Nettle has a long history of use. The tough fibers from the stem have been used to make cloth and cooked nettle leaves were eaten as vegetables. From ancient Greece to the present, nettle has been documented for its traditional use in treating coughs, tuberculosis, and arthritis and in stimulating hair growth.

Nettle: Botanical name: Urtica dioica. Nettle is a leafy plant that is found in most temperate regions of the world. The Latin root of Urtica is uro, meaning “I burn,” indicative of the small stings caused by the little hairs on the leaves of this plant that burn when contact is made with the skin. The root and leaves of nettle are used in herbal medicine for benign prostatic hyperplasia (root extract), osteoarthritis, hay fever, pregnancy and postpartum support, rheumatoid arthritis, and urinary tract infection.

Active constituents: There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the identity of nettle’s active constituents. Currently, it is thought that polysaccharides (complex sugars) and lectins are probably the active constituents. Test tube studies suggest the leaf has anti-inflammatory actions. This is thought to be caused by nettle preventing the body from making inflammatory chemicals known as prostaglandins. Nettle’s root affects hormones and proteins that carry sex hormones (such as testosterone or estrogen) in the human body. This may explain why it helps benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Although less frequently used alone like saw palmetto or pygeum, some limited clinical trials suggest benefit of nettle root extract for men with milder forms of BPH.

A preliminary trial reported that capsules made from freeze-dried leaves reduced sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. Further studies are needed to confirm this finding, however.

The historical practice of intentionally applying nettle topically with the intent of causing stings to relieve arthritis has been assessed by a questionnaire in modern times. The results found intentional nettle stings safe, except for a sometimes painful, sometimes numb rash that lasts 6–24 hours. Additional trials are required to determine if this practice is therapeutically effective.

During the allergy season, two to three 300 mg nettle leaf capsules or tablets or 2–4 ml tincture can be taken three times per day. For BPH, 120 mg of a concentrated root extract in capsules can be taken two times per day. Many products for BPH will combine nettle root with saw palmetto or pygeum extracts. Intentional stinging with nettles should only be undertaken after consultation with a physician knowledgeable in botanical medicine.

Nettle may cause mild gastrointestinal upset in some people. Although allergic reactions to nettle are rare, when contact is made with the skin, fresh nettle can cause a rash secondary to the noted stings. Nettle leaf is considered safe for use in pregnancy and breast-feeding. Certain medications may interact with nettle. Refer to the drug interactions safety check for a list of those medications.

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