Nettle

Despite its sting, nettle is rich in both nutrients and medicinal benefits. Explore this healing herb's history, uses, and more.

Fact checked

By Gretchen D. | Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Nettle
General Information
  • Common name(s)Nettle, stinging nettle, common nettle, European nettle, giant nettle
  • TCM nameYi zhu qian ma
  • Scientific nameUrtica dioica
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionEastern or Central Europe, Central Asia
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal

Nettle, an herb originally found growing in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa, has been a popular source for natural teas and hot drinks for centuries. Nettle has been used by humans for various purposes for as long as 5,000 years, and it is first known to have been cultivated as a crop in Europe. Nettle still grows wild throughout the world, and its many health benefits make it a useful herbal remedy.

Nettle Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory, Antihistaminic
  • Key constituentsQuercitin, glucoquinone
  • Ways to useCapsules, Decoctions, Hot infusions/tisanes, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingUse with caution

Health Benefits of Nettle

Nettle properties has been shown effective when used, mainly, for:

  • Relieving symptoms of allergies.  Nettle benefits include antihistamic properties, which are helpful in reducing and alleviating allergic reactions, from stuffy noses to skin irritation.

  • Reducing inflammation and irritation. Nettle properties help reduce internal inflammation as well as skin swelling and irritation.

Additionally, nettle's diuretic properties are especially useful for those suffering from low urinary flow due to an enlarged prostate.

How it Works

Different parts of the nettle plant possess different medicinal uses. The nettle leaves contain natural antihistamines, which enable it to reduce the symptoms caused by allergic reactions by inhibiting histamines - the cause of allergic reactions - in the body.1 Leaves also contain flavonoids, compounds that help to reduce inflammation in the body.

Nettle roots contain phenols, which are also anti-inflammatory and can reduce swelling both on the skin and internally. However, nettle root also appears to be responsible for improving the urinary symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia, or an enlarged prostate. The mechanism of this action is not yet entirely understood, but the effect has been observed in studies.2

Greater plantain is an herb that also hold anti-inflammatory properties, and saw palmetto is popularly used for treating the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).

Nettle Side Effects

Nettle is considered safe if taken in recommended doses. It may cause some mild side effects, including stomach upset, fluid retention, sweating, and diarrhea, as well as possibly causing a rash if used topically.

Nettle Cautions

Nettle may interact with blood thinners, blood pressure medication, diuretics, diabetes medications, lithium, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or aspirin. Nettle is not recommended for use for those who are diabetic or for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Do not use nettle to treat an enlarged prostate without first visiting a doctor to rule out life-threatening underlying causes of the condition.

Nettle is known for causing a painful sting when touched, as chemicals contained in the fine hairs on the leaves and stem are irritating to human skin. Use caution when coming into contact with the plant in the wild or in the garden. Soaking nettles in water or exposing them to heat helps to remove its ability to sting.

Nettle Benefits and Properties

Nettle Nutrition

Nettle is full of nutritional benefits, offering surprisingly high amounts of essential minerals and vitamins. Low in carbohydrates, nettle is rich in dietary fiber and provides an adequate amount of vegetable protein.

The most abundant minerals on nettle are calcium and magnesium, followed by manganese. Although the most popular benefit of calcium is building healthy and strong bones, thus preventing osteoporosis and fractures, calcium is also necessary for muscle movement, since it plays a role carrying nervous signals from the brain to every part of the body. Additionally, calcium promotes healthy blood vessels as well as helping with the production of hormones and enzymes for proper body function.

Magnesium, on the other hand, is an essential nutrient that helps regulate muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure, also playing an important role in the production of protein, bone, and DNA, whereas manganese is key for producing energy in the body, protecting cells from damage, strengthening bones, and promoting immunity.

This humble herb also provides generous amounts of other nutrients, mainly vitamin K (phylloquinone), which improves blood clotting and has been linked with higher bone mineral density and a reduced risk of fractures.

Good levels of B2 (rivoflavin) ensure the proper growth, development, and function of body cells as well as helping transform food into energy.

The unsuspected nutritional value of nettle is rounded by adequate amounts of minerals, such as iron, phosphorus, potassium, and copper, along with vitamins like B6 (pyroxidine).

Nettle Nutrition Facts

How to Consume Nettle

Quick Facts
  • Edible partsLeaves
  • TasteMildly bitter

Nettle has a long history of use as a culinary ingredient. It has a flavor said to be similar to spinach or cucumber, and can be added to a number of different meals such as soups and pastas. However, nettle is most commonly used as a remedy.

Natural Forms

  • Cooked. Nettle leaves can be blanched and consumed in a similar fashion as spinach. In this form, this unassuming herb provides outstanding amounts of essential nutrients that promote immunity and bone health, preventing diseases, osteoporosis and fractures.

  • Infusion. Made from fresh or dried leaves, one cup of nettle tea can be taken daily to relieve allergies and to reduce joint inflammation.

  • Decoction. This preparation is obtained by boiling nettle roots, and can be used to reduce inflammation in joints, as well as to increase urination, particularly for those with enlarged prostates.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

  • Ointment. Nettle ointment is best for relieving skin inflammation and irritation, both from allergic reactions and from other conditions.

  • Tincture. One teaspoon of nettle tincture can be diluted in half a cup of water and taken twice a day, or applied topically to alleviate skin conditions characterized by inflammation.

  • Capsules. Nettle capsules can reduce inflammation, especially in joints, and may also promote urination.

How to Use Nettle

Buying

Quick Facts
  • Where to buySpecialized health stores, Online herb stores

Natural Forms

Because nettles are not grown commercially, finding fresh or even dried nettle leaves and roots is very difficult. In some cases, they may be available at local markets or online retailers, but the seeds to grow the plant are more readily available, both online and at gardening centers.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Nettle supplements may be available in certain grocery stores or local markets - especially in tea form - but they are likely to be most readily available at herbal shops and online. When buying supplements, take care to note whether the preparation was made from the leaves or the roots, since the different parts of the plant have different uses.

Growing

Quick Facts
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsLeaves
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH5.6 – 6.0 (Moderately acidic), 6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline), 7.9 – 8.4 (Moderately alkaline)
  • Growing habitatSubtropical regions
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones5a (From −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to −26.1 °C (−15 °F)), 5b (From −26.1 °C (−15 °F) to −23.3 °C (−10 °F)), 6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F)), 9a (From −6.7 °C (20 °F) to −3.9 °C (25 °F)), 9b (From −3.9 °C (25 °F) to −1.1 °C (30 °F))
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification
  • Propagation techniquesCuttings, Divisions

Nettle is considered an invasive weed in many parts of the world, which makes it a simple plant to grow in the garden. It tends to develop well on its own without any intervention if planted in the right conditions. Nettle should not be planted in any place where children, or other unsuspecting visitors, might be stung.

Growing Guidelines

  • Both seeds and cuttings are viable methods of propagation for nettles. If using seeds, they should be stratified before planting and it may be helpful to start the plants in pots indoors for the first few weeks.

  • Rich, moist soil is the best type of soil for nettle.

  • Moisture is especially important for nettle, and the soil around the plant should not be allowed to dry out.

  • Soil with a range of pH levels can support nettle growth; the plant will thrive in both acidic and alkaline soil, with pH levels ranging from 5.5 - 8.5.

  • Nettle should be planted in full sun to partial shade.

  • Nitrogen fertilizer will help encourage nettle to grow.

  • Nettle is not susceptible to many pests or diseases, and can even help discourage deer and other animals from eating nearby garden plants.

  • The plant is considered invasive, so should be monitored to ensure it does not take over a garden.

Additional Information

Quick Facts
  • Other usesTextiles, Dye

Plant Biology

A perennial herb, nettle generally grows up to five feet (1.5 m) tall. Its leaves are lance-shaped, one to six inches (3 - 15 cm) long, and are covered in tiny, stinging hairs. Nettle grows small green and yellow flowers that bloom in the summer.

Nettle may also be called stinging nettle, burn nettle, burn weed, and burn hazel.

  • Classification

    The nettle, or Urtica dioica, is a member of the Urticaceae family, which contains around 2,600 species. Most of the species in this family have stinging hairs, and members are found on every continent aside from Antarctica.

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Nettle

    The nettle has at least five subspecies: U. dioica subsp. dioica, U. dioica subsp. afghanica, U. dioica subsp. gansuensis, U. dioica subsp. gracilis, and U. dioica subsp. holosericea

    U. dioica subsp. diocia is the most common subspecies in Europe, while U. dioica subspecies gracilis is the most common in North America. Only one subspecies, U. dioica subsp. galeopsifolia, does not have stinging hairs.

Historical Information

The first documented uses of nettle date back to the Bronze Age, in 3,000 - 2,000 BCE, when it was used to create woven textiles, such as burial shrouds, and clothing in Denmark. However, the first records of medicinal applications of nettle appeared in ancient Egypt, and these applications were adopted by both the Greek Mycenaean civilization and the Roman Empire.

By the 16th century, nettle was being used as an antidote for poison in England, and in the 1800s, it began being marketed as a diuretic and tonic.

Economic Data

Nettle is not commonly used outside of herbal remedies, and so it is not considered an economically important plant. It has been produced commercially in the past, but is now grown mostly by individual gardeners for their own use. It is still grown for and sold in medicinal preparations, but this use does not constitute much economic importance.

Popular Beliefs

Nettles growing in North America were an important part of mythology for many Native American tribes. Often, stinging nettles were personified as bumbling tricksters who provided a humorous note to the myths.

Nettles are also the subject of several different festivals and competitions. One festival in Switzerland hosts a number of restaurant dishes prepared using nettles, while another in Russia takes the nettle as its theme for the nettle's association with love of life, vitality, and strength. Marshwood, a town in England, holds a competition to see who can eat the largest amount of raw stinging nettles - a painful endeavor.

Other Uses

  • Textiles. The fibers from nettle stems can be used to make textiles, and they have historically been used to make clothing as well as other items such as fishing nets and ropes.

  • Dye. Nettle has also been used to produce yellow or green dye.

  • Beer. Nettle leaves have also been used to ferment beer.

Despite nettle's sharp sting, it can be a very useful medicinal herb when handled with the proper caution. For those needing alleviation from allergies, inflammation, or urinary problems, nettle is a valuable herbal remedy.

Sources

Footnotes

1. Phytotherapy Research. (2009). Nettle Extract (Urtica dioica) Affects Key Receptors and Enzymes Associated with Allergic Rhinitis. Retrieved March 23, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19140159

2. Federation of European Biochemical Societies. (1999). Plant extracts from stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), an antirheumatic remedy, inhibit the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-κB. Retrieved March 23, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9923611