Botanical Medicine: Urtica Dioica: Stinging Nettles
The scientific study of plants is called botany and the study of the use of plants as medicine is called botanical medicine. One very common botanical medicine used in naturopathic practice is also a very old remedy used by ancient peoples in Europe and Eurasia; it is Urtica dioica. Many people may know this plant as a green plant growing in wettish areas in woodlands or fields, which if ran into unawares produces an itchy, stinging rash where it comes into contact with the skin. This rashes typically doesn’t last long, and when dried it does not cause skin irritation, however, this is where it gets its common name Stinging Nettles.
This plant is very very green and like most edible greens is very good for you; that’s is the first thing that nettle has going for it. Nettles are extremely nutritious. They are a tradition pot herb in the spring added to stews and soups for food. Urtica is very rich in protein, contains good fats, trace minerals and lots of chlorophyll which gives it its very green colour. Trace minerals are very important because are they required for certain functions in body which when under functioning will lead to inefficiencies in metabolism.
Nettles are also very rich in the mineral iron. This is why nettle tea is a favourite recommendation in anemia and for women postpartum as pregnancy demands a lot of blood building and iron for the baby. Because it is rich in protein, fats, trace minerals and iron and when taken as a tea or food or tincture it improves health and nourishes us, this botanical medicine is classified as a nutritive herb. This quality makes it an excellent choice for patients with poor nutrient absorption from damaged gastric tissues. In addition, nettle tea is fantastic for people recovering from illness, a period of time called convalescence, while the body is repairing and healing itself.
The plant, fascinatingly, can be used to make fabrics and these fabrics are very strong. Nettles were used by the German army to make uniforms which stood the test of time and degrade very slowly in comparison to their cotton counterparts. Nettle is certainly a traditional remedy of European people and its use extends to ancient times. Ancient burial sites from Eurasia contain people clothed in fabrics made from nettles. Matthew Wood, in The Book of Herbal Wisdom, writes that nettles is definitely associated with caucasian peoples, a long used herb in ancient times when white people lived much closer to the Earth than most currently are.
I think of nettles especially for women who struggle to build up their blood and iron stores. It is also good for people who are retaining water or feel swollen or as if there is excess mucus in the body. It may have diuretic properties but it may not act directly on the kidney to help with these problems, but more likely acts by cleansing the system and improving lymphatic flow thereby decreasing fluid retention in the body. The uses I’ve noted here all apply to the leaves of nettle; the roots have different medicinal properties. When using nettle for building blood, as a nutritive and for helping move stagnation it’s best used as a long infusion. A long infusion means steeping the herb in water, in nettle’s case, for 6 hours so all the good nutrition can be liberated from the leaves to appreciatively sipped. The flavour is rich, delicious and soothing. I often recommend adding a little black strap molasses for flavour and extra nutrition.
Dr Erin MacKenzie ND