Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a leafy herbaceous plant native to North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa. Their green stalks and distinctive, roughly textured, serrated leaves sprout in early spring and grow to about four feet tall. The plants prefer damp, loamy soil, and are often found growing along rivers, springs or culverts.
If you accidentally brush against their leaves, nettles can leave a stinging rash – their leaves contain miniscule hairs that inject inflammatory chemicals into the skin. In part because of this, nettles are often weeded out and thrown away.
Stinging Nettle Benefits
Nettles have a rich history. They have been used in many different traditional communities for thousands of years as food, for their fiber, and for their medicinal properties. Nettle leaves are edible, especially in early spring when they first sprout – and their sting goes away if you cook or dry them.
Many traditional cultures dating back thousands of years considered nettles healing for various ailments as well as nutritious. Hippocrates and other early Greek physicians apparently used nettles for more than 60 different ailments. Nettles were used as a general tonic in spring, and to detoxify the blood – perhaps because of their diuretic properties. They were considered anti-inflammatory; soothing for arthritic pain, and helpful with calming asthma and other allergies.
Many cultures, including the ancient Romans, are reported to have used nettles’ stinging properties for health effects – using “urtification” (flogging oneself with the nettles) to sting the skin, hoping to stimulate blood flow and alleviate inflammatory conditions.
More recently, modern science has begun taking a look at traditional uses of nettles, and investigating their possible benefits. Before you throw this weed in your compost pile, read on!
Nutritional Properties of Nettles
Nettles are highly nutritious. They have quite a bit more protein than you might expect – about 33% by weight – and lots of chlorophyll, as evidenced by their deep green color. They contain vitamins A, C, and K, B vitamins, calcium, manganese, potassium, magnesium and iron. Nettles also contain the beneficial fatty acids a-linoleic acid and linoleic acid, and a host of bioactive phytochemicals such as flavonoids, phenolic acids and tannins.
Therapeutic Uses of Nettles
Nettles may help ease seasonal allergies
A 2009 study found that in vitro, nettle extract can inhibit inflammatory pathways associated with seasonal allergies. The extract prevented mast cell degranulation – limiting the release of pro-inflammatory mediators that lead to symptoms of hay fever.
Nettles may help lower inflammation
A 2013 study found that lipophilic, dichloromethane nettle extracts possess potent anti-inflammatory properties as well as having low toxicity, especially as compared to more traditional nettle tinctures made with water, methanol or ethanol. (These tinctures were also anti-inflammatory, but less so, and exhibited more toxicity.)
More study is needed to determine the bioactive, anti-inflammatory components of nettles, but these properties may be why nettles have been traditionally considered beneficial for pain.
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Nettles may support healthy blood pressure
A 2016 study on rats determined that nettle extract acts as a vasodilator – improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. The extract was especially effective on hypertensive rats. Again, more study is needed to ascertain which chemical components of nettles are responsible for these effects, and whether they are as beneficial for humans.
Ways to Use Nettles
Once their sting is removed through cooking or drying, nettles are surprisingly delicious. They can be steamed and freeze dried or frozen to preserve them for year-round use. Nettles can be blended into creamy potato soups, or chopped and mixed into curries. If the weather is hot, throw a handful of frozen nettles into a fruit or green smoothie. Dried nettles can of course be steeped in tea infusions, alone or with other herbs. Traditionally, lemon juice is said to increase the therapeutic potency of nettles. This combo can be a tasty addition to teas or smoothies.
Therapeutically, nettles can be taken in tincture extracts, tablets or teas. Tinctures are typically considered the most potent form of herbal therapy. Make sure you choose a reputable source of organic nettles, as the plant can accumulate heavy metals if grown in contaminated soil. Talk with your health care provider about dosage, and possible interactions with other medications.
Nettles grow abundantly in the spring in many parts of the United States and abroad. If you have access to wild nettles (and you know the soil is uncontaminated), it’s worth putting on your gloves and harvesting these delicious plants in the early spring when their leaves are tender and juicy. Not only do they make a really delicious soup, but their myriad vitamins and phytochemicals may help elevate your health as well. If you can’t find nettles growing near you, it’s easy to find high quality and relatively inexpensive nettles, dried or in other forms, for use in your tea chest and herbal remedies cabinet.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Hannah Bauman, Jenny Perez. Food as Medicine: Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae). American Botanical Council. 2018, July. Volume 15, Issue 7
Bill Roschek Jr , Ryan C Fink, Matthew McMichael, Randall S Alberte. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2009 Jul;23(7):920-6.doi: 10.1002/ptr.2763.
Tyler A Johnson , Johann Sohn, Wayne D Inman, Leonard F Bjeldanes, Keith Rayburn. Lipophilic stinging nettle extracts possess potent anti-inflammatory activity, are not cytotoxic and may be superior to traditional tinctures for treating inflammatory disorders. Phytomedicine. 2013 Jan 15;20(2):1437.doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2012.09.016.
Rahila Qayyum, Hafiz Misbah-ud-Din Qamar, Shamim Khan, Umme Salma, Taous Khan, and Abdul Jabbar Shah. Mechanisms underlying the antihypertensive properties of Urtica dioica. J Transl Med. 2016 Sep 1. doi: 10.1186/s12967-016-1017-3