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Nettle is one of my favorite herbs. Also called “stinging nettle,” it is packed with nutrients and is even one of the ingredients in my homemade pregnancy tea. Stinging nettle benefits go far beyond pregnancy though.
What Is Nettle?
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is also known as stinging nettle, common nettle, and garden nettle. It is originally from northern Europe and northern Asia.
The nettle plant is herbaceous with fine hairs on the leaves and stems that contain a chemical. This chemical causes skin irritation and pain when it comes into contact with the skin — thus the name “stinging nettle.” If you’ve ever been out weeding the yard or searching for wildflowers, you’ve probably discovered this on your own!
When cooked or otherwise processed, nettle no longer causes this rash. (Good news… you can also just buy it and skip the stinging all together!)
Nettle has been used in traditional medicine to support:
- hair and scalp
- mental health
- women’s health
- men’s health
- pain relief
- seasonal allergies
- aches and pains
- elimination and detoxification (liver, digestion, urinary)
Not all of these traditional uses have been studied, but there is a wealth of long-standing anecdotal evidence.
Health Benefits of Stinging Nettle
I love to keep stinging nettle leaves on hand since it has so many health benefits to the body:
Nettle contains antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that support the body, such as:
- Vitamin A
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
What I find most interesting is that nettle contains fats and amino acids (almost unheard of in a plant)! This makes it a revered survival food. It’s a great tea for camping or backpacking trips, especially if you forage it yourself.
Stinging nettle has anti-inflammatory properties which can help alleviate pain. Some 2013 research shows that there are many plant foods that are anti-inflammatory, including nettle. Researchers caution that more research is needed, but this preliminary research seems to support how nettle has been used traditionally.
Another 2013 study demonstrates that nettle has strong anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties due to its wide range of phytochemicals.
I’ve had a good experience using dried nettle in a cream or poultice for lower back pain and other minor joint pain.
Metabolic issues (heart, blood sugar, thyroid, etc.) are increasingly common today. According to research, nettle may be helpful in supporting metabolic health. A 2013 study published in Clinical Laboratory found that patients with Type 2 diabetes saw improvement in their blood sugar after using stinging nettle extract for three months.
The above study didn’t note why nettle could have this effect on the body, but another 2013 study does. According to this study published in Phytotherapy Research, nettle may mimic insulin.
The heart is another important part of metabolic processes in the body. Research shows that nettle can have a vasorelaxant effect. That means nettle can help reduce tension in the heart muscle and reduce high blood pressure.
Additionally, nettle is helpful in supporting the pancreas, according to a 2014 study in rats. Researchers found a “statistically significant” difference between the rats in the control group and the ones who were given nettle.
Traditionally, nettle is used topically on wounds and it looks like science backs this up. Nettle demonstrated strong antimicrobial activity against a wide spectrum of bacteria according to a 2018 review.
Keep in mind that nettle should be processed before applying to a wound to avoid its famous sting! I use dried nettle infused into an oil (olive oil works well) either directly on the skin or in recipes. You can also make a nettle tincture (but use the dried herb).
There isn’t a lot of scientific data on how nettle can help women’s health. But since nettle is so high in a variety of nutrients, it makes sense that it has been long used in pregnancy tea to help support pregnancy nutritionally. I personally use it this way and have had a great experience.
Nettle has also been used traditionally to support milk supply (probably for the same nutritive reason) making it a common women’s health herb.
However, there is some controversy about its use during pregnancy as some herbalists believe it can stimulate contractions. I tend to agree with Aviva Romm’s view to avoid herbs in the first trimester and then use herbs that are shown to be safe scientifically or historically (like nettle).
As always check with your healthcare provider to figure out what’s right for you.
Nettle can also help with prostate health. It’s widely used in Europe for enlarged prostate — benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). It helps with the symptoms such as reduced urinary flow, incomplete emptying of the bladder, and post urination dripping. It doesn’t affect the size of the prostate though. Because of this finding, researchers are unsure how nettle helps, according to Penn State Hershey.
Additionally, nettle may be a promising help for prostate cancer. A 2000 study found stinging nettle root extract can help keep prostate cancer from spreading. More research is needed to study this effect, but the results are promising.
Hair and Scalp Health
One of nettle’s most famous uses is in supporting hair and scalp health. It’s thought that the appearance of an herb gives an indication as to how it can be useful to the body. In this case, the fine hairs on nettle indicate that it is great for hair and scalp!
Whether or not this old wives’ tale is true, there does seem to be some truth to nettle’s place in hair and scalp support. One study published in 2011 found that hair loss and thinning hair are often caused by the damage of inflammation on the hair follicle. Since nettle has anti-inflammatory properties, it can help reduce the inflammation that is causing hair loss and hair follicle damage.
Additionally, a study published in 2017 found that nettle can improve scalp circulation and hair growth. It also concludes that nettle can “help prevent hair from falling out.” Compounds in nettle help block the overproduction of testosterone which can cause hair loss problems. These same compounds can help boost production of a protein that stimulates hair growth.
This is why I made sure to include nettle as an ingredient in my line of shampoo and conditioner.
Nettle is often used to help with hay fever and other mild allergies. Researchers found that nettle worked better than a placebo for people suffering from allergic rhinitis (hay fever).
A more recent study published in 2009 found that this is likely due to nettle affecting key receptors and enzymes associated with allergies. In other words, it may act as an antihistamine. Nettle is one of my go-to herbs for hay fever and seasonal allergies.
How to Use Stinging Nettle
There are many ways to use nettle at home. Yes, nettle will sting the skin if touched, but processed nettle by drying or cooking poses no issue.
Here are some ways I use it:
- Culinary – Because nettle contains many nutrients, it’s a great addition to a meal. You can use it dried or cook it and add it to a recipe you would add other greens to (don’t eat it raw). I like to add it to smoothies or meatloaf for added nutrients.
- Multivitamin – Some people even consider nettle tea a form of a daily vitamin. Add nettle to another tea blend or brew it on its own for a daily infusion of nutrients.
- Cold and Flu Support – I will drink nettle tea for its nutrients during an illness since eating can be difficult.
- First Aid – Dried nettle can be used as a poultice for small wounds to help fight infection.
- Inflammatory Pain – For issues like arthritis and joint pain, herbalists recommend using fresh stinging nettle on the skin near the pain. The stinging is thought to help relieve the pain of arthritis. This may not sound like fun to most of us, but it seems to work!
- Hair Care – You can infuse water or vinegar with nettle to use as a hair rinse. I include nettle in my homemade herbal hair rinse and it’s also in my brand new line of hair care products.
- Allergies and Allergic Reactions – Consume nettle tea or tincture daily for 2-3 months before allergy season to avoid allergies. I also use capsules for acute relief of allergy symptoms. Nettle is also helpful for poison ivy since nettle acts as an antihistamine.
- Overall Health – If you want to use nettle for women’s health, prostate health or some of its other uses, start with a nettle tea or tincture. You can also take capsules or make dried nettle into electuaries (like cough drops).
Stinging Nettle Safety and Side Effects
Stinging nettle is generally considered safe for use. But as mentioned earlier, a few herbalists disagree with nettle use during pregnancy. Herbalist Michael Moore in his book Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West notes that fresh nettle should be avoided by pregnant women as it may cause “uterine excitation.” It’s unclear if dried would be safe.
I’ve used it in all of my pregnancies and have been happy with it, but you must do your own research. It’s always a good idea to check with your midwife or doctor to see if nettle is safe for you.
If you are on medications, other supplements, or have a medical condition, it’s best to check with your health care practitioner before using stinging nettle. There may be some interactions for those on medications for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, or if you’re taking blood thinners.
Where to Get Stinging Nettle
Nettle is available in both root and leaf form, and even a powdered version of the leaf which I add to my veggie smoothies. Here are some of my favorite preparations of nettle:
- Bulk loose dried leaves for making tea or tinctures
- In tea bags
- As a premade tincture
- In a capsule
- In a salve
- For hair – in Wellnesse shampoo and conditioner
If you’re brave enough to handle the sting, you can also try to harvest it yourself (just make sure you are 100% sure of any herb before eating).
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Betsy Greenleaf, the first board-certified female urogynecologist in the United States. She is double board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology, as well as Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you use stinging nettle? How has it helped?
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