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Healthy foods from the plant world come in all shapes and sizes, from leafy greens to brightly coloured berries, nuts, seeds, spices, and herbs.
However, there are many healthy foods that are overlooked simply because society has deemed them to be “weeds.”
While I wait impatiently for the first harvest from the garden, I look to the wild foods that grow on our property to nourish us. Spring and early summer is the perfect time for wild foods. Dandelions are by far my favourite plant, everything from the flower to root is edible, they are versatile, grow in abundance and packed with nutrients. Check out our blog for more information on dandelions and how to use them.
When harvesting wild foods, it’s important to use caution and follow these rules:
- Always make sure to positively identify the plant.
- Keep track of any poisonous lookalikes.
- Know where you are harvesting: Is it sprayed with pesticide? Is it a high traffic area? Near highways or railroads?
- Be conscious of how much you harvest. Don’t take more than 1/3 of a plant, leave some for others, including animals. It will also mean there will be more for you in the future.
I mostly only harvest foods from the property I live on. I have become fairly familiar with what grows when and where. Not only do I harvest wild plants for food, but also for homemade body care products.
To avoid overwhelm, I try to add just one plant each year to my harvesting routine. This way I can be sure I have positively identified it and I have a clear plan on how I will use it after harvesting.
This year my new plant is urtica dioca, better known as stinging nettles.
Identifying Stinging Nettle
You can identify stinging nettles by its green leaves arranged in pairs with serrated edges and tiny stinging hairs on the stem. Be careful not to touch them directly (wear gloves); upon contact with exposed skin, the skin will sting and go red immediately. Stinging nettle grows in temperate climates and prefers moisture-rich fertile soil. It can be found in forests, farmlands and by riversides. It is a perennial plant which means it will come back each year.
Stinging nettles have many lookalikes such as false nettle, wood nettle, hemp nettle and dead nettle. Many of these plants are also edible but may have different medicinal properties and safety considerations. However, there is one poisonous lookalike, giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum); this plant is native to Europe and Asia but has been introduced to other areas around the world.
History of Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettles have a long history of being used all over the world as food, medicine and even fiber. It has been used for thousands of years to make many different kinds of fabrics from sail cloth, nets, textiles and burial shrouds. It can also be used as a dye for fabrics and food, due to its high levels of chlorophyll. In fact, it has more chlorophyll than any other plant.
In Ancient Egypt, a nettle infusion was used to treat arthritis and other pains. Urtification was a common practice in both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. Uritification means to flog with stinging nettle to improve circulation (um ouch!).
There are also anecdotal reports of this practice being used in some Native tribes throughout North and South America.
Stinging nettle was a favourite herb among Hippocrates and his followers with over 61 remedies using this plant.
Here are some of the ailments they recommended stinging nettle for:
- Dog Bites
- Gangrenous wounds
- Nose bleeding
- Excessive menstrual bleeding
- Spleen related illnesses
Benefits of Stinging Nettle
1. Stinging Nettle for Inflammation
Stinging nettle was used to treat arthritis, pain, swelling and excess bleeding. It seems clear then that it should help to reduce inflammation.
Does the science support this claim?
Here are scientific studies conducted in the last 30 years around stinging nettle and inflammation:
- A 1996 invitro and exvitro study was conducted and found that stinging nettle extracts reduced the level of inflammatory compounds in the body.
- In 1999, an invitro study conducted on human and animal cells found that Urtica extracts (stinging nettle extracts) reduced levels of multiple proinflammatory markers by inhibiting their production.
- In 2000 a randomized controlled double-blind crossover study was conducted on 27 individuals with osteoarthritis at the base of their thumb or index finger. For anyone who is not aware, double-blind means that neither participant nor those conducting the study are aware of who is receiving the treatment and who is receiving the placebo. Crossover means that all participants received both the treatment and the placebo (at different times). In this particular study, the treatment was a stinging nettle cream and participants reported a significant reduction in pain compared to the placebo.
- Another study in 2009 looked at the benefits of taking stinging nettle as an internal supplement for osteoarthritis. A randomized double-blind study was conducted on 81 individuals with osteoarthritis in the knees and hips, who were regularly taking NSAIDS or analgesics. After three months, those taking the supplement (which was composed of fish oil, stinging nettle and vitamin E) not only reported less pain and more mobility, but also had reduced need for pain medications compared to the placebo.
It certainly appears that stinging nettle has some potent anti-inflammatory properties.
2. Stinging Nettle for Blood Pressure
As stinging nettle is high in chlorophyll, this means it is also high in magnesium. This is because magnesium is at the focal point of chlorophyll molecules. This may be one of the reasons why stinging nettle has traditionally been used for high blood pressure. Magnesium helps to relax the vascular system.
Studies have been conducted on the anti-hypertensive effects of stinging nettles. A 2016 study on rats found that stinging nettle extract lowered blood pressure, not only by stimulating the release of nitric oxide, but also by acting as a calcium channel blocker.
3. Stinging Nettle for Prostrate Health
Benign prostate hyperplasia, or an enlarged prostate, is a condition that affects up to 50% of men over 51. An enlarged prostate can cause severe discomfort during urination.
There is a significant correlation between an enlarged prostate and high levels of dihydrotestosterone (a more potent kind of testosterone). Therefore, any plant or drug that inhibits the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone will help to reduce prostate size.
A 2012 study on rats showed that stinging nettle does in fact inhibit this conversion. Many supplements on the market for prostate health will include stinging nettle.
4. Stinging Nettle for Blood Sugar Balance
There have been multiple human and animal studies connecting stinging nettle to lower blood sugar. This is because stinging nettle contains a compound that mimics insulin.
A 3-month human study on 46 individuals found that taking 500 mg of stinging nettle extract three times daily significantly lowered blood sugar levels compared to a placebo.
If you are prediabetic, meaning experiencing high blood sugar but are not on any medication on insulin injections, then taking supplements may help manage blood sugar levels in addition to a dietary change. For more information on managing blood sugar levels naturally, check out our previous blog here.
5. Stinging Nettle as a Nutrition Powerhouse
Stinging nettles, like most leafy greens, are packed with nutrients, particularly high in B-vitamins, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Here are the nutrition facts for Stinging Nettle:
How to Use Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle leaves are most tender in the spring. If you are going to harvest stinging nettle, the first thing you will need of course is stinging nettle that is growing in a safe location. This means away from roadsides, industrial sites, railroads, and any areas that may have been sprayed with pesticide. You can also grow stinging nettle in your own garden. The next thing you will need is a pair of gloves. You never want to touch stinging nettle with your bare hands, as they will burn.
Once the nettle is cooked or dried, it will no longer sting. Stinging nettle can be sauteed or steamed and eaten like spinach, or it can be dried to make tea. You dry it by hanging it upside down in a dark place. Then wear gloves to strip the leaves by running your fingers up the stem. Make sure leaves are completely dry before storing to prevent mold. Stinging nettle can also be consumed via capsule, tincture or as a tea. This can be an easier option if you do not have access to fresh nettles.
Safety with Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle is not safe during pregnancy, as it can cause uterine contractions. Use caution if you are diabetic, as it can interfere with blood sugar levels.
Interactions. Stinging nettle may interact with some medications; such as:
Stinging nettle may also interact with alpha-blockers, finasteride, and other drugs. And it may interact with other herbs and supplements.
Based on its historical significance and promising results in scientific studies, stinging nettle is an excellent addition to a healthy diet as a tea, leafy green or supplement.
But what’s a healthy diet? It’s certainly more than just eating your greens. Find out by clicking here to set up a free 10-minute call.
Kirsten Colella, CNP, is a Holistic Nutritionist who graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours. Living on a farm with her family, Kirsten likes to use all the herbs growing around the farm, creating new flavour and food ideas (like her Stinging Nettle Birthday Cake). Kirsten shares her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic
Sources quoted for the blog:
Obertreis B, Ruttkowski T, Teucher T, Behnke B, Schmitz H. Ex-vivo in-vitro inhibition of lipopolysaccharide stimulated tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-1 beta secretion in human whole blood by extractum urticae dioicae foliorum. Arzneimittelforschung. 1996 Apr;46(4):389-94. Erratum in: Arzneimittelforschung 1996 Sep;46(9):936. PMID: 8740085.
Riehemann K, Behnke B, Schulze-Osthoff K. Plant extracts from stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), an antirheumatic remedy, inhibit the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-kappaB. FEBS Lett. 1999 Jan 8;442(1):89-94. doi: 10.1016/s0014-5793(98)01622-6. PMID: 9923611.
Randall C, Randall H, Dobbs F, Hutton C, Sanders H. Randomized controlled trial of nettle sting for treatment of base-of-thumb pain. J R Soc Med. 2000 Jun;93(6):305-9. doi: 10.1177/014107680009300607. PMID: 10911825; PMCID: PMC1298033.
Qayyum R, Qamar HM, Khan S, Salma U, Khan T, Shah AJ. Mechanisms underlying the antihypertensive properties of Urtica dioica. J Transl Med. 2016 Sep 1;14(1):254. doi: 10.1186/s12967-016-1017-3. PMID: 27585814; PMCID: PMC5009491
Nahata A, Dixit VK. Ameliorative effects of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) on testosterone-induced prostatic hyperplasia in rats. Andrologia. 2012 May;44 Suppl 1:396-409. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0272.2011.01197.x. Epub 2011 Aug 2. PMID: 21806658