I wanted to share this old article I wrote about the health benefits of nettle:
Nettle: Milarepa’s Special Medicine
In the springtime, I try eating Nettles at least once a day each week. Sometimes, I even try and do a nettle “fast” for multiple days, consuming almost nothing but nettles and nettle broth. Their vibrant green vitality is welcome after the cold, damp, dark Northwest winter. Even the sting of their almost imperceptible needles has a zest that helps waken us to Spring.
Nettles are one of my favorite plants, and one of the few plants that can really be considered both a food and a medicine. I am always amazed that a plant that has a very powerful and painful sting can be so useful. Many students I’ve worked with over the years begin by being quite wary of Stinging Nettles, and then end up quite enamored with them.
For me, I think it was the story about Milarepa, Tibet’s famous wild yogi that got me hooked. Apparently, during his sojourn in the wilderness Milarepa ate nothing but Nettle for years. Really. There are stories of hunters coming upon him and demanding food, and Milarepa responded by preparing them some nettles. When they demanded real food, food that could keep someone alive in the bitter cold of the mountains where Milarepa was staying, he simply gave them more nettles. It was the only thing that sustained him through all the seasons on the mountains! Eventually, Milarepa developed many siddhis from his practice, and his skin turned a vibrant color with hints of green. His hair also grew long, lustrous, and profuse. At least part of this accomplishment was considered related to his diet of nettles!
There is a strong European tradition of nettle consumption as well. There is a poem from Scotland extolling the virtues of Nettles:
If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May
So many fine maidens
Would not go to the grave.
I am also drawn to the stories of early Christian monks in the British Isles (especially in Ireland) who would fast for extended periods of time on milk, nettles, and a little bit of sorrel. In fact, during the potato famine in Ireland there are anecdotes of nettles being one of the main foods that families used to supplement their diets during the hard times.
While this is all interesting from a historical point of view, what value could nettle play for us today?
Simply put, Nettles or Stinging Nettles (Urtica diocia)as they are often called are one of the easiest and simplest foods and herbs to incorporate into our diets and our health regimen. They have many of the same benefits as superfoods and exotic elixirs from far away places, but they are quite common and considered weeds by most people.
Name: Stinging Nettle
Latin Name: Urtica dioica
Parts Used: Leaves-fresh and dried, also seeds and root
Properties: Fresh leaves- nourish blood and vital energy and minerals, dried leaves-drying especially to nose and respiratory system, Topical-treats pain especially rheumatic pains through stimulation of microcirculation
1) Wild Food Supplement: Fresh nettles can be carefully gathered and then steamed or cooked just like spinach. They are incredibly high in iron, minerals, chlorophyll, and vitamins A and C. They can be incorporated into quiches, spanokopita, pizza, stir-fries, or just eaten by themselves after being cooked for awhile. Cooking the nettles will neutralize the sting they possess. Many people really like the taste of cooked nettles. They have a slight nutty flavor and are not at all bitter like most wild greens. Eating them will nourish the blood (especially from a Chinese Medicine viewpoint) and nourish the hair.
2) Dried Herbal Medicine: Nettles are easy to dry and use as a medicinal infusion or tea. Hot water can be poured over them and they can be steeped for several minutes for a brief infusion or overnight for a more potent medicine. Nettle in dried form seems to have some different properties than the fresh. The infusion is very useful for allergic rhinitis, and in my opinion may be the best option for many people’s seasonal allergies. The infusion is helpful for urinary difficulty, as it is a potent diuretic. It can also be used for circulation issues. Nettle has the ability to increase microcirculation, and yet is also helpful in regulating heavy menstrual bleeding.
3) Fresh Medicine Topically- Nettle also has some unusual properties when applied topically. First of all, it is extremely good at stopping bleeding. It makes a great in the field 1st aid plant. It is important to wash out any cuts or scrapes thoroughly first. Secondly, the sting of Nettle has some unusual and very potent properties. A folk use of Nettles is to rub the fresh plant on areas of the body prone to pain, especially arthritic pain made worse by cold and damp. This creates quite a lot of stinging pain and strongly stimulates local circulation. It was used traditionally for rheumatic complaints.
It is important to realize that even though distinctions have been made above in using fresh nettle as a food, dried nettle as a medicine, and fresh nettle sting as a topical medicine, Nettle in all of its forms has some of the above actions and properties. For instance, dried nettle does still have some vitamins, minerals, and iron and can be used to nourish the blood. Dried nettle can also be powdered and used to stop bleeding (though it is less potent than its fresh form). Fresh nettles are somewhat astringent and drying and can be helpful for hayfever and allergies (though not as useful as dried). All in all it is quite the useful plant ally.
There is one more aspect of nettle I want to touch upon and that is Nettle’s affinity for our hair. This is referenced in the story about Milarepa consuming large amounts of nettle and literally becoming quite hairy. Between its microcirculation enhancing qualities and its highly nourishing mineral, vitamin, and iron content Nettle really strengthens and revitalizes the hair both internally and externally. A colleague of mine drank a nettle infusion everyday for a year, and her women friends all commented on the lustrous nature of her hair. When living in the Desert Southwest, I had a middle-aged female patient whose hair had become badly damaged by the sun and by hair products. She was looking at having to cut off about 12 inches of hair that had become like straw. Drinking nettle tea and rinsing her hair in a nettle infusion every day for a few weeks completely restored her hair!
If you want to gather your own Stinging Nettle, it is not too hard. It is easy to identify by its opposite growing leaves, its square stem, its serrated leaf edges, and its tiny hairs or needles that are the producer of its medicinal sting. I highly recommend using a reputable field guide to positively ID it. Or even better find someone in your community who knows what the plant is and have them show you. Also, please know the history of the site of where you are gathering from. You don’t want to ingest unknown toxins or heavy metals since Nettle likes to grow in disturbed areas. A lot of people recommend wearing gloves while harvesting the plant. This is probably a good idea, however I also recommend you let yourself be stung at least a little by the plant to experience this form of its medicine! Finally, while Nettle is prolific and it is hard to over-harvest, you can enhance its growth by only gathering the top 6 inches of the plant. If you leave the rest to grow, the plant will actually be stimulated to produce new growth.
As we step into Spring, we can follow in the footsteps of ancient sages of Tibet or simply the folk practices of our own ancestors by bringing into our lives the humble but profound Nettle.
Snow hides in shadows on hills,
Frogs sing at night.
Intermittent Sun during the daytime,
Nettles begin to reach for the sky,
Spring is here.