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Nettle (Urtica dioica [Latin]), also called stinging nettle, was once used to treat arthritis and all sorts of skin disease. It was the method with which nettle was introduced to the body that makes this herb’s medicinal history so interesting—self-flagellation with the nettle plant. Today, however, nettle is better-known for its ability to ease urination discomfort in men with a benign enlarged prostate condition.

There is actually some research that (sort of) supports the ancient practice of hitting yourself with a nettle plant. Apparently nettle contains natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatories; it’s been theorized that the sharp nettle leaves helped to inject this herbal medicine into the body when struck against the affected areas.

Many herbalists and naturopaths do say that the antihistamines in nettle make it an excellent treatment for hay fever. In one study, participants taking two 300-milligram capsules of nettle daily reported that their hay fever symptoms were significantly reduced. Nettle is also sometimes used to loosen congestion and open the bronchial airways in people with asthma or allergies.

Nettle may help people with arthritis to reduce their dosage of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which have been found to cause stomach upset and gastrointestinal bleeding with overuse. In one German study, people eating stewed nettle leaves needed only one-fourth as much NSAID as those taking drugs alone to experience the same pain relief. Nettle also contains large amounts of boron and silicon, two minerals that help ease symptoms of arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.

Nettle is also a natural diuretic. It helps the body eliminate uric acid and bacteria that cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) and kidney stones. The diuretic action of nettle may also help lower blood pressure and relive premenstrual bloating.

Nettle is known for its ability to relieve symptoms of benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), a condition in which the prostate becomes enlarged and causes men to develop problems with urination. Nettle helps men to urinate more successfully during the day, and thus helps eliminate another annoying symptom of BPH—frequent nighttime urination. Nettle keeps the body from converting testosterone into 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme that causes the prostate gland to begin growing again in middle age. Taking nettle in combination with either pygeum bark extract or saw palmetto may be to be at least as effective against BPH as the prescription drug finasteride. Commission E also approves the use of nettle to treat BPH.

You don’t have to hit yourself with nettle to take advantage of this herb’s medicinal benefits (unless you really want to). Nettle is available in capsules and in nettle root extract (this form is particularly effective for treatment of BPH). The usual dosage is one 450-milligram supplement twice a day, or 1 teaspoon of liquid extract three times a day. You can also try growing your own nettle—it thrives in just about any type of soil. Just be sure to use gloves when you harvest this plant. The prickles covering nettle contain histamines that can cause pain for several hours. The leaves, stem, and roots of this plant are edible. Use 2 teaspoons of dried nettle leaves in a cup of boiling water for tea—drink up to four times a day. You can also eat fresh steamed nettle leaves as a vegetable. This plant is an excellent source of vitamin C, and the leftover liquid can be taken in place of nettle tea.

Due to its diuretic action, prolonged use of nettle can cause an electrolyte imbalance; nursing women should not take nettle, and people that take nettle on a regular basis should make sure to get enough potassium in their diet. Some laboratory studies indicate that nettle may cause the uterus to contract, so pregnant women should avoid this herb as well.

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