive bleeding but also reduces labour pain and improves lactation. In addition, many midwives suggest regular use of nettle infusions during the last trimester of pregnancy to add a plentiful supply of vitamin K and iron to the blood, reducing the chance of hemorrhage during or after childbirth. Frequently drinking nettle infusions also fortifies the mother's milk with nutrients and improves milk quantity and quality.
Men can also benefit from nettles in many ways, especially as a preventative remedy for a condition affecting approximately one-third of men over 50 years, called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). BPH is a non-cancerous growth of the prostate which puts pressure on the bladder and causes urinary difficulties. Clinical trials have proven that an extract made from nettle roots can benefit BPH by reducing uncomfortable symptoms, including the frequent or urgent need to urinate, inability to empty the bladder, difficulty starting urination, and weak urine stream.
Due to nettle's high Vitamin K content, it can be used for hemorrhagic (bleeding) conditions. Sip a strong infusion of nettles frequently, during and after hemorrhage, for profuse menses, nosebleeds, childbirth hemorrhages, bloody vomit/urine/stools/coughs, etc. (obviously, please visit your doctor if any hemorrhaging occurs!). Similarly, you can powder the dried herb and keep it in a sealed jar in your herbal first aid kit to sprinkle on wounds or cuts to help stop the bleeding. Alternatively, you can wrap fresh leaves that have been lightly pounded around a fresh wound to arrest bleeding. Another treatment for internal or external bleeding is to heat nettles over low heat for thirty minutes. Strain and serve a tablespoon of the strong infusion every hour to stop the bleeding.
Nettle is beneficial for respiratory ailments and may be consumed or inhaled as a decongestant to treat the symptoms of hay fever, asthma, and seasonal allergies. In addition, nettle is anti-asthmatic, so the juice of the roots or leaves can be mixed with honey or sugar to relieve bronchial and asthmatic troubles. If you prefer to inhale, you may mix dried leaves and burn them to have the same effects.
Nettles are well known to benefit kidney ailments. Nettle tea benefits the kidneys by increasing urine output and uric acid removal. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it improves kidney function and urinary flow. Nettle tea is a natural diuretic that promotes proper fluid flow in the kidneys and bladder, preventing kidney stones from forming (Source). Nettle can also have a tonifying and strengthening effect on the urinary system, and has been reported to assist those who suffer from urinary tract infections.
Numerous studies have shown that nettle can also benefit those who have type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that patients with type 2 diabetes who take nettle have increased antioxidant levels and decreased inflammatory markers. Other studies have shown that taking stinging nettle daily can result in significantly lower fasting blood glucose levels (Source).
Food Uses: Nettles are a wonderful, wild green that can be used in any recipe as you would spinach. Make nettle pesto (cutely referred to as "nesto") by combining the nettles with pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese in a blender or food processor. Spread it on crackers, pizza, cooked grains, or mix it into pasta or soups. Make a large batch and portion it into containers so that it can be frozen and enjoyed during the long winter months.
Use nettle in pasta dishes such as this Spring Lasagna with Asparagus, Peas and Stinging Nettles or make a crustless Spinach and Nettle Spanakopita for a new spin on the old favourite!
Every year our family makes Nettle Spanakopita from a recipe developed by my herbalist teacher, Rosemary Gladstar, and it is mouth-wateringly divine. Brimming with garlic and onions, buttery phyllo pastry, along with rice, eggs, and various cheeses, my husband and kids devour this annual treat with great enthusiasm every year!
Cosmetic Uses: Nettle is very good for your bones, hair, skin, nail, and teeth health. Many cosmetic manufacturers add nettle to hair care products to keep hair shiny and healthy, control dandruff, or promote growth. You can create a nourishing hair rinse at home by making a strong infusion of fresh or dried nettle leaves, then strain and bottle once cooled. Apply to your scalp every other night to prevent hair loss and render hair soft and glossy.
When your skin is a chronic problem, try nettle. The antihistamines, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties of nettle go a long way in treating skin issues like eczema and acne. Drink two cups or more of nettle infusion daily for six to ten weeks and see if you notice a difference. In addition, try a nettle face steam or bath.
Infuse nettles into a carrier oil (such as olive, jojoba, almond, sunflower, etc.) and use the resulting oil infusion into homemade face creams, salves, or body oils.
Products we make featuring Nettles: Aurora's Delight Tea features organic herbs of peppermint, ginger, and stinging nettles for digestive health and overall wellbeing. It tastes lovely, to boot! Look for more nettle-inspired products in the years to come as we begin to grow and harvest more herbs from our acreage, grown with love for our product line.
Safety Class: 1 (Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately and that have a history of safe traditional use).
Interaction Class: A (Herbs for which no clinically relevant interactions are expected).
Pregnancy and Lactation: No information on the safety of lemon balm in pregnancy or lactation was identified in the scientific or traditional literature. Although this review did not identify any concerns for use while pregnant or nursing, safety has not been conclusively established.
Sources: A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve, Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne, The Boreal Herbal by Beverley Gray, Botanical Safety Handbook Second Edition.