If you are out gardening, hiking or foraging in meadows in early spring, you might learn (the hard way) that stinging nettles are a very common weed there. But despite the fiery pain nettles can cause when you touch them, most people are so grateful to find them!
What are Stinging Nettles?
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a fast-growing plant naturalized across all of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, though it prefers regions with moist, forested soil. People have been using nettles for food, medicine, textiles, and dyes since Neolithic times. With fibrous stalks similar to hemp or flax, nettles make a great alternative, sustainable fiber. The German army used nettle fiber for their uniforms in World War I and used its leaves to dye uniforms in World War II.
Stinging nettles get their name from the fact that their leaves are covered with tiny sharp needles that release a painful combination formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), plus other unknown compounds. Some of these substances are destroyed by cooking, steeping, or drying, but not by freeze-drying or juicing.
Although gardeners and hikers have historically avoided stinging nettles, the plant has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as people rediscover its health benefits in cooking and herbal medicine.
6 Benefits of Stinging Nettles
Nettles are a traditional herbal ally that has been used medicinally for centuries. But lest you think they are just a “folk remedy,” there is actually substantial scientific evidence for using nettles to treat certain conditions.
1. Nettles for Hay Fever and Allergies
Nettles are perhaps best known for helping people with hay fever and allergies. One study has shown that stinging nettle’s anti-inflammatory qualities affect a number of key receptors in allergic reactions, preventing hay fever symptoms if taken when they first appear.
A randomized, double-blind study at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon showed that 58 percent of hay-fever sufferers given freeze-dried nettles rated it moderately to highly effective. And finally, another randomized, double-blind study in 2017 found that nettles were highly effective in reducing symptoms of hayfever and allergic rhinitis.
As an expectorant, nettles are also recommended for asthma, mucus conditions of the lungs, and chronic coughs. Nettle tincture is also used for flu, colds, bronchitis and pneumonia.
2. Nettles for Eczema
Because of stinging nettle’s antihistamine and anti-inflammatory qualities, it can be a great natural treatment for eczema, as noted by a Penn State University College of Medicine study. A combination of nettle taken orally can tackle the eczema internally, while a topical cream can provide relief from the rash’s itch and redness.
3. Nettles for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) and Urinary Issues
BPH symptoms are caused by an enlarged prostate gland pressing on the urethra. A testosterone-induced-BPH study on rats has shown that stinging nettle may be as effective at treating this condition as finasteride, the medication commonly used to treat BPH.
Stinging nettle root extract has also been shown to slow or stop the spread of prostate cancer cells.
Nettle infusion from young leaves is a safe, gentle diuretic—considered a restorative for the kidneys and bladder, and used for cystitis and nephritis. The root of the plant is primarily used in connection with urinary issues, including lower urinary tract infections.
4. Nettles for Arthritis
Studies show that applying nettle leaf topically at the site of arthritis pain can reduce joint pain and treat arthritis. When taken orally, nettle’s anti-inflammatory qualities also help provide relief.
Another study published in the Journal of Rheumatology shows stinging nettle’s anti-inflammatory power against autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
5. Nettles for Wounds and Bleeding
6. Nettles for Nutrition
Nettles are little powerhouses of leafy green nutrition. Raw or cooked, nettle leaves and root provide a wide variety of nutrients, including:
Vitamins: Vitamins A, C and K, beta-carotene, lutein, quercetin, as well as several B vitamins
Minerals: Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, silica and sulfur
Fats: Linoleic acid, linolenic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid
Protein: While low in protein generally, nettles are rare in that they contain all 18 amino acids.
It is no accident that the commercial hair- and skin-care products found in health food stores often list stinging nettle as an ingredient. Because nettles are high in silica and sulfur, eating nettles or drinking nettle tea can make your hair brighter, thicker and shinier, and make your skin clearer and healthier.
Other Potential Benefits of Nettles
Stinging nettle may offer other potential health benefits, but much more study is needed. Some of these potential benefits include:
How to Collect Stinging Nettles
Always collect nettles using work gloves, and wear a long-sleeved shirt. Also clean and chop nettles wearing gloves, too. If you do get stung, use scotch tape to remove any stingers and neutralize the acidic burn by applying a basic paste made from crushed nettle leaves (indeed!), jewelweed, or baking soda.
The tender, young leaves are the best part of the plant. After the plant flowers, the leaves become bitter, so pick nettles in early spring when they are young, and harvest only the top four inches of the plant.
Once you’ve cooked them a little (or even soaked them in hot water for a bit), the stingers are deactivated, and the plant becomes wonderfully edible.
How to Prepare Nettles
Stinging nettle can be foraged or purchased from a local health food store. Stinging nettle products come in dried or freeze-dried leaf form, extract, capsules, and tinctures of both the root and leaf.
There is no recommended dose because so many nettle products have varying concentrations of active ingredients. That said, studies suggest that the following doses are most effective for these conditions:
1. Raw Nettles
It might seem a bit scary, but fresh nettles can be consumed raw. But be sure to neutralize the formic acid that can burn your skin and mouth by crushing the leaves, which will eliminate their sting. Using a blender or juicer, try using fresh nettles the next time you make a green juice or smoothie. Or use a mortar and pestle to freshly crush nettle into this Nettle Pesto recipe.
2. Cooked Nettles
The roots, stems and leaves of stinging nettle are all edible, but only the young tips are tasty. When foraged young, the nutritious leaves taste a lot like spinach, and can be steamed or sauteed much like spinach, too, or used in soups and stews like any leafy green.
3. Dried Nettles
You can dry nettles for tea or tinctures either by hanging bunches of it upside down in a cool, dry place, or by using your dehydrator. Either way, wash the leaves right after harvesting.
If using a dehydrator, wear gloves and remove the leaves from the stem. Allow the leaves to air dry for about 30 minutes or pat dry with paper towel.
Place the leaves in your dehydrator, spreading them out on the rack in single rows, making sure to not pile the leaves on top of each other. Keep enough space between each leaf so there is good air circulation. Dehydrate for 8 to 10 hours or until the leaves are completely dry (to avoid mold). If necessary, rotate the tray a few times through out dehydrating. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Use your dried nettles in a variety of ways:
Tea: Steep the dried nettle leaves in hot water with other tea herbs like raspberry leaf, enjoy alone, or in this Nettle-Ade recipe.
Tinctures: You can steep dried nettle leaves or dried, ground nettle root in grain alcohol as a tincture.
Capsules: Powder your dried nettles and weigh the powder evenly into empty capsules for use in allergy therapy.
Salves and Extracts: Nettle extracts, creams and root tinctures can be applied directly to joints and painful areas of the body. You can find these extracts in health food stores, online, or make your own!
Precautions When Using Nettles
Consuming dried or cooked stinging nettle is generally considered safe. There are few, if any, side effects. Raw nettles contain chemicals that can cause rashes and contact dermatitis, and should be handled with gloves during processing. However, these chemicals are destroyed as the leaves are processed, so you shouldn’t have any issues when eating crushed, dried or cooked stinging nettle.
Pregnant women should avoid consuming stinging nettle because it may trigger uterine contractions, which can raise the risk of a miscarriage.
Speak to your doctor before consuming stinging nettle if you’re taking any of the following medications:
Blood pressure medication
Diuretics (water pills)
Stinging nettle could interact with these medications, causing unwanted side effects.