Stinging Nettles?!?!? Officially known as Urtica dioica, most of us have at some time or another experienced the sting of these ubiquitous spring and summer plants, but did you know that these painful-if-you-touch-them herbs make for really good medicine? And food, and tea…
Nettles are Incredibly Nutritious
Nettles are extremely high in vitamins and minerals, and also contain plenty of protein, fiber, polysaccharides, polyphenols, flavonoids, and antioxidants. Dried nettle leaves are 40% protein, making them one of the highest known sources of green protein. The amino acid profile of the nettle also makes it not only higher in protein content, but superior in protein quality. Fresh nettles are a particularly good source of Vitamin C. They also contain vitamins A, D, E, F, K, and B vitamin complexes including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6. The minerals found in nettle include selenium, zinc, iron, and magnesium.
Nettles are High in Quercetin
Quercetin, a bioflavonoid antioxidant, is a plant-made compound with a number of benefits. It benefits the cardiovascular system, immune system, respiratory system, nervous system, and digestive system… so pretty much your whole body. Quercetin is powerfully anti-inflammatory, and has been linked to improving a number of health conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- Blood pressure
- Depression/mood disorders
- Viral infections
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Asthma and Allergies
Due at least in part to their high concentrations of quercetin and Vitamin C, but probably thanks to additional factors as well, nettles are fantastic at alleviating seasonal allergies and reducing inflammation in the airways. There are many people whose asthma and/or allergies are completely controlled with a daily nettle supplement. Nettles often work better than antihistamine medications because rather than trying to block the effects of histamine like the drugs do, they actually reduce the production of histamine in the body to begin with.
Blood Sugar Levels
Nettles have been used in traditional herbal medicine for diabetes, and recent studies have shown that nettles can improve blood sugar and insulin levels, reverse the damaging effects of diabetes, and even repair pancreatic beta cells (the cause of type 1 diabetes). Those without diabetes can also benefit from maintaining their blood sugar levels, which helps with appetite, cravings, and more.
Blood Pressure and Heart Health
Nettles benefit the cardiovascular system as a whole. They reduce blood pressure with diuretic effects as well as by promoting relaxation and dilation of blood vessels to reduce tension in the system.
Recent research has shown that the quercetin, as well as the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar and insulin balancing effects of nettle can protect brain cells and even reverse damage and improve mental function and memory. There is also evidence that nettle can help with mood disorders including anxiety and depression.
Nettle roots help the body to maintain more beneficial forms of testosterone. They also act as aromatase inhibitors, which means they block the conversion of testosterone into estrogen. This is important for both men and women who want to maintain their muscle, hair, energy, and libido. Who doesn’t want that?
A recent study demonstrated that a nettle extract induced apoptosis in breast cancer cells (causing cancerous cells to destroy themselves).
Inflammation, Arthritis, and Joint Pain
Nettles contain polyphenols, triterpenes, and flavonoids that decrease inflammation as well as reduce pain signals in the body. Nettle has long been used to reduce arthritis and joint pains. These benefits can be had with internal consumption, but some arthritis patients will even apply the raw stinging form to their joints – preferring the sting to the joint pains that the nettles relieve.
Reproductive and Prostate Health
Nettles can benefit uterine health for women and prostate health for men. Both the greens and the roots are a tonic to the urinary and reproductive systems for both men and women. Nettles can treat benign prostatic hyperplasia.
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties can also help clear up the skin. The nutritive contents of nettles can also nourish and tone the connective tissues of the skin.
How to use Nettles
So how do we get these medicinal benefits (without getting stung)? Fortunately, drying or cooking (blanching, steaming, boiling, sauteeing) the nettles will completely eliminate the sting. Of course there exist teas, capsules, and tinctures (alcohol-based extracts) which are conveniently available for purchase. All of these forms of nettle will provide benefits, without any stinging whatsoever. For those interested in taking advantage of the local abundance of these plants, and perhaps getting to know them more directly, nettle can be harvested easily enough with gloves on. Believe it or not, some herbalists actually like to harvest them bare-handed! The new growth will be the best, so maybe the top 5 inches of the plant or so, or the entirety of those younger, bright green plants. Once harvested, they should be rinsed off, probably still with gloves on, and this is a good time to strip the leaves from the stems if you plan to eat them. The stems are perfectly safe and just as beneficial as the leaves, but even more fibrous, and many will find the nettles more palatable by eating the leaves and not the stems. Throw the stems in your compost pile, or add them to another pile of nettles to be dried and ground up for tea. Nettle can be eaten as you would any cooked greens. Think collard greens, cooked spinach, etc. I think they go pretty well with eggs (and onions and Sriracha!), and there are lots of nettle recipes available online. A tea made with the roots will require a little more chopping and a little longer boiling than one made with the leaves and stems. A tincture is a great way to use the medicine of the roots as well as the above-ground portions of the plant.
By the way, some remedies for the sting of the nettle include dock leaves and fern, either or both of which can often be found growing nearby or among the nettles themselves. A simple poultice (mashed up, maybe with a little water) can be made from these and applied to the area of the sting. Another method is to apply strong tape such as duct tape to the area of the sting and then pull it off, which can pull the tiny stinging nettle hairs out of the skin.
Enjoy the Summer, and the nettles!