In this article:
- Stinging nettle is a common wildflower that may cause a rash on contact with the skin.
- Once correctly processed, the plant can prove to be highly beneficial to health due to its rich nutritional composition, which includes vitamins, proteins, fats, and antioxidants.
- It is shown to play various helpful roles, such as controlling blood sugar levels, managing benign prostatic hyperplasia, and facilitating renal functioning.
- Unlike some herbs and vegetables, stinging nettle requires proper handling for usage. It is necessary to dry or blanch it before using it as a food ingredient.
Native to North America, Africa, Asia, and Europe (1), stinging nettle is, at first look, a basic plant. It has a tall green stem and pointy, serrated leaves.
However, in the leaves are tiny hairs that are actually hollow barbs containing formic acid, an irritant chemical also found in bee stingers.
When touched by skin, these hairs can easily break off into the flesh and cause a painful, unsightly rash that can last for hours. (2)
So why are we talking about it?
Because when properly processed, this plant is a nutritional gold mine with protein, fats, vitamins, and antioxidants that can benefit your body in a variety of ways!
Nutritional Properties of Stinging Nettle
A chemical analysis revealed that nettle flour from the plant’s leaves contained approximately 30% protein and approximately 40% carbohydrates, and the remainder comprises fats, fibers, and other compounds. (2)
To put this into perspective, a 3-ounce serving of processed or cooked nettle contains a little over 2 grams of protein, less than 1/2 gram of fat, and approximately 7 grams of carbohydrates, as shown on USDA’s FoodData Central. (3)
The antioxidant value of stinging nettle is also high. The leaves contain good amounts of vitamins C, A, B complex, and K as well as active compounds such as lutein and lycopene, which are protective antioxidants. (4)(10)
Antioxidants are a very important part of your nutrition as they eliminate or neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are unstable chemicals that are by-products of inflammation and cause damage to the cells and tissues (oxidative stress) in the body.
The leaves are also high in minerals, including calcium and magnesium, which are important electrolytes for bone health as well as nerve and muscle functioning.
Uses of Stinging Nettle
Most of the time, nettle leaves are dried and used in teas, cooked with other vegetables, or processed into flour to make other products. The leaves and stems are also sources of nettle oil extracts, which are used in toiletry products.
Raw nettle leaves must be either cooked, dried, or processed to render it safe for consumption. The little acid-filled hairs, for which the plant is named, can cause a great deal of discomfort and possibly an allergic reaction if eaten raw.
However, if dipped briefly in boiling water (blanching) or dried out by a heat source, then this plant should not cause any rash or pain when touched or tasted.
It is possible to be allergic to nettle leaves as with any other highly potent food product containing a lot of chemicals. Hence, consult your primary care physician before incorporating this plant into your diet or wellness regimen.
Potential Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle is a nutrition powerhouse, and it is no surprise that this plant has been under study for its positive effects on health.
1. Relieves Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia
Some studies have looked specifically into nettle’s use as a potential alternative treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). In BPH, the male prostate gland enlarges, causing difficulty in urinating.
This condition is a noncancerous normal part of the male aging process, although difficulty evacuating the bladder can be problematic.
One study investigated the effect of stinging nettle on patients with BPH. The intervention group was given two 300 mg capsules of nettle for 8 continuous weeks, while the control group was given a placebo drug. The group that was given nettle capsules showed a reduction in prostate gland size. (5)
Moreover, it is always important to see your physician to rule out much more serious diagnoses prior to self-treatment.
2. Aids in Blood Sugar Control
A case study reviewed a patient with diabetes who, for several months, replaced his usage of the antidiabetic medication metformin with stinging nettle. His blood sugar level was controlled until he went off the stinging nettle. At that point, his blood sugar level became abnormally high again, and pharmacologic intervention was necessary. (8)(9)
In another randomized, double-blind study that included 50 men and women with diabetes, the effects of nettle extract on the participants’ blood biomarkers associated with inflammation and insulin resistance were investigated. (10)
The intervention group was given nettle extract for 8 weeks, while the control group received a placebo. Results showed a significant decrease in biomarker levels in the intervention group after 8 weeks of measured doses. (10)
Both of these studies arrived at very interesting observations, which merit further scientific investigation. It is important for you to keep your primary care doctor informed of when you start and stop any medication or medicinal herb.
Note: Balanced diet and a physically active lifestyle enable you to control your blood sugar without the use of medicines. These measures also promote overall health and increase the quality of life.
3. Lowers Blood Pressure
An animal study investigated the antihypertensive and antioxidative effects of stinging nettle on rats with high blood pressure, in comparison with the effects of losartan, which is a commonly prescribed antihypertensive medication. Results showed that all three nettle doses (10, 50, and 200 mg/kg/day) resulted in lower blood pressure and reduced inflammation. (11)
Although this is a promising observation, you must remember that taking stinging nettle together with losartan or other antihypertensive drugs is dangerous as it can cause hypotension or low blood pressure.
Low blood pressure can lead to symptoms such as dizziness and fainting, so always update your doctor about any supplements that you may be using.
Moreover, a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, as well as a physically active lifestyle, can help you control your weight and blood pressure without the use of medicines.
These factors also facilitate sustained energy levels and promote overall health and more.
4. Fights Inflammation
Stinging nettle has an abundance of active antioxidants (free radical scavengers), including vitamin C, lycopene, quercetin, and lutein, as well as other polyphenolic and flavonoid compounds or micronutrients that mostly come from plants. (2)(12) These compounds are known to fight inflammation in the body.
In this respect, consuming nettle in the form of seasoning added to food, such as soups and stews, or tea as part of a diet high in plants and lean sources of protein may help to minimize the risk of chronic diseases.
Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that regular use of nettle as part of a balanced diet can lessen the discomfort associated with arthritis.
However, always talk to your doctor first before adding bioactive herbs to your regular nutrition regimen if taking other medications already.
5. Promotes Kidney Health
Over hundreds of years, various parts of the stinging nettle plant have been used in ancient and indigenous healing practices. The plant’s composition includes a significant level of antioxidants and caffeic acid compounds, which can induce diuresis (increased urination). (1)(12)
Increased urine excretion is one mechanism that the kidney can be “flushed” as residual metabolic wastes are washed out.
It must be noted, however, that proper hydration is key and that too much use of any substance with diuretic properties can cause dehydration, leading to adverse effects on the kidneys.
Consuming water regularly to ensure urine is clear and pale yellow will also help to flush the kidneys and other important organs naturally.
Moreover, anyone suffering from acute or chronic kidney failure or suspecting they have reduced kidney function should be seen by a licensed physician as soon as possible. These are life-threatening conditions and should be treated by a highly skilled medical team.
6. Facilitates Wound Healing
Multiple pharmacological ointments have been developed over the last few centuries to treat burned or broken skin while it heals, including such products as Vaseline. (13)
While this and others are proven synthetic compounds, some traditional medical practices have used nettle extract or residue, sometimes mixed with arnica, as a similar remedy.
The main chemicals in nettle that may assist with wound healing are Vitamin C and iron.
In an animal study, rats that had been surgically given second-degree burns were treated with either nettle extract or two other commonly used burn treatments already on the market. The group treated with nettle showed substantial healing when compared to the other controls. This result may be attributed to the marked anti-inflammatory effects and substantial antioxidant capacity of nettle. (17)
As indicated on FoodData Central on the USDA’s website, (3) nettle also contains notable amounts of phylloquinone (vitamin K), which is an important compound that the body uses to make clotting factors to stop or slow bleeding.
Although this is a very promising and interesting result, the study was a small-scale animal experiment. More research is needed in humans to fully elucidate the effects of nettle on burns and similar injuries.
Also, it should be noted that although the use of stinging nettle and other remedies for minor injuries that are not life-threatening is probably sufficient, second- and third-degree burns can be incredibly severe and painful.
Note: Please always seek out appropriate medical care if injured and consult a doctor before using alternative remedies for potentially serious conditions.
7. Supports Bone Health
Another small-scale animal study looked at the effectiveness of using stinging nettle in promoting bone formation. (14)
In this study, the interpremaxillary suture (the fused line of bone in the roof of a rat’s mouth) of four groups of rats were surgically separated and then were treated with either stinging nettle or control for several weeks. Results showed that the rats treated with nettle had significant bone formation. (14)
More research is needed to determine whether the bone formation was a direct result of the calcium content of nettle or an indirect effect of the nettle plant’s ability to reduce inflammation, thereby allowing the natural healing process to occur fast.
For researchers, this result is very motivating, and more human studies in the areas of osteoporosis may be warranted.
However, it is always good to maintain a nutritionally rich diet in whole plant foods and engage in regular exercise to maintain the health and mobility of your body.
8. Reduces Allergies
One study looked into the effectiveness of stinging nettle in controlling allergy reactions. (15) Patients with diagnosed allergic rhinitis were separated into experimental and control groups and were treated with either a derivative of nettle or another antihistamine compound.
Results showed that both groups yielded positive results as allergy symptoms were lessened, and levels of blood biomarkers went down. (15)
It is interesting that nettle would have such effect as other studies have shown that stinging nettle can initiate an allergic reaction simply by coming into contact with the tiny needle protrusions on its leaves. (2)
Allergies are a complex, and sometimes severe, response of the immune system upon encountering a foreign substance. More research is warranted to ensure proper usage and safety of using nettle for allergy treatment.
Takeaways from This Section
As interesting and versatile stinging nettle appears to be, please remember that this plant is still being subjected to various scientific studies. Also, alternative herbal treatments are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
If you do not reside in the United States, please check with your country’s governmental departments to see if herbal preparations fall under a regulatory agency. At best, consult your physician as they should be able to tell you.
Also remember that, like any other compounds, the constituents of stinging nettle can interact with the medications and preparations you may already be taking. For instance, losartan, if taken with stinging nettle, may cause dangerously low levels of blood pressure.
Metformin, if taken with stinging nettle, may significantly lower blood sugar levels. If you have cardiovascular disease and have been placed on blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin, the liberal use of stinging nettle could counteract the effects of the drug due to the plant’s high vitamin K content, which assists with natural blood clotting.
Also, if you have food sensitivities, it is best to let your doctor know before trying nettle. Other reported side effects of nettle include such symptoms as upset stomach, sweating, and a feeling of being unwell.
Due to stinging nettle’s effects on blood sugar and blood pressure, expecting mothers should refrain from adding this herb to their daily regimen. (4)
Commercial and Non-nutritional Uses of Stinging Nettle
Aside from being a food and supplement source, stinging nettle has also found several uses in other industries.
a. Textiles and plastics
Aside from being a potent player in the arena of nutritional and medicinal value, the stinging nettle plant is also an important resource in the commercial and textile industries.
For example, fibers from the stem and other less nutritional parts of the plant are processed to be a more durable version of cotton to make fabric. This plant is also chemically treated to make fabric dyes.
Nettle and other natural fibers are also being added to products such as plastic and composite materials to increase the polymer’s performance and biodegradability factor. (16)
With recent regulatory practices and a new focus on sustainability, industries need to be aware of new low-cost and environmentally friendly products coming to market, including nettle.
b. Horticultural/garden use
Stinging nettle is also a horticultural plant as it can increase the quality of the soil it is planted in by drawing out toxins and heavy metals. (1) Nettle used for this purpose is not recommended for consumption in any way by animals or humans.
If you are using stinging nettles to prep your garden, be sure to fully discard the plants after they mature before planting new plants and do not recycle them for compost.
Preparation of Stinging Nettle
To enjoy this surprising nutritional jewel, you must clean them, especially all the little needles full of formic acid that “sting.” This can be done in a few ways.
Blanching is a culinary practice that is used to prepare a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. In this method, the outer coating of the plant is softened enough to be removed.
Blanching is also a technique used to preserve the natural color of vegetables, so they are more pleasing to the eyes and thus more appealing in a meal.
To blanch stinging nettle:
- Boil a pot of water.
- While the water is boiling, carefully dip the leaves and let them soak or cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Remove them quickly and lay them on a cloth or paper towel so they do not become soggy.
Blanching is definitely the faster way to process nettles as you get them clean, you remove the needles, and you pre-softened them all at once.
Drying is primarily used if you plan on making nettle tea, a perfect way to incorporate this plantin to your diet if you do not want to cook them in food. This method requires washing the plant, which you should do thoroughly and while wearing gloves.
You can scrub nettles submerged in a bowl of cold water and then rinse them off either in the second bowl of water or under the faucet. Either way, do not rush! You want them to be thoroughly clean and needle-free.
After this, like with most other herbs, tie them together in bunches and hang them up in a dry area of your kitchen so they can dry out naturally for a few days.
You can do the drying part a little more quickly in a dehydrator or oven. However, oven-drying might burn the nettles and cook away key nutrients if not done properly. So it is best to do this with patience by planning ahead.
Like with any other vegetable, once you have processed the nettle, you can use it in almost any way. Below are just a few simple suggestions:
- Sauté or stir-fry nettle with a little bit of olive or sunflower oil and other vegetables, such as peppers, jicama, and cabbage – anything that you have to make a nutritious and colorful dish.
- Chop them up with other greens and mix them into an omelet, quiche, or frittata.
- Use them as a garnish on a baked casserole or savory pies.
- Mix them into sauces for pasta.
- Add them to soups or stews.
The stinging nettle plant is a very versatile, complex botanical that has many uses that have benefited humanity throughout many generations.
Its nutritional profile includes protein, essential amino acids, fiber, and fats, as well as a complex array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenolic, caffeic acids, and flavonoid compounds.
Several studies have demonstrated the positive effects of stinging nettle’s constituents on the body.
Some of these effects include lowering of blood sugar by inhibiting insulin inhibitors, lowering blood pressure by flushing excess liquid out of the body through urination, and attenuating inflammation.
Although these are exciting and promising claims for such a simple natural product, caution must always be used when incorporating the plant into your nutrition regimen.
Always consult your doctor before starting any herb or alternative supplement, especially if you are currently on medication for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If you have allergies or are pregnant, check with your doctor first or just refrain from use.
Keep in mind that along with any herbal remedy, a balanced diet high in whole grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, seeds, and lean sources of protein is advised to fuel your body with the right nutrition and keep you in good health, especially when paired with a regular exercise regimen.