Species Covered: Urtica dioica, U. urens, U. gracilentra
Other Names: Ortiga, Ortiguilla, Stinging Nettle, Dwarf Nettle, Mountain Nettle
Origin: Native to Europe and North America. Ancient history of use in Europe.
Energetics: (Leaf) Neutral & Dry. Astringent and Salty. (Seed) Neutral & Moist. Bland and Sweet. (Root/Rhizome) Neutral & Moist. Sweet (Earthy), slightly Astringent. Vital Stimulant, Tonic Astringent.
Properties: Nutritive (first and foremost), astringent, blood tonic, anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal, anti-lithic, anti-hemorrhagic, androgenic, antihistamine.
Uses: Internally. Nourishing food, builds bone, hair, and nails, blood building, hay fever, kidney stones, gout, UTIs with mucous in the urine, BPH, prostatitis, low testosterone, prostate cancer, malabsorption, wheezing and shortness of breath, menorrhagia, postpartum hemorrhage, bleeding piles, burns, eczema, rash galactagogue. Externally: Burns rheumatism, arthritis, tendonitis, nerve pain, numbness, partial paralysis.
What's a Nettle?
I've heard Nettle referred to at a campsite as "Poison Ivy." Both the children and the adults knew they were getting tagged by some plant and that it Hurt! but they didn't really know what it was. I took the opportunity to show one of them a plant growing nearby which might save them some agony next time they get switched by the "poisonous" Nettle. A plant known as Yellow Dock has richly gooey leaves with anti-inflammatory properties. "Just rub it together between your hands," I showed him, "and place the whole mess right over your Nettle sting area. Rub it in if you like." That is a certain quick fix and they are often found growing together. 'But,' I ask, 'does it really need fixing?'
One of the ancient names for Nettle is Akalyphe, from the Greeks. The Romans called it Urtica (derived from urere, "to burn"), our modern name for the whole genera of related plants, some 80 species worldwide. Urtica spp. are believed by some to have originated on the Eurasian Steppe and naturalized across the globe. Others believe we have our own native Urtica (U. gracilis) here in North America, as well as in Asia. Either way, it is prolific. Another indication of its usefulness?
Urtica spp. are not the only stingers in the family. There are other members of the Urticaceae which also pack a powerful sting, such as Urera, Dendrocnide, and Laportea. There's even a few non-Urticaceae plants which can sting including one local species here in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert, Noseburn, (Tragia spp.) in the Euphorb family. I have handled it where it grows coming out from beneath rocks in small, dry drainages, and it's sting is limited, sometimes nonexistent.
Another member of the Nettle family is Pipturus albidus, or Mamaki. A highly revered shrub endemic to Hawai'i it is the preferred host plant for the Kamehameha butterfly. It is a prized medicinal native Hawaiian tea found quite readily in commerce today. It tastes quite good and is known for its nutritive effects similar to Stinging Nettle, however, it possesses no sting. The usefulness of the Nettle sting is attributed to a variety of acids found within the trichome, or glass-like needle structure lining the undersides of the leaves, the petioles, and the stems. Once the needle, or trichome, is broken the acids are released into the punctured skin causing an increase in blood flow to the area and immune complexes (histamine is also found in Nettle stingers). Flagellation with Nettle branches has likely been known for millennia. It helps to counteract rheumatic pain and inflammation, and has been found to have a cumulative effect. Another interesting usage is to regenerate nerve sensation along injured dermatomes where sensation is no longer full or bordering on numb. Simple whip the affected area with fresh, young Nettle stems. The burning feels good before long . . . trust me.
Then there's the other Nettles. Well, what makes them Nettles? I'm really not sure to be honest, but one of them is the namesake for the mint family (Lamiaceae), Lamium, or Dead Nettle. Another is, Stachys, or Hedge Nettle, also in the mint family. Locally, we have Stachys coccinea often found growing beneath Oak groves. Stachys cooleyae from the Northwest can look quite similar to Stinging Nettle (now you see the need for the clarifying name). The presumed question is "are they similar?" No, not really.
Nettle, or various Urtica spp., stand alone in what they can do.
Stachys cooleyae - Cooley's Hedge Nettle
Nettle is a nutritive herb, it is a food. Taken regularly Nettle serves to enhance the function of various organs due to its high micronutrient content. Years ago my friend and herbalist, Neil Logan, referred to Nettle as the "algae of the mountains" in that it is so packed with protein, chlorophyll, and minerals. Nettle is known to have the richest protein content of any other land plant tested. Traditionally, Nettle was used to build strength following prolonged illness, similar to Irish Moss or Elm bark (both nutritive herbs). Nettle also has an affinity for the blood making it indicated with anemia or a pale complexion with fatigue and asthenia, or weakness. Enabling better nutrient storage by supporting the Liver Yin, and improving blood detoxification Nettle is a true Blood Tonic, or restorative. The dried herb taken in soups and stews throughout the winter helps to build stamina and keep the blood full, strong, and flowing freely. Some believe it is best preserved frozen fresh to retain all the nutrients. Either fresh or dry, a daily dose of Nettle tea is likely to enhance the vitality of those who partake. It is difficult to list all the uses of Nettle without becoming overbearing. It is one of the those plants that seems to fit so well with humans we will likely go on finding new uses for it so long as we're together.
More Nettle Energetics
Looking more closely as some of the other uses of Nettle we see a common connection with the fluids of the body. As a wonderfully balanced astringent herb it is called for in many cases of excess phlegm or discharge, or where Dampness is present. This may occur in the GI tract, the genitourinary system, the lungs, or topically with eczema or weepy sores. Nettle works both topically and internally in such skin conditions. I like combining Nettle with Horsetail as a decoction for their rebuilding and astringent effects together on the lungs. Nettle works to strengthen the lungs with its mineral content (both high in silica) just as Horsetail does. It also enhances general nutrition to the lungs via its blood-building effects. Other Damp conditions may include allergies or arthritis, both of which have been aided by Nettle. Simple Nettle leaf tea, or fresh plant tincture works well here. Peter Holmes points to Nettle in cases of "metabolic toxicosis." I am excited to start including this herb in my diabetic clients regimens soon.
I look at Nettle as three distinct herbs: leaf, seed, and root or rhizome. If we were discussing, say, Chinese herbs Nettle would have three different names for the three distinct parts which do three different things with different energies. Nettle seeds are quite small but may be produced abundantly on a given plant. In some cases, Nettle is dioecious
so some plants won't produce seeds. Seed clusters are borne at the leaf axils and dangle down like a cluster of grapes. One way to harvest is to cut back the plant just before the seeds ripen and hang the plants over trays or sheets or leave to dry loosely in paper bags. Once the seeds mature you can shake them down onto the sheet or whatever your arrangement is. Their taste is demulcent and slightly sweet with a nutritive feel. Herbalist, David Winston, discovered a key usage for the seeds in tincture form. He found that they helped restore kidney function in those with chronic kidney ailments or failing kidneys. Once dialysis has arrived, it may be very difficult to return proper function to the kidneys. I am not aware of any clinical trials which verify these actions. If you have access to good Nettle seeds, take about a 1/4 tsp each morning as a nutritive aid for the kidneys. Simply chew and swallow. Nettle seed is also a thyroid stimulant (Holmes).
Urtica dioica - Nettle Root
The root, or rhizome, of the perennial Nettles has been verified as an excellent aid to prostate health. It has been approved in Germany for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). I have witnessed it go to work rather quickly in opening up the daily flow of urine to help reduce urgency and nocturia (urination at night). Herbalist and åuthor, Stephen Harrod Buhner makes a good case in his book, The Natural Testosterone Plan, for prostate health when androgens are optimized relative to estrogens in males. He sites several scientific trials indicating Nettle Root's effectiveness at raising testosterone. It does this in two ways. One is by inhibiting the conversion of testosterone to estradiol via antiaromatase effects, and the other is by inhibiting the binding of DHT (dihydrotestosterone) to SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin). The prevailing conventional belief states that DHT is the culprit in prostate disease, and the best-selling drug finasteride (Proscar) is used to inhibit synthesis of DHT (an androgenic hormone)
within the prostate. It does this by inhibiting 5-alpha reductase, the enzyme (literally, the type II isoenzyme) which initiates the conversion of testosterone to DHT within the prostate. In turn, it is believed that Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) is "working" in prostate disease via its 5-alpha reductase inhibiting effects. It remains a theory
that DHT is contributing to the unhealthy growth of the prostate. It is well-accepted, however, that testosterone levels are dropping in males over 50 as their estrogen levels are rising. This is, to some degree, normal. It is also known that testosterone can be converted to estradiol, but DHT cannot. If you are inhibiting
the conversion of testosterone to DHT with 5-alpha reductase inhibitors (e.g. Proscar), then you are increasing the possibility of testosterone (more floating around) getting converted to estradiol. Increased estrogen to testosterone in males is widely regarded as a probable cause for prostate disease. Once again, through its anti-aromatase activity, Nettle root reduces conversions of testosterone to estradiol. If it were true, as has been posited in scientific trials, that Nettle root, like Saw Palmetto, has 5-alpha reductase inhibiting effects (simply because it is known to help
prostate conditions?) then it would be preventing the synthesis of testosterone to DHT, and thereby increasing the odds of testosterone (more free) being converted to estradiol. Interestingly enough, the substrate for the creation of all of these hormones
within the human body
is cholesterol. How many middle-aged males are taking Proscar and, consequently, cholesterol-lowering drugs? Additionally, finasteride has been known to cause impotence in up to 18% of users
of those tested, not to mention other forms of erectile dysfunction, ejaculation disorder, testicular pain, brain fog, anxiety, depression, male breast cancer, AND prostate cancer. Let's see . . . Nettle root may
cause a temporary feeling of upset stomach or nausea in some users. Looking at the bigger picture, yes, finasteride has been shown to reduce BPH, but at what cost? Is this linear approach too destructive to justify the means? Let's start asking what are our options, how can we implement more holistic treatment strategies.
Urtica urens - Dwarf Nettle
I forgot to mention, Nettle root also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the prostate and helps to shrink the epithelial and glandular tissue thus making it useful in BPH. It's intended to be used over a period of 1 to 12 months as either tea, tincture, or capsule. Tincture dosage is 30-60 drops 1-2x/day. It's taste also hints at its nutritive quality, earthy sweet with a slight astringency. Energetically, it seems to zero right in on the prostate. I am still really curious how this plant affects women and why they may want to use it. One historical reference from William Cook points to its use in passive menorrhagia (or excessive menstruation). I otherwise have heard of no reports of it being used for women specifically.
Other Uses: Food (leaf), hair rinse (leaf, seed, root), cordage (stem), linen (Nazi Germany was outfitted with fine Nettle uniforms), paper (stem), animal feed, source of chlorophyll.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. 2007. The Natural Testosterone Plan.
Cook, William, M.D. 1869. The Physiomedical Dispensatory.
Holmes, Peter. 2007. The Energetics of Western Herbs, Vol 1.
Wood, Matthew. 1997. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.