While the weather continues to toy with my emotions, the songs of robins I hear in the trees on my lunchtime walks continue to encourage me that spring is on the way. As a continuation of last week’s article on supporting detoxification through nutrition, this week I am going to highlight one of my favorite herbs.
Many of you are likely familiar with this spiny friend of mine. Perhaps you became acquainted with it in a rather brass encounter walking through the woods with your pantlegs rolled up. You were minding your own business when suddenly you feel a burning pain on your skin as if you were just stung by a bee. You look down and discover you have small red welts on your calves and you are knee-high in a patch of prickly green weeds. But wait! Are they weeds? Weeds are unwanted plants. Unwanted because they crowd out other more desired plants, they are unsightly, or perhaps as you might be thinking in this case, because they sting you and give you welts!
But before you are too hasty with your judgment of this springtime plant that has stung you, allow me to elucidate some of its finer qualities. The plant that has stung you is stinging nettles. It scientific name is Urtica dioica. Urticaria, or hives, is the skin’s reaction to the formic acid in its spines. And while its sting may be uncomfortable, it actually has a beneficial effect on inflammation in the body. By preventing the body from making inflammatory prostaglandins, the sting results in an overall less inflammatory reaction in the body. Urtication, the practice of intentionally flogging yourself with nettle stings, is used as a treatment for inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis that has been proven to be effective by clinical studies. It might seem crazy, but applying nettle to arthritic joints will reduce both pain and dependence on medication!
That might not be enough to change your tune about nettles, so allow me to tell you more about its fine qualities. The leaves also can be eaten, taken as a supplement, or drank as a tea to help reduce inflammation in the body by a few different mechanisms. Nettle leaf can inhibit the classic complement pathway and the proinflammatory enzymes cyclooxygenase and 5-lipoxygenase. In addition, it may stimulate the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-6. These anti-inflammtory properties often make nettles a go to remedy for seasonal allergies.
Nettle leaves are also nutritional powerhouses. Not even nutrient packed greens such as kale can compare to the amount of magnesium, calcium, and potassium found in nettle leaves. Do not worry! You don’t have to eat them while they can still sting you to get this benefit. Once dried, crushed, or blanched the stinger is flaccid and no longer able to inject formic acid sting.
One great way to enjoy the nutrient abundance of nettles is to make a cold infusion overnight and drink the throughout the day like a delicious readily absorbable liquid vitamin. Add 4 Tbs of dried nettle leaves to a quart of water and allow it to sit in the refrigerator overnight. Infusing it in cold water instead of hot will prevent you from extracting the tannins that will bind the minerals and give the tea more of an astringent taste. The tea will be a dark green to black color once it steeps 8+ hours. Do not be alarmed, this is a product of its extreme mineral density! The cold infusion also extracts more polysaccharides so that there is a slight sweetness to it.
Another favorite recipe I like to make using nettle leaves is to use it instead of basil in a pesto recipe. For a quick green that can be used as a substitute for other greens like spinach or kale in any recipe, simply throw a bunch of leaves in water for a few seconds to wilt the leaves to deactivate the stingers. Then you can use it freely just like you would any other green.
I have yet to see this for myself, but I hear that nettles grow in the area. Back in Washington, I would harvest as many as I could in the spring so that I could enjoy them throughout the year. I will likely do some exploring in the area once green things begin to emerge from the ground. Stay tuned for future announcements for foraging classes! Until then, dried nettles can be purchased and enjoyed now!
I hope this article has given you new perspective on what you might have once seen as a pesky prickly weed. Nettle leaves are a powerful anti-inflammatory and nutrient rich herb that have many uses! Happy foraging!