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  • Monika Getty

Herbal Spotlight: Stinging Nettle

Most people think that stinging nettles are nothing more than a weed with a nasty sting if you happen to touch it with bare skin. It does grow like a weed, that is to say, it grows quickly and spreads easily. It's almost impossible to get rid of once it's established, as I can attest to as it grows into my yard from my neighbour. However, this annoying plant has a host of benefits for your health.

But first, why do stinging nettles sting? Nettles have adapted themselves to deter herbivores from eating them by having stinging cells which can be seen as long, hollow hairs on the underside of the leaves and along the stems of the plant. These hairs contain formic acid (much like in ant bites), as well as histamine which cause the painful stinging sensation. That's why it's always best if you encounter them to keep your skin covered, and if you're trying to collect them or get rid of them, to do so with thick gloves.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) have been used since ancient times as an herbal medicine. The Egyptians used it for arthritis and back pain, while the Roman troops would rub it on themselves to keep warm. Ouch! Nettles are still used today for their health benefits, backed up by modern science.

Anti-inflammatory: In one study, an extract of stinging nettle was shown to decrease the production of leukotrienes and prostaglandins, both pro-inflammatory mediators of inflammation in the body. In another study , participants with osteoarthritis who took a supplement that contained stinging nettle reported a significant reduction in pain and felt they could reduce the amount of anti-inflammatory medication they normally took.

Contains many nutrients: Nettles are quite a storehouse of antioxidants and nutrients; antioxidants are molecules that help defend your body from the damaging effect of free radicals. Damage from free radicals are linked to aging, cancer and other diseases. Some of the nutrients that stinging nettles contain are Vitamins A, C and K; calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium; beta-carotene, lutein, luteoxanthin and other carotenoids as well as polyphenols. Studies show that stinging nettle extract can raise blood antioxidant levels, helping to keep you healthy. Many people (especially Europeans or those of European descent) will go out in the spring to collect stinging nettles to make nettle soup or to dry and drink as tea.

Boosts kidney, urinary and prostate health: Nettles have been known for centuries as a diuretic, promoting the flow of urine. A study in rats showed that stinging nettles reduced the buildup of calcium oxalate crystals in the kidney, which contribute to the formation of the most common type of kidney stones. As well, some studies have shown that nettles can reduce the symptoms of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH or enlarged prostate) and may slow the growth of the prostate by interfering with the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, which may reduce prostate size. Nettles also contain beta-sitosterol, which reduce prostaglandin levels that directly influence prostate inflammation, reducing the blood flow and size of the gland itself.

Can effect blood pressure and blood sugar: One study on rats injected with stinging nettle extract showed that they experienced vasodilation (a relaxing of the blood vessels) causing a decrease in blood pressure. Another study in humans showed that an oral dose of stinging nettle was able to lower both the blood pressure and blood sugar levels in those with advanced Type 2 diabetes.

You can easily make stinging nettle tea from dried leaves: use 1 teaspoon per cup of boiling water, cover and steep for 10 minutes before enjoying.

Stinging nettles are generally considered safe based on their long history of use as food and medicine. It's best to speak with a qualified Health Professional before consuming nettles to make sure it is safe for you to do so, especially if you're pregnant, nursing or have any health conditions. Side effects may include being stung if you're not careful (this is only from fresh plants, not dried), stomach upset and sweating. Because of it's effects on blood pressure, blood sugar and the kidneys, if you're taking any medication for these conditions, it's best to talk to you doctor before using to fully understand the potential risks and benefits.

Nettle leaf is a very nourishing and nutrient-rich herb. Try adding it into your diet today!

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