The Health Benefits of Stinging Nettles: An Ancient Herb for Modern Allergies
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are famous amongst herbalists for treating seasonal allergy symptoms. Nettles are also used to nourish and boost mineral levels in our bodies and can be a new mom’s dependable friend because of the abundant bioavailable minerals stored in nettle’s dark leaves.
In this post, we’ll explore the history and health benefits of stinging nettles, as well as its use in treating allergies.
Identifying Stinging Nettles 🔎🌱
Brushing up against these plants can cause a painful, itching sensation because of the small hairs on the stems and leaves that release an irritating chemical when you touch them.
Stinging nettles can grow up to 4 ft tall and have a distinctive look with jagged-edged leaves that are dark green in color. There are 3 varieties of nettles: Urtica dioica, Urtica chamaedryoides, and Utica urens. Here in Florida you’ll mostly find Chamaedryoides, which is native, in central, northern, and western Florida. When searching for nettles, look for them in damp areas such as along stream banks, in ditches, and in wooded areas. They tend to grow in clusters, so once you’ve found one, it’s likely you’ll find others nearby. Check out the University of Florida/Institure of Food and Agricultural Sciences fact sheet comparing the varieties of nettles to learn more.
If you do happen to come into contact with stinging nettles, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the pain and itching. First, try to avoid rubbing or scratching the affected area, as this can cause the irritating hairs to penetrate the skin further. Instead, rinse the area with cool water and apply a soothing ointment or cream, such as calamine lotion. Over-the-counter antihistamines may also help to reduce itching and swelling.
However, despite their reputation as a nuisance, stinging nettles have many beneficial properties when used correctly. They have been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including allergies, arthritis, and as a general tonic.
Historical Uses of Stinging Nettles
One of the earliest recorded uses of nettles was by the ancient Greeks, who used the plant to treat a variety of ailments such as nosebleeds, coughs, and tuberculosis. In medieval Europe, nettles were commonly used to treat arthritis, as well as to relieve pain and inflammation associated with gout and other joint disorders. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, nettles have been used to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones, as well as to improve digestion and promote healthy skin.
Interestingly, one of the historical uses of nettles involved a treatment method known as “urtication.” This method involved hitting the skin with fresh nettles, causing a stinging sensation and the release of histamines, which were believed to help alleviate pain and inflammation. In fact, Roman soldiers are said to have used fresh nettles in this way to increase warmth in their extremities while on their conquests in colder climates.
Modern Uses of Stinging Nettles
Nettle leaves have been used for centuries for their medicinal properties. Today, they are commonly used as an infusion or tea to help manage seasonal allergy symptoms, such as runny nose and watery eyes. Due to their high nutrient content, nettles are also used as a natural Spring tonic, helping to nourish and revitalize the body after the long winter months.
In addition to these benefits, nettle leaves have been found to be useful in increasing breast milk supply for new mothers. This may be due to their high levels of nutrients, including iron and vitamin C, as well as their ability to stimulate the production of prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production.
Nettles’ Effects on Hay Fever
Stinging nettles have been used for centuries as a traditional herbal remedy for various ailments, including allergic rhinitis or hay fever. Scientific studies in the 20th century investigated its effects on hay fever, and a small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in 1990 found that a daily dose of 300mg of freeze-dried nettle was reported by patients to be more effective in relieving allergy symptoms than their usual pharmaceutical medication. More recent studies published in 2009 and 2017 also support the use of nettles in the treatment of hay fever. It is thought that the plant’s anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties are responsible for its effectiveness.
How Does It Work?
Nettles have been studied so we can understand why they are effective in reducing allergic symptoms. Research has shown how nettles prevent histamine release, which causes allergic reactions, by blocking its binding to specific receptors in our body. This is done by inhibiting several important biological pathways, such as H1 inhibition, mast cell tryptase inhibition, COX-1/COX-2 inhibition, and hematopoietic prostaglandin D2 synthase inhibition (HPGDS).
Nettles do not cause drowsiness or hyperactivity. The active constituents of nettles only act on the peripheral receptors of our body and do not cross the blood-brain barrier.
More Research on Nettles
Another study showed how specific bioactive components—adenine, synephrine, osthole, and nicotinamide—are crucial to the body’s anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic processes. These compounds can be detected in serum and urine after consuming a nettle lozenge (200mg), indicating their absorption and excretion. As these compounds are all related to improving inflammation disorders, their discovery in urine and serum after a low dose of nettle supports the use of nettle for relieving allergy symptoms associated with inflammation.
It’s always a good idea to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using any new herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or have a pre-existing medical condition. They can advise you on the appropriate dosages and help you determine if nettles are right for you.
Watch master herbalist Susun Weed (and her little friend) make nourishing herbal infusions of stinging nettles
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