[Pictured: Above; a nettle patch. Below; A single trichome (thorn) on a stinging nettle plant. Note the venom sac at its base.]
COMMON NAMES: Nettle, Nettles, Nettle Leaf, Nettle Seed, Nettle Worth, Stinging Nettle, Small Nettle, Common Nettle, Great Stinging Nettle, Ortie, Ortie Brûlante, Ortie des Jardins, Ortie Dioïque, Ortie Méchante, Ortiga, Bichu, Feuille d’Ortie, Graine d’Ortie, Grande Ortie...
STINGING NETTLE: Urtica dioica
Nettle is one of those plants ALL beginning wilderness enthusiasts are warned to watch for (I'll get into them another time). You can eat nettle (I'll get into that below), and some claim medicinal properties (I'll get into that FURTHER below). For now, let's talk PAIN! (and not the good kind) 😉
Pain is regarded as a symptom of an underlying condition, such as a nettle sting, and the toxic chemicals they inject. Generally speaking, pain medications are useful in 20% to 70% of cases, but the PSYCHOLOGICAL factors such as social support, hypnotic suggestion, excitement, or distraction, etc. can also significantly affect pain's intensity.
But in terms of a simple pin-prick, people often RUB the injury (i.e. when you bump your head or shin, etc.), or they apply heat, cold, etc. But people ALSO immerse their injuries or pour liquids like water on their injuries too, which also may work. So the REAL question is, HOW do these options seem to work??
There are receptors in the body called nociceptors that pass signals to the brain about any stimulus that threatens the health of the body’s tissues. These are essentially “danger” nerves. Bump your head and nociceptors from that area send information about the event to the brain for processing. The brain interprets the messages being delivered to determine what they mean, and how to react. In many cases, the result is the sensation/perception of pain.
Part of the reaction of placing the hand over the injury might simply be protective in nature, but rubbing ALSO makes it hurt LESS. Why? One theory is called Gate Control Theory, which says by rubbing the painful area you are essentially confusing the brain by sending two sensations at once: the signal from the nociceptors (danger), and the signal from the sensory receptors that perceive touch (non-threatening).
The sensory input from rubbing the injury overrides the input from the nociceptors, thus reducing the pain you perceive. Basically, rubbing the injured area “closes the gate” on the nerve fibers carrying the danger message before they can reach the brain. The CURIOUS part is, it seems to work best when YOU do it yourself! Having someone else rub the injury may not provide the same relief, or it might even create more pain.
THIS is essentially what happens when people urinate on themselves (LOL!). It’s both psychosomatic AND by peeing on themselves they are activating other sensory receptors. And considering it’s PEE, it may even DISTRACT them by taking their mind off the pain.
Once they get the SENSATION of relief, that’s all it takes to trick their minds into believing it works. Then it’s just a matter of IGNORING the pain.
There are about 30 species/subspecies of nettle (NOT including burning nettle), not all of them sting and not all of the "hairs" on stinging nettle sting either. Most of the hairs grow in one direction, so you can stroke them that way without being stung.
What causes the “sting” is only PARTLY due to those long, stinging hairs are called trichomes, which is a single cell that is elongated into a fine point. The walls of the trichome contain silica (essentially making it a tiny, glass, hypodermic needle).
At the tip of the trichome, is a tiny "glass" bobble, just below it is a point of weakness (if you look VERY, very closely at the picture above, you can see it), so if the tip is touched, it breaks off, leaving a sharp edge. THAT is what penetrates the skin and may create the INITIAL pain.
At the base of the trichome is a swollen sac filled with a toxic liquid/venom made-up of: Histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin, which cause the inflammation and pain, and formic acid (and tartaric and oxalic acid in some species, which might be treated with a baking soda paste).
THESE chemicals, are what causes the “stinging” sensation! Histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin cause the inflammation while the tartaric and oxalic acid cause extended pain sensation. The formic acid WAS thought to cause the pain, but the percentage is just too low.
When the tip/bobble of the trichome is knocked off, and is pushed into the skin, it squeezes the venom sac at the base, and the venom is injected. So, rubbing would only force the toxins to spread and/or go deeper.
As to treatments, there is calamine lotion (which has anti-itching properties, but that has been disputed) and anti-histamine (like Telfast, Claratyne and Phenergan) and corticosteroid lotions which afford the BEST, most DEPENDABLE, cures since they counter the histamine in the venom (yes, there are other chemicals in the venom, but these are the best options).
Then there are the alt-science “cures”, like dock leaves (thought to counter the acidic nature of nettle venom, except dock leaf is ALSO acidic), plantain and jewel leaf (which like urine has NO scientific basis as a cure). They SAY plantain, dock leaf and even urine can help with the pain.
One alt-science solution (no pun intended) is called “urine therapy,” which refers to various applications of human urine for medicinal or cosmetic purposes (don't ask), including massaging your skin, or gums, with your urine,and even drinking your own urine (images of Bear Grylls ensue, I have some comments on THAT, too!)
As you’d imagine, there’s NO scientific evidence to support this! Their theory being that it’s the “ammonia” in urine that counters the nettle venom. This is not only WRONG but inaccurate!
Urine is made-up of 95% water. The rest, in order of decreasing concentration, are: urea, chloride, sodium, potassium, creatinine plus other dissolved ions, and organic and inorganic compounds, but where’s the “AMMONIA”? Well, it’s not the “urine” that supposedly cures nettle pain (or athletes foot, etc.), it’s actually called UREA that some think is a cure for nettle pain (for athletes foot, it’s just not in high enough concentrations in urine to make a difference!).
The first step in the conversion of amino acids from protein into metabolic waste is in the liver and removal of the alpha-amino nitrogen (which is a safe vehicle for the body to transport and excrete excess nitrogen out), which results in ammonia (NH3). THERE it is! Because ammonia is toxic, it’s CONVERTED into urea.
The urea is then dissolved into the blood (being highly soluble in water), transported to the kidneys and excreted as a component of urine. A SMALL amount of urea is then excreted (along with the sodium chloride and water) in sweat through the skin.
Urea and sweat are actually odorless at first, but in water, the amine groups undergo slow displacement by water molecules, producing ammonia, ammonium ion, and bicarbonate ion. Old, stale, urine has a stronger odor than fresh urine, and older sweat makes body odor, because the ammonia is being broken-down by bacteria on the skin and released (which also attracts mosquitoes).
Ammonia, or azane, is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, and is a colorless gas with a characteristic, pungent smell. Beyond that, I can see absolutely, positively, NO way ammonia, urea or urine chemically counteracts nettle venom! (never mind the venom is UNDER the skin and the pee would be ON the skin!!
NETTLE AS FOOD
Nettles are another wild edible green that may add some variety to your meals. No major warnings for this one, just a lengthy list of cautions! (below). It can substitute for spinach in any recipe, or you COULD eat them raw IF you’re careful by either folding or rolling the stinging side onto itself or otherwise handle the leaves from underneath, the younger leaves/shoots are more tender and tasty (AVOID THE STALKS).
When you boil, soak, cook, refrigerate, wilt or dry stinging nettle, you dissolve, destroy or otherwise "deactivate" the chemical structure of the trichome AND the toxic chemicals (but yes, the "hairs" remain).
NETTLE NUTRITIONAL VALUE (Amount Per 1 cup (89 g) % Daily Value*):
Total Fat 0.1 g 0%
Sodium 4 mg 0%
Potassium 297 mg 8%
Total Carbohydrate 7 g 2%
Dietary fiber 6 g 24%
Sugar 0.2 g
Protein 2.4 g 4%
Vitamin A 35%
Vitamin B-6 5%
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
** CAUTIONS AND WARNINGS **:
A specific safe and effective DOSE of nettle for children has not yet been established so talk to your doctor BEFORE giving stinging nettle to a child. Because nettle can alter the menstrual cycle and may contribute to miscarriage, pregnant women should NOT use nettle. Nettle is LIKELY UNSAFE to take during pregnancy. It might stimulate uterine contractions and cause a miscarriage. It’s also best to AVOID stinging nettle if you are breast-feeding. Nettle is generally considered safe when used in the original plant form or as directed by a PHYSICIAN (an M.D.!).
Occasional side effects include mild stomach upset, fluid retention, sweating, diarrhea, and hives or rash (mainly from topical use). It is important to be careful when handling the nettle plant because touching it can cause an allergic rash. Stinging nettle should NEVER be applied to an open wound!
The appropriate dose of nettle depends on several factors such as the user’s age, health, and several other conditions. At this time, there is not enough scientific information to determine an appropriate range of doses for nettle. Keep in mind that natural products are not always necessarily safe and dosages can be important. Be sure to follow relevant directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or physician or other healthcare professional before using.
DIABETES: There is some evidence nettle above-ground parts can decrease blood sugar levels. It might increase the chance of low blood sugar in people being treated for diabetes. Monitor your blood sugar carefully if you have diabetes and use nettle.
LOW BLOOD PRESSURE: Stinging nettle above-ground parts might lower blood pressure. In theory, nettle might increase the risk of blood pressure dropping too low in people prone to low blood pressure. If you have low blood pressure, discuss nettle with your healthcare provider before starting it.
KIDNEY PROBLEMS: The above-ground parts of stinging nettle seem to increase urine flow. If you have kidney problems, discuss nettle with your healthcare provider before starting it.
LITHIUM - MIGHT HAVE AN EFFECT LIKE A WATER PILL OR "DIURETIC" - Taking nettle might decrease how well the body gets rid of lithium. This could increase how much lithium is in the body and result in serious side effects. Talk with your healthcare provider before using nettle if you are taking lithium. Your lithium dose might need to be changed.
MEDICATIONS FOR DIABETES (ANTIDIABETES DRUGS) - Nettle above-ground parts might decrease blood sugar. Diabetes medications are also used to lower blood sugar. Taking nettle along with diabetes medications might cause your blood sugar to go too low. Monitor your blood sugar closely. The dose of your diabetes medication might need to be changed. Some medications used for diabetes include glimepiride (Amaryl), glyburide (DiaBeta, Glynase PresTab, Micronase), insulin, pioglitazone (Actos), rosiglitazone (Avandia), chlorpropamide (Diabinese), glipizide (Glucotrol), tolbutamide (Orinase), and others.
MEDICATIONS FOR HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE (ANTIHYPERTENSIVE DRUGS) - Nettle above-ground parts seem to decrease blood pressure. Taking nettle along with medications for high blood pressure might cause your blood pressure to go too low. medications for high blood pressure include: Captopril (Capoten), enalapril (Vasotec), losartan (Cozaar), valsartan (Diovan), diltiazem (Cardizem), Amlodipine (Norvasc), hydrochlorothiazide (HydroDiuril), furosemide (Lasix), and many others.
SEDATIVE MEDICATIONS (CNS DEPRESSANTS) - Large amounts of nettle above-ground parts might cause sleepiness and drowsiness. Medications that cause sleepiness are called sedatives. Taking nettle along with sedative medications might cause too much sleepiness. Sedative medications include - Clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), phenobarbital (Donnatal), zolpidem (Ambien), and others.
WARFARIN (COUMADIN) – Nettle above-ground parts contain large amounts of vitamin K. Vitamin K is used by the body to help blood clot. Warfarin is used to slow blood clotting. By helping the blood clot, stinging nettle might decrease the effectiveness of Warfarin. Be sure to have your blood checked regularly. The dose of your Warfarin might need to be changed.
*NO* SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR:
Water retention, anemia, poor circulation, diarrhea, asthma, cancer, wound healing, or gingivitis - Early research suggests that using a mouthwash containing nettle, juniper, and yarrow twice daily for 3 months does not reduce plaque or bleeding in people with gingivitis.
BLEEDING - Some early research suggests that applying a specific product (Ankaferd blood stopper) containing alpinia, licorice, thyme, nettle, and common grape vine to the skin reduces bleeding in surgery, but does not reduce time in surgery. Other early research suggests the same product reduces bleeding after dental surgery.
DIABETES - Early research suggests that taking nettle daily for 8 weeks does not affect the control of blood sugar levels in people with diabetes who are taking antidiabetes drugs. Preliminary animal studies indicate that nettle may lower blood sugar and blood pressure. However, more research is needed to determine whether this is also true in humans.
OSTEOARTHRITIS - The leaves and stems of nettle have been used historically to treat arthritis and relieve sore muscles. Studies have been small and inconclusive, but they do suggest that some people find relief from joint pain by applying nettle leaf topically to the painful area. Other studies show that taking an oral extract of nettle, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), allowed people to reduce their NSAID dose.
HAY FEVER - Early evidence suggests that using nettle at the first signs of hay fever symptoms seems to help provide relief. One preliminary human study suggested that nettle capsules helped reduce sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. In another study, 57% of patients rated nettle as effective in relieving allergies, and 48% said that nettle was more effective than allergy medications they had used previously. Researchers think that may be due to nettle's ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to an allergen. More studies are needed to confirm nettle's antihistamine properties. Some doctors recommend taking a freeze-dried preparation of nettle well before hay fever season starts.
BENIGN PROSTATIC HYPERPLASIA (BPH) - There is contradictory evidence about the effectiveness of nettle, taken alone or together with other ingredients, for improving symptoms of BPH. Early evidence suggests that taking 360 mg of nettle for 6-24 months improves urinary tract symptoms associated with BPH. Many studies have looked at the effects of a combination product that contains both nettle and saw palmetto. One particular product (PRO 160/120, Willmar Schwabe GmbH, Germany) containing a specific extract of nettle (WS 1031) 120 mg plus a specific extract of saw palmetto (WS 1473) 160 mg seems to significantly improve urinary tract symptoms in men with BPH when taken twice daily for 24-48 weeks. This combination seems to be comparable to the prescription medication finasteride for relieving symptoms of BPH, and may be better tolerated. However, it is not known if this benefit is due to nettle, saw palmetto, or both ingredients. Nettle ROOT is used widely in Europe to treat BPH. Studies in people suggest that nettle, in combination with other herbs (especially saw palmetto), may be effective at relieving symptoms such as reduced urinary flow, incomplete emptying of the bladder, post urination dripping, and the constant urge to urinate. These symptoms are caused by the enlarged prostate gland pressing on the urethra (the tube that empties urine from the bladder). Some studies suggest that nettle is comparable to finasteride (a medication commonly prescribed for BPH) in slowing the growth of certain prostate cells. However, unlike finasteride, the herb does not decrease prostate size. Scientists aren't sure why nettle root reduces symptoms. It may be because it contains chemicals that affect hormones (including testosterone and estrogen), or because it acts directly on prostate cells. It is important to work with a doctor to treat BPH, and to make sure you have a proper diagnosis to rule out prostate cancer. On the other hand, another combination product containing 80 mg of nettle root extract, 106 mg of saw palmetto lipoidal extract, 160 mg of pumpkin seed oil extract, 33 mg of lemon bioflavonoid extract, and 190 IU of vitamin A (100% as beta-carotene) does not significantly improve symptoms of BPH when taken three times daily for 6 months.