The Lowly Nettle: An Original, Springtime Superfood

Lily G. Casura

What lowly, scrubby woodland plant — considered a weed or a pest to many, and among the more painful to encounter, at that! — nevertheless just might be an original superfood? How about something with loads more protein than other plants (try a whopping 40%!), that’s delicious raw or cooked, and packs amazing health benefits, besides? It’s also fresh, abundant throughout the world, and an almost universal sign of springtime. Give up? It’s the high-rising, but ultra-low-profile nettle, something herbalist Gen MacManiman calls “the most powerful plant growing.”

So traditional has nettle’s association with springtime been that in 1653, herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that eating nettles “consumes the phlegmatic superfluities which Winter has left behind.” In fact, springtime cleansing with nettles — whether taking them raw or cooked in soup, salad or tea, or consuming them in capsule form — has become for many, a springtime tradition.

A tasty green food your body recognizes, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica or urens) is a weed native to Europe, Asia, as well as North America. (Various unrelated plants are sometimes also called nettles — the Old World nettle trees of the elm family, and the prickly horse nettle of the nightshade family) The shoots grow from two to three feet, to as high as 10′, and flourish in soils that are high in nitrogen. All nettles sting, but thankfully their stinging properties disappear once they’ve been dried or cooked. As they are used throughout Europe, nettles make a valuable tonic after the long winter months because they provide a potent natural source of a number of vitamins and minerals. Formic acid (think, “fire ants”) in nettle leaves is what makes them sting, along with histamine. (Ironically, though, they’re useful in combating allergies).

What’s in nettles?

Nettles are fantastically high in vitamins A and C, and rich in nutrients, including calcium, choline, magnesium, boron, iron, iodine, silica, sulfur, potassium, chlorophyll, histamine, serotonin, glucoquinones, bioflavonoids, tannins and amino acids. They’re unusually high in protein (40%) for a plant. And because they’re so nutrient-dense, they make a good overall tonic for strengthening the body. Useful in treating anemia, their high vitamin C content helps ensure that the iron is properly absorbed by the body.

(Herbalist MacManiman says that their high enzyme content also makes them wonderful for the soil. By putting them in your compost heap, she says, “they break everything down fast and beautifully.”)

Folkloric history

Nettles enjoy a rich folkloric history both general (as a spring tonic) and specific. Among the more esoteric uses: as a cure for baldness, bedwetting (eaten in cakes), an aphrodisiac (seeds mixed into jam), and as a cure for fear (when held in the hand, along with a sprig of yarrow). Urtication-the process of flailing yourself with nettles — originally introduced to England by Roman soldiers who thought they’d need to do it to keep warm — is a folk practice still used today by people suffering from arthritis and even M.S. And their high vitamin o content made them an effective traditional treatment for scurvy.

Modern uses

This humble weed has a multiplicity of modern uses, more than a dozen in all. People use nettles to combat and relieve allergy symptoms (especially hay fever), as a general health tonic, blood-builder and purifier, anti-arthritis or anti-rheumatic agent, to relieve benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH), as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory, as a lung tonic for ex-smokers, to help skin heal from eczema, for hives, bursitis, tendinitis, laryngitis, kidney stones, as a diuretic, to lower blood sugar naturally, even to relieve the symptoms of sciatica and PMS! (And these are just the reputable sources…) It’s also used, amazingly enough, in cosmetics, and physicians as far back as Pliny have used nettle juice to combat nettles’ sting. The homeopathic remedy is used to treat rheumatism, hives and nettle rash.

Recent findings

The juice of roots and leaves, mixed with honey or sugar, relieves both bronchitis and asthma. The German herbal Commission E recommends nettle for prevention and treatment of kidney stones. One two-week study with fresh nettle juice showed its effectiveness as a diuretic. A recent double-blind study showed that freeze-dried nettle extract produced positive (though limited) results in treating allergic rhinitis; yet, folkloric evidence for this treatment is extensive, and James Duke, PhD, quotes Andrew Weil, MD, as being amazed by the “dramatic” effect freeze-dried nettles can have on allergy symptoms. Studies show that benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) in men can be effectively treated by low doses of nettle root extracts. Russian studies indicate that nettle tea has antibacterial activity; it can be used to reduce dental plaque and gingivitis.

How do nettles work?

Bioflavonoids in nettle leaves and roots are generally anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine. The magnesium in nettles may help upper respiratory symptoms, if, as Melvin Werbach, MD, postulates, asthmatics are magnesium-deficient. (Magnesium relieves bronchial muscle spasms and reduces the histamine response.) The boron in nettles may be helpful in treating osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), because it helps the bones retain calcium and influences the body’s endocrine system (hormones play a crucial role in helping the body maintain healthy bones and joints). More research needs to be done to discover the constituent of nettle root that apparently has an inhibitory effect on testosterone conversion, making it effective in treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH).

How to use

Nettles can be eaten as a cooked wild green, like spinach, or served in soup. Nettle powder can be mixed into soup, tea, made into smoothies or home beer, baked into breads, etc. (Euell Gibbons made them into pudding and beer!) Freeze-dried nettles are available in supplement form, and dried nettles are available in powdered form. Look for fresh nettles in farmer’s markets in May and June. The homeopathic remedy for hives, Urtica urens, is available in pellet and droplet form.

Standard dosages

Leaves or roots: for medicinal use, one teaspoon of the granulated leaves or roots per one cup of boiling water. Drink cold, one tbsp. at a time, one cup per day. For BPH, an ounce of tea from nettle root or 5 capsules per day (freeze-dried or otherwise specially processed). The tea can be taken as a general pulmonary tonic in a dose of one to two ounces per day. For hay fever, nettles, which must be freeze-dried for potency, can be taken in single, 300 mg. capsules, from one to five times, five minutes apart, until symptoms are suppressed. For long-term anti-inflammatory action or blood-cleansing, 1 ounce in tea per day. In Germany, the dosage for nettles in treating BPH is 250 milligrams, two to three times a day, with no known toxicity. For prevention of kidney stones, several cups of nettle tea daily.

Safety concerns

All nettles sting. Never eat nettles raw (uncooked). Harvest nettles before flowering; during or after flowering, they may cause irritation to the urinary tract. Because nettles thrive in the wild below agribusiness runoff that’s high in inorganic nitrates and dangerous heavy metals which can collect and concentrate in plant tissue, use care in harvesting your own or check your sources. Do not self-treat for what can be potentially medically dangerous conditions, including prostate problems, without the advice of a competent healthcare provider.


An interesting article by Euell Gibbons, on the Common Stinging Nettle, is archived on the Web at: http:// tml

You can find nettles in the wood (with care and a good sense of what you’re looking for), or buy them freeze-dried in capsules at the health food store. They’re also available in capsule form by calling (800) 544-8972.

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Townsend Letter Group

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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