Springtime brings about a number of things: sunshine and longer days, green trees, running outdoors, blooming flowers, sandals and short sleeves, and lots of pollen.
One of the best herbs for springtime aliments is Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). Encountered in the wild, Stinging Nettle is generally perceived to produce a less than appealing effect on the body. The stem and leaves of this plant are covered with tiny hairs that contain histamine, acetylcholine, formic acid and serotonin which produce a burning sensation when the hairs come in contact with bare skin. However aside from this, Stinging Nettle has a wealth of benefit to your body. According to Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth, Stinging Nettle is highly beneficial as a spring tonic. It supports the immune system, circulation, the urinary, digestive and respiratory tracts as well as the endocrine system. It provides whole body nourishment at a time when the environment and our bodies are going through changes.
For me, spring symbolizes two primary things: running and allergies. Stinging Nettle appears to be a magic cure all for both. Stinging Nettle reduces the symptoms of allergies by decreasing the amount of histamine produced in response to an allergen. It is most effective when the dried leaves are decocted into a strong tea; the steam from the tea can also alleviate bronchial constriction caused by asthma. But I bet you’re wondering: How can Stinging Nettle have anything to do with running?
Running is an activity that I’ve engaged in for a number of years. I started running because I wanted to take on an activity and hobby that would double as exercise. Now I use running a means to clear my mind and get out of the house. Unfortunately, my springtime running regime has bought on a bout of knee pain. My classmate recently told me that he used Stinging Nettle for his joint pain. After running long distances he would use a branch of fresh Stinging Nettle and brush the leaves on his aching knee joints. This helped reduce the pain he was feeling. The idea is that when your body feels the sting from the plant, it actually decreases the original feelings of pain. According to the University of Maryland, Scientists believe that Stinging Nettle accomplishes this by decreasing the levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body and interfering with the way the body transmits pain signals.
In Physical Medicine, this idea is known as the Gate Control Theory of Pain. According to theorists Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall, there are two types of fibers that carry pain sensation from the site of an injury to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord: thin pain receptive fibers and larger fibers that detect touch, pressure and vibration. When the signals from these thin and large fibers exceed a critical level, we feel pain. Within this system, there are transmission cells and inhibitory cells. The inhibitory cells can inhibit transmission cells by closing the pain “gate”; the transmission cells act as the gate. The thin fibers impede the inhibitory cells which leads to an open gate, and the resulting pain. Larger diameter fibers excite the inhibitory cells which closes the gate, leading to a decreased pain sensation. This is why we tend to rub an injured finger or a stubbed toe. The rubbing sensation decreases the ability to feel the initial cause of the pain. This explains why pain would be decreased when using Stinging Nettle on a previously injured site, yet would be rather painful under normal circumstances.
In the Pacific Northwest, Stinging Nettle grows quite well. Fresh plant species are in abundance on the Bastyr University Campus. If you are interested in Stinging Nettle Tea, Mountain Rose Herbs is a wonderful source for dried Nettle leaf. I also encourage you to find local sources of herbs in your area. You might be surprised at what is available in your own backyard!