Foraging nettles (Urtica dioica, Urtica repens): A hedgerow superfood and remarkable medicine
How foraging nettles can provide food drink and a remedy for enlarged prostate
Although nettles are well known and foraging nettles commonplace, many do not know that this common plant has a remedy for a common accompaniment of ageing, an enlarged prostate.
The genus Urtica includes about 50 species of annuals and perennials that are widespread throughout the temperate regions.
The generic name Urtica is the old Latin name given for the plant. Our most common nettle derives its specific name dioica from the fact that this species has male and female flowers on different plants. The other nettle species that grows here – Urtica repens, takes its specific name from the Latin word for creeping.
Urtica dioica is perennial, rising each year from a creeping, underground network of yellow-coloured rhizomes, and can easily attain heights of 180 cm given good growing conditions.
Nettles are often a sign of fertile, if neglected land, and are found usually en masse, on waysides, roadsides, hedges, in fields and woodland edges as well as gardens, parks and waterways, up to 850 metres.
Nettle leaves are simple and cordate, with dentate-serrate margins and pointed leaf tips. The leaves sit in opposite pairs on square stems and typically reach 7-12 cm long. All these features are also commonly used to describe members of the mint family as well, but we know that floral characteristics are often vital for correct identification. Nettles have a different inflorescence compared to mint family plants, which places them in a family of their own.
Nettles also display tiny stipules at the base of the leaf, where it meets the stem. These small, leaf-like growths are not a characteristic of mint plants, so can help you identify between nettles and the similar looking dead nettle tribe of the mint family, even without the flowers.
Nettles were reportedly first introduced to Britain by the Romans and were used by the soldiers as a flogging aid to warm them during long cold nights and as an aid for sore, stiff bones and joints! This practice, known as ‘urtication’, is regaining popularity, especially on the continent in places such as Germany, where a lot of the most recent research into nettles, and other herbal remedies, has been carried out.
Nettles have very fibrous stems that have formerly been processed into cloth, as well as cordage. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have woven nettle fibre into cloth and bags. German soldiers had uniforms made from nettles in the First World War. The British army are known to have used the green dye extracted from chlorophyll-rich nettle leaves, for making camouflage.
Nettles are also a well known green manure crop for the garden and allotment. The nitrogen rich leaves are added to comfrey for a balanced liquid feed.
Leaves: in spring, choose just the tops. Roots: best in autumn.
Leaves: contain up to 20% minerals (especially iron, calcium, potassium, sillic acid); phenolic acids; flavonoids (including kaempferol, quercetin); histamine; volatile and resinous substance glucoquinone; Vitamin C. Roots: contain lignans; lectins; sterols; polysaccharides, and several phenolic compounds.
Actions Nutritive, haemostatic, astringent, circulatory stimulant, galactagogue, hypoglycaemic, diuretic, anti-prostatic.
Pharmacology and uses Nettle leaves contain high concentrations of iron and minerals and are therefore highly recommended for cases of anaemia and other deficiency conditions.
The tannins present in the leaves exhibit astringency. An extract of nettle leaf has been found to slow the heart of laboratory animals, as well as helping to dilate, and constrict, the blood vessels, alternately under different conditions.
Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are mildly diuretic. The leaves are full of protein and make an excellent fasting tea to help flush out toxins from the kidneys and the rest of the elimination systems. With notable concentrations of Iron and Calcium, nettles are a very useful supplement for pregnancy and breast feeding.
The sometimes painful and irritable nature of nettles and the silica stinging hairs can be counteracted through one of the various plants easily found around nettles. I personally find the creeping ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) far more soothing and relieving than any other plant I’ve tried so far, including the useful plantains (Plantago species) and docks (Rumex species). You can find videos on both plants on my youtube channel.
As an alterative, the leaf can aid the clearance of acne and other skin complaints as well as reportedly helping counteract the overproduction of dandruff. As an astringent it can be a useful wound staunching herb for the nose.
Nettles can significantly help to reduce blood sugar levels in the treatment of ‘type-2’ or ‘late onset’ diabetes mellitus. The presence of glucoquinone reportedly helps to account for the perceived hypoglycaemic action. Other indications for nettle use include the treatment of arthritis and gout. In Germany, there is a tradition for making beer and wines from nettles in the spring, specifically to treat arthritis.
Nettle roots and the prostate
The root contains the most medicinal magic as far as men are concerned. Rich in plant sterols, sugars and other medicinal compounds, the root has repeatedly shown to arrest benign growths of the prostate.
The prostate is special to men. So special in fact, that the majority of males wouldn’t know where to go looking for it. It sits behind so as to surround the urethra, which as we know, carries urine from the bladder through the penis to the outside world.
The prostate gland enlarges as men get older, although usually not starting until after the mid-thirties. It then tends to enlarge in middle to late old age due to excessive growth of the glandular cells it contains. This growth is benign, not malignant, and has often been linked to decreased sexual activity. Gradual enlargement has been recorded in slightly more than 50% of males over 50 years of age in the UK and up to 75% of all men over 75 years of age.
The most common disorder is benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostate enlargement. The other is known as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). This condition is more prevalent in older men but can be present in young men also. Prostatitis can be passed on to your sexual partner and in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
Typical symptoms of prostate enlargement:
Bladder obstruction with need to urinate more frequently and at night
Incomplete emptying of bladder
Pain, burning and difficulty in starting and stopping urine flow
Presence of blood in urine
Sometimes associated kidney damage and bladder infections
Typical symptoms of prostatitis:
Pain between scrotum and rectum
Discharge from penis
Frequent urination with a burning sensation
Aches and pains in back, rectum and between the legs
Prostatitis can develop leading to increasingly difficult urination, as well as premature ejaculation, blood in the urine, and impotency. Be warned! This condition, if left untreated will eventually obstruct the bladder outlet resulting in blood in the urine. Ouch! Prostatitis is believed to be hormonal in nature.
As one of the major health issues for males, allopathic medicine continues to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into research for new drugs to combat cancers and to help arrest BPH. Western drug treatment will usually involve drugs such as Alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.
Alpha blockers work by helping to relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder and in the prostate.
5-alpha-reductase inhibitors work by blocking the conversion of testosterone to another substance, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is known to have a key role in prostate growth.
Should either of these two prove unsuccessful, then they are usually combined and added to other drugs. Doctors also often employ hormonal therapy, although this carries side effects, including change of libido and mood swings! Yet evidence is already out there which points to the power of nettle root extract to inhibit certain enzymes in the body which ordinarily affect our levels of male sex hormones.
One particular enzyme which affects the levels of testosterone is the sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG). This is an enzyme that the body produces more of with age. SHBG tends to bind more readily with testosterone compared to oestrogen, thereby reducing the amount of ‘free testosterone’ available to find receptor sites and consequently decreasing libido. This may eventually lead to possible enlargement.
What nettle root does, or more specifically, a lignan fraction within it, is to inhibit the binding action of this enzyme, thereby ensuring that more testosterone can bind at its receptor sites. Nettle’s lignans have also been shown to reduce cell proliferation in prostate tissues.
The fat-soluble extract of nettle root is pharmacologically active in fat tissues where androgen hormones such as testosterone are produced. The more water-soluble methanol extracts exhibit the greatest BPH arrest, with resultant high levels of inhibition of prostate growth.
Nettle root also increases urinary flow and urine volume.Nettle root can be as effective in arresting prostate growth as finasteride, a pharmaceutical 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, although nettle root does not demonstrate this particular type of inhibition.
Research is continually being carried out to determine the precise nature of a number of other different active compounds, yet the many successful treatments with nettle root extract are already testament to the demonstrable abilities of this plant.
Undoubtedly a medicinal food, nettles are one of the most nutritious greens we can eat. Lucky are the urban foragers because they have the opportunity to easily gather nettle tops in different spots from March through to late November in most towns. Remember to only take the succulent sweet and tasty tops.
Nettle soup is the classic way of eating this herb, combined with onions or leeks and potatoes and seasoning. Many people like adding blanched leaves to pesto, and a friend of mine makes an interesting nettle chutney. The leaves also work well as a general spinach replacement in many other dishes such as ‘saag aloo’.