What it is
Some people regard this common weed, also known as stinging nettle (its botanical name Urtica comes from the Latin “urere,” meaning “to burn”), as a noxious plant. Despite nettle’s prickly reputation, herbalists hold it in high regard for its healing properties. Nettle leaves and stems are covered with fine, hollow hairs filled with chemicals that cause severe skin irritation when touched. Cooking nettles as a vegetable, or drying them for tea, inactivates the sting.

For hundreds of years, healers have used nettle to treat urinary tract infections, arthritis, diarrhea, eczema, asthma, excessive menstrual bleeding, anemia, and scurvy. In folk medicine, fresh nettle leaves are applied to arthritic joints to ease pain, by way of their “good burn.”

Herbalists today primarily use nettle leaf for treating arthritis, urinary tract infections, and hay fever. Because nettle leaf is rich in nutrients, it’s often recommended as an herbal tonic tea for improving overall health. Many doctors also recommend nettle root to relieve the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), commonly known as prostate enlargement.

How it works
Nettle leaf functions as a health-building tonic partly because of its impressive nutritional profile: It’s rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, carotenoids, iron, magnesium, and potassium. Because nettle has diuretic properties, it also increases urination and helps to flush the urinary tract of organisms that contribute to infections.

Although some researchers have targeted beta-sitosterols as the active compounds in nettle root, it’s likely that other compounds in the root also have beneficial effects on the prostate gland. These include lignans, which inhibit the sex hormones that trigger prostate enlargement, and anti-inflammatory chemicals. However it works, nettle root has been shown to significantly alleviate BPH symptoms, such as decreased urine flow and nighttime awakening to urinate.

A number of European studies have shown that nettle root can alleviate the symptoms of benign prostate enlargement, particularly when combined with other herbs such as saw palmetto or pygeum. In a study reported in the British Journal of Urology in September 2000, researchers in Germany compared a combination of nettle root and saw palmetto to finasteride, a standard drug treatment for BPH that has significant side effects, including liver damage and decreased libido. While evaluating 431 patients for six months, the researchers found that the nettle–saw palmetto combination was as beneficial as finasteride in alleviating symptoms but without the negative side effects (British Journal of Urology, 2000, vol. 86, no. 4).

Although there are fewer studies on nettle leaf, it has been shown to curb the body’s inflammatory response. Clinical research shows that it bolsters the effectiveness of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), commonly prescribed to ease arthritis pain and inflammation (Phytomedicine, 1997, vol. 4, no. 2). Finally, a study of 69 people with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) found that a freeze-dried preparation of stinging nettle leaf provided some relief from symptoms (Planta Medica, 1990, vol. 56, no. 1).

Because of these successful outcomes, the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy has approved nettle leaf for urinary tract inflammation and rheumatic conditions, as well as nettle root for symptomatic treatment of the early stages of BPH.

Side effects
Nettle leaf has no reported negative side effects. Nettle root is also considered safe.

How to take it
Nettle leaf makes a pleasant-tasting tea. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of dried nettle, cover, and steep for ten minutes. Strain and drink up to three cups daily. As an alternative, take 1/2 teaspoon of liquid extract twice daily. When cooked, nettle leaves look and taste like spinach.

For best results when treating BPH, use herbal products that combine nettle root with saw palmetto or pygeum. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended dose.

One ounce of dried nettle costs approximately $1.75; a 1-ounce bottle of liquid extract costs approximately $7. Freeze-dried capsules of nettle generally are used for hay fever; the proper dose is 300 mg, twice daily. A bottle of 90 capsules costs between $10 and $15.

Herbalist and author Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon, and has published nine books, including Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).