Sunday, August 25, 2013


NETTLES (Urtica dioica v.Lyalli)
All true nettles are edible; all stinging nettles have similar medicinal properties. Not all stinging nettle species/varieties produce the same therapeutic RESULTS.
The species/variety I describe here is: Urtica dioica v.Lyalli or simply U. Lyalli, a large and robust species, confined to the North American West Coast. The roots/rhizomes, leaves, stalks, fruits/seeds are all used therapeutically. For an extensive discussion of nettles see M.Grieve.
Nettle Roots/Rhizomes
One question that may have therapeutic implications is: in nettle root-derived medicines, how much of the material used is from “true roots” and how much is from rhizomes?
True nettle roots are perennial; growing deeply into the earth, yellow, smooth, tough, long, oval in cross-section and extremely resistant to fracture. They are relatively sparse and laborious to harvest. I usually include them in “nettle roots”. I wonder if other herbalists and medicine makers do so. I have not read or heard of any use distinctions.
Most material called "nettle roots” is mostly, if not all, nettle rhizomes. Nettle rhizomes are abundant in horizontal criss-crossed tangles, easy to harvest, relatively fragile, brittle, square in cross-section, and have a solid pith as they age. Both nettle roots and rhizomes have a distinct ammonia odor when first unearthed. (More complete nettle harvesting and processing details in: Ryan Drum, Medicines From The Earth, 1999, pp 63-71)
When I make nettle root medicine, I use mostly young rhizomes, 2-10 years old. First year reproductive rhizomes are mostly water, bruise easily when harvested, and don’t seem to make as strong a medicine. Older rhizomes are often fungal and insect infested, the pith gone, and very woody. Non-emergent nettle rhizomes have no stinging hairs; as soon as a growing nettle rhizome tip grows little roots and emerges, it grows stinging hairs as the chloroplasts develop and the tip turns green in color.
Teas and tinctures of nettle roots/rhizomes are recommended for mild BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). I usually recommend 1 oz. dried roots/pint of infusion, 2x daily. The water may be as important as the herb. For the hardy, I encourage juicing enough nettle rhizome tips to yield at least 30cc (1 fluid ounce) consumed daily. This is possible only where nettles grow abundantly; depending on the individual, fresh rhizome juice can be either extremely invigorating or nauseating. An excellent discussion of botanicals for BPH is Brinker 1994.
Green Nettle Shoots/Young Growing Tips
Young nettle shoots are a great food and restorative whole body tonic. In environments with mild winters, nettle shoots begin to emerge in Sagittarius (21.Nov-21.Dec), with especially exuberant stinging hairs. Nettles flower on Malta at Christmas. For a supply of young nettle growing tips and young leaves throughout the nettle growing season, cut the main nettle stalk near the flowers to encourage growth from axillary buds. In U. Lyalli this occurs on mature plants with seeds matured and often shed, from leaf axils until a hard frost. Flowering can begin again in early Autumn.
Young nettles are especially rich in proteins, minerals and secondary metabolites, and, “free amino acids”. These are uncommitted amino acids in nettle sap, waiting for anticipated rapid growth in response to either temperature or sunshine sudden increases. When we consume fresh live (or barely steamed, 5-7 minutes) nettles we get those amino acids for our own protein repairs and replacement. Eat young nettles to enhance post-traumatic healing from wounds, auto collisions, surgery, and radiation treatments.
I usually recommend 2-8 ounces/day raw or steamed young nettles. I teach patients how to firmly and thoroughly compress and roll raw nettles to mechanically disarm the stinging hairs. Nettle shoots could probably be dried for subsequent food or medicinal use. M. Moore suggests freezing young nettle tips or fresh juice.
I experience a jolly mood and energy boost from eating raw nettle shoots, leaves, and fruits but never from non-emergent rhizomes. I suspect that I may be responding to an unexpected supplementation of neurotransmitters, acetylcholine, choline, serotonin and histamine from uncooked nettle venom.
Nettle Leaves
Nettle leaves are used fresh or dried in tea (infusions), tinctures, and salves.
I usually prefer nettle leaf teas for urinary and hemostatic applications.
Fresh leaves are freeze-dried, powdered, and encapsulated and are preferred for treating asthmatic and allergic conditions.
I use the mature leaves and stalks fresh or dried, in hot soaks in the bath, buckets, or boots. Patients are encouraged to soak 1-2 hours several times a week or even daily to relieve joint pain. Continue treatment until symptoms resolve and repeat weekly for relief maintenance as needed.
I suspect that in males (men have 20x more gout than women) extended nettle soaking involves transdermal metabolite relief directly to painful gouty joints. Nettles are frequently cited as an effective treatment for relief from gout (there is no cure for gout) but usually as strong infusions.
Flagellation with stinging hair-rich leaves and stalks can bring relief to arthritic joints. After the swelling subsides, secondary effects manifest.
According to Grieve, Roman soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall in Britain whipped themselves with nettle stalks and leaves to stay warm (formication) and may have enjoyed the injections of neurotransmitters.
In my area, native whalers reputedly rolled in fresh nettle patches immediately prior to going out whaling to help them stay awake. When I tried nettle self-flagellation, I formed a lot of hot angry red welts which subsided in an hour or less; but, little red centers remained after the welts had resolved and these red spots itched dreadfully for days (and nights). Not recommended.
I realized that the native whalers were staying awake scratching for hours in their little dugout canoes. (See: Nettle Seeds below). I have not seen any Roman literature on itchy border guards.
Childbirth Hemostatic Use of Nettles
In 1990 I received a long letter from an experienced Michigan midwife; one who was frequently called to help with difficult births. She and other midwives had been successfully using strong infusions of my wild-harvested nettle leaves (no stalks) to control postpartum bleeding, reducing the anticipated blood loss by as much as 90% (postpartum bleeding is the number one cause of death worldwide for women of childbearing age). Prior to the birth of her third child she had used all of her supply of nettle leaves from me and obtained some from another source.
After the baby was out she was very surprised to be told that she was hemorrhaging heavily. She had used the nettle infusion expecting little postpartum bleeding. Instead of 20-40 cc, her midwife estimated she lost 500cc or more of blood. Otherwise, it was an easy birth. She believed the nettle tea had failed. She wanted to know if there was something different about my nettle leaves. She and other midwives wanted to prevent further unexpected potentially fatal postpartum bleeding. I did not see any of the possible weak nettle leaves to check for post harvest mishandling. I wondered if rodent control warfarin, an anticoagulant, had contaminated those nettles. (In any future nettle hemostatic failures, that is perhaps the first test I would suggest.)
I wondered what species of nettles she had gotten. I suspected that there might be a significant differential factor in nettles that have a true winter dormancy and those that do not. My nettles do not. The obsessive care I take in nettle leaf harvest may also be a factor.
There is an important lesson here: how can practitioners be certain the herbs they use will work as expected? Unfortunately, the real answer is: only by trying.
I now believe that variations in therapeutic efficacy in the alleged same perennial plant are real and can differ widely from year to year in the exact same individual plant, just as wine produced from grapes grown on the same plant will vary detectably. Then, we can expect greater variations from plant to plant, location to location, variety to variety, beyond local fluctuations in nutrients and weather.
The hazard might be lessened by only using local plants. Otherwise, constituent measuring and standardization might guarantee desired patient responses.
Nettle Leaf Contraindication
In lectures and clinics many of us consider nettle tea as safe and nutritive for everyone.
Several years ago a young woman was buying a pound or so of nettle leaves each year from me. Then, one year she ordered 4 pounds of nettle leaves. Several months later she ordered 8 more pounds of nettle leaves. I wondered if she was consuming all those nettles. I was sold out when the Autumnal 8 pound order arrived. I was thinking I would call her and suggest another possible wildcrafter when I received a call from her mother urging me to not sell her daughter anymore nettles. The daughter had apparently developed an extensive whole body rash while consuming the 4 pounds of dried nettle leaves (as infusions). When she had run out of the 4 pounds, and consumed no more nettle infusion for some weeks, the rash faded and disappeared. The mother believed the rash was a direct consequence of excessive nettle tea consumption. Without a more complete case history, I am tempted to agree. Moderation is the caution here.
Nettle Stalks 
Dried nettle stalks, after the leaves have been removed, and cut into smallish pieces, make a pleasant infusion for both drinking and adding to luxuriant herbal baths.
Nettle Fruits and Seeds
Nettle fruits and seeds are used variously for recreation and therapy (see: Treasure, J. 2003). I recommend 5-20 grams/cc of fresh green nettle fruits chewed thoroughly as a very refreshing stimulant.
I suspect that my great feel good responses to eating a few grams of fresh nettle shoots and leaves in Spring and later, in Summer, eating raw nettle fruits, are caused by the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and serotonin. Acetylcholine is the most abundant neurotransmitter in our brains. Maybe a little bit extra from eating nettle provides a dash of manufacturing cost relief. Caution, drinking a decoction of 30 grams fresh nettle fruits in 12 ounces water can induce 12-36 hours of wide-eyed wakefulness.
Some Nettle References
  1. Brinker, F. 1994. An overview of conventional, experimental, and botanical treatments for non-malignant prostate conditions. British Jour. Phytotherapy 3:154-176.
  2. Brinker, F.1995. Eclectic Dispensatory of Botanical Therapeutics pp117-119
  3. Drum, R.1999. Medicines From The Earth pp63-71
  4. Grieve, M. 1931. A Modern Herbalpp574-579
  5. Moore, M. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West pp185-190
  6. Treasure, J. 2003. Urtica semen reduces serum creatinine levels. J.AHG 4:22-25
  7. Weed, S, 1989. Healing Wise pp163-190
  8. Yarnell, E. 2003. Urtica spp. (Nettles) J.AHG4:8-14

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