What Is It?
Also known as “stinging nettle” because the prickly hollow needles on its dark green leaves sting and burn upon contact, nettle (Urtica dioica) is an ancient herbal remedy for snakebites, asthma, arthritis, urinary tract inflammation, and excessive menstrual flow. While the above-ground parts of the plant–the leaf and the stem–are generally still used for these purposes, the roots are now popular for treating the discomforts of an enlarged prostate.
This flowering perennial can be found growing wild in the wastelands of the United States, Canada, and Europe. It’s even used as a kitchen herb in many parts of world. Luckily, drying or boiling the plant dissolves the painful bristles. Many people like to steam the leaves to eat like spinach, or simmer them in soup. The young shoots are actually quite rich in vitamin C.
The herb and leaf have several known therapeutic qualities: They fight inflammation, act as an antihistamine, and have a diuretic effect, meaning they increase the flow of urine. The herb has also been explored as a treatment for the premenstrual bloating (fluid retention) that many women develop before their periods.
Arthritis sufferers may benefit from nettle’s anti-inflammatory actions. In fact, nettle leaf extract is a Native American folk remedy for rheumatic pains. Topical formulations of nettle herb juice have been used to treat joint pain, too, as well as acne, hemorrhoids, and other skin problems. There is now evidence that taking the herb along with a prescription arthritis drug (diclofenac was used in one study) enables arthritis sufferers to reduce their dosage of prescription medication. (Don’t undertake such a change without consulting your doctor, however.)
Rich in silica and other minerals important for nail growth, a cup of nettle leaf tea a day may help to nourish and strengthen nails.
Specifically, nettle may help to:
Fight urinary tract infections. Drinking nettle leaf tea has become popular in Germany for treating bladder infections and other inflammations of the lower urinary tract. In addition to promoting the excretion of excess fluids (which helps flush out harmful bacteria) the herb has immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties.
Treat prostate problems. Nettle root appears to be particularly useful for men with BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia), a condition in which the prostate gland gradually enlarges, slowly narrowing the urethra that drains urine from the bladder and ultimately causing urination difficulties. Study findings indicate that preparations made from nettle root specifically (not the stems or leaves) may relieve some of the early symptoms of BPH, including nighttime urination and residual urine. The root may do this by slowing the growth of the prostate, but more research is needed.
Nettle root extract, when blended with an extract of the herb pygeum africanum, may inhibit the hormonal changes that lead to BPH. In fact, herbal remedies for prostate enlargement frequently combine these herbs along with saw palmetto, another natural substance that has shown great promise in controlling BPH symptoms.
Reduce seasonal allergy (hay fever) symptoms. Familiar hay fever symptoms–nasal congestion, sneezing, itching, watery eyes–are triggered by an immune-system overreaction to airborne particles (allergens) such as pollen and ragweed. Nettle leaf may help minimize hay fever discomforts by supplying compounds that inhibit the release of histamine, the inflammatory substance triggered by these allergens.
Unfortunately, there has been very little research on the value of nettle for hay fever sufferers. In one clinical trial, however, more than half of the hay fever sufferers taking nettle (in freeze-dried form) reported moderate to excellent relief from allergy symptoms. In contrast, less than 40% of those taking a placebo felt any better.
Special tip: When buying nettle supplements, make sure to differentiate nettle leaf from nettle root because they are used differently. Try to purchase either in a freeze-dried form or as a standardized extract.
For urinary tract infections: Drink several cups of nettle leaf tea daily. To make the tea, use 2 teaspoons of dried nettle leaf for each 8 ounces of water. Pour very hot (not boiling) water over the herb, steep for 5 minutes, and then strain. You can add 1 teaspoon of echinacea or goldenseal to the tea to enhance its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects.
For prostate problems: Take 500 mg standardized extract of nettle root twice a day in conjunction with other prostate-healthy herbs such as saw palmetto (160 mg twice a day) and pygeum africanum (100 mg twice a day).
For seasonal allergies: Take a 250 mg or 300 mg nettle leaf capsule containing the standardized extract three times a day on an empty stomach.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Nettle, which has therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Except when treating hay fever, which responds best to nettle taken on an empty stomach, take this herb (or root) with food to lessen the risk of stomach upset.
As a diuretic, nettle leaf promotes urination. To avoid dehydration and a healthy balance of body fluids, be sure to drink plenty of liquids throughout the day while taking nettle.
Keep in mind that the root of the nettle plant is the only form effective for prostate problems. When treating any other ailment, select a product made from the leaf or other above-ground part of the nettle plant.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with nettle root.
However, the leaf and other above-ground parts of the plant contain compounds that could, in theory, cause unwanted interactions with certain medications. Consult your doctor before combining these forms of nettle with the following medications: anticoagulants (blood-thinners), antidiabetes drugs (they may interfere with blood sugar control), blood pressure medications (excessive amounts of nettle may interfere with blood pressure control), drugs that suppress the central nervous system (their effects may be increased), and the anti-inflammatory diclofenac.
Possible Side Effects
Nettle is considered quite safe at commonly recommended dosages. Occasionally, however, the root in particular causes mild indigestion, diarrhea, or other stomach upset. Taking nettle with food may lessen the risk of these reactions.
Skin redness and irritation may develop if you apply nettle topically or accidentally touch the above-ground parts of the plant before they have been dried or otherwise treated.
Stick to commonly recommended dosages for this herb.
Don’t stop taking a prescription medication and start taking nettle root for prostate problems without discussing the change with your doctor.
If you have diabetes, consult your doctor about taking nettle; recent animal studies indicate that the herb may increase blood sugar levels, not decrease them as suggested previously.
According to the Botanical Safety Handbook, nettle leaf appears to be safe taken during pregnancy. However, it is always prudent to consult with your physician before using botanical products while pregnant or breast-feeding. Nettle root is not recommended to be taken while pregnant or breast-feeding.
Consult your doctor before taking nettle leaf for swelling or other fluid retention associated with such potentially serious disorders as impaired heart or kidney function.
Allergies 250-500 mg nettle leaf extract 3 times a day
Prostate Problems 250-300 mg nettle root extract twice a day or 30-45 drops liquid extract twice a day
Urinary Tract Infections 1 cup nettle leaf tea several times a day
David Edelberg, M.D.
Preparations of the above-ground parts (leaf and stem) of the stinging nettle plant have been used since ancient times to treat breathing-related problems, including asthma and bronchitis. The roots, on the other hand, have traditionally been used for urinary disorders and are currently approved in Germany for the treatment of enlarged prostate.
HOW IT HELPS ALLERGIES
Stinging nettle seems to relieve hay fever symptoms by interfering with the release of histamine, the inflammatory compound that can cause such discomforts as sneezing, congestion, and itchy eyes. Unfortunately, research is a bit skimpy. In a 1990 study done under the auspices of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, stinging nettle (the above ground parts in freeze-dried form) proved superior to a placebo (58% vs 37%) in providing symptom relief. But the improvement was fairly mild rather than a “Wow! My hay fever’s gone!” I personally think that you’ll get the best results when you combine nettle with another natural antihistamine, such as a quercetin/bromelain combination.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There are several ways to take nettle for allergy symptoms. Whichever you choose, be sure to take a product made from the above-ground parts of the plant–not the root. Nettle leaf capsules and liquid extracts both work well. As a tea Steep 4 teaspoons of dried stems and leaves in hot water. Strain. Drink the tea three times a day.
You can either choose a freeze-dried product (which contains the whole herb) or an extract standardized to contain 1% plant silica, an active ingredient in nettle. Liquid extracts should be a 1:5 concentration in 45% alcohol.
Here are a couple of pointers for using nettle more effectively. Nettle works best on an empty stomach when treating hay fever symptoms. For pollen allergy sufferers the nettle should be taken at mid-morning and again at mid-afternoon. This corresponds to the increase in pollen release during the warmest part of the day. As the summer progresses and the day becomes longer, more pollen is released over the length of the day. A third dose of nettle may be helpful during this part of the season.
David Edelberg, MD