Tag: nettle

Grasping the Nettle

You can get a cheery mood and energy boost from nettle leaf and particularly from raw dried nettle seed (technically fruits and seeds), rubbed through a sieve to remove the irritating hairs.

Nettle seedThe ‘feel-good’ factor from eating raw dried nettle fruits/seeds is caused by the neurotransmitters acetylcholine nd serotonin, with choline and histamine also found in uncooked nettle venom. In herbal medicine they are used as an adrenal tonic for people who are burnt-out, run down, fatigued and low in energy, zest for life and libido.

Acetylcholine is the most abundant neurotransmitter in our brains. It stimulates the nervous system (ANS), improving mood and heightening sensory perception, attention span, vigilance and intuition. Acetylcholine disruption may be a primary cause of depression and possibly Alzheimer’s and muscle degeneration.

Serotonin is mainly found in the gut and it also acts on the nervous system (CNS). Its main functions include regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep, and it influences memory and learning. Serotonin in nettle spines causes pain when you pick them! Its abundance in many seeds and fruits may be to stimulate the gut to expel the seeds, and it can cause diarrhoea in quantity.

Nettle seed is used therapeutically both as freshly picked seed and as fresh nettle seed tincture.

Chew 5-20 grams of fresh green nettle seed well, as a refreshing stimulant. You can take 1 to 2 tablespoons a day. Some people experiment with nettle seed for recreation but we advise not exceeding this amount.

Be careful too, if you boil fresh nettle fruit/seed in a ratio of 1:12 (eg 50 grams fruit/seed to 600 ml of water), a large wineglassful (250ml) may keep you wide awake for 12-36 hours!

Nettle seed also tastes delicious toasted and can be used instead of poppy seed in crackers, bread and sprinkled with chopped nuts into salads.


Incidentally, the prescence of acetylcholine in nettle venom may well explain why the ancient practice of urtification (whipping with nettles for pain relief) works! Anything which increases the presence of acetylcholine in the synaptic space is found to produce analgesia. Benzodiazepines for example act as analgesics through their action of enhancing acetylcholine release.

Ortilette – French Nettle Beer

Ortilette – Nettle Beer à la française

This is a light refreshing fermented drink with a very low alcohol content, that nevertheless packs some fizz! Made in a similar way to ash leaf ‘frenette’ that traces its history back to ancient Gaul under the Romans. It is very similar to British nettle beer recipes but it doesn’t taste like a hops beer at all.

Makes 20 litres
25 litre brewing bucket, oak barrel, glass or earthenware demijohn.

2 kg nettle tops (about 2 full carrier bags)
20 litres of rainwater or soft, de-chlorinated water
1 handful of rose leaves
15 g tartaric acid (Cream of Tartar) or 25 ml lemon juice
16 g (2 sachets) bakers/brewers yeast or a champagne yeast
1 kg raw cane sugar

Some older recipes suggest that you just add everything together and stick the bucket in the sun for 2 days, with a loose cover, then filter and strain. This may well work in the South of France but certainly not in a Scottish climate… so I follow the set of directions below:

Infuse the nettle tops and rose leaves in 2 liters of boiling water, simmering gently for 1/2 hour. Remove from the gas and dissolve in the sugar.

When cool enough to handle safely, pour all the contents into your brew bucket. Add the rest of the water bringing it up to 20 litres, keeping it at around body temperature.

Dissolve the yeast in half a litre of water and add this to the bucket, stirring well. Then dissolve the tartaric acid in a cup of water, add and stir again.

Leave in the bucket, without sealing it, covered with a muslin cloth, for 8 to 10 days in a warm place to slowly ferment. When there are no more bubbles or the specific gravity has reached 1008-1010, filter off and pour into sturdy, sterilized glass bottles. Cork or seal well, and lay them on their sides for a further 8 to 10 days.

Take care when opening – like any fizzy drink it can be explosive!

Fresh is not always best!

The medicinal plants we use in our pharmacopaeia all contain distinct biochemical components that can be analysed and measured. Herbalism has a proper scientific biochemical basis.

The difficulty is that over 80,000 years we have learned what cures without HPLC analysis to measure markers, in vitro testing and microscopes, but by word of mouth, trial and error, success and failure. This lack of ’empirical knowledge’ has often left herbalists mute in the face of criticism despite their absolute, tried and tested, conviction that a remedy is effective. We have merely not learned ‘the language of science’. Also, scientific research is only just catching up with many of the uses for plants that herbalists have known for centuries. Clinical research justifies and expands our knowledge on an almost daily basis. However, without the active engagement by herbalists we are in danger or losing plant medicines to the giant pharmaceutical industry who standardise them, creating often poisonous drugs with side effects, and lobby for them to be restricted to a heavily licenced cartel.

There are often differences of opinion between herbalists as to whether using a fresh herb is superior to a dried herb. Similarly, many will tell you that a heated, cooked or steamed fluid extract is inferior to a cold processed extract. Avoid these arguments as neither opinion is ever correct. It really depends what you want to achieve!

Some compounds are water-soluble and happy to be cold processed. Others are oil-soluble and benefit from distillation, released from the plant only at higher temperatures. Others are fragile and quickly destroyed by time and heat. Sometimes fresh plants are processed into extracts straight from the fields but generally plant are dried to prevent deterioration. This allows them to be stored. From a practical point of view, there is often only one or two harvests of a commercially grown herb per year so drying, which reduces the water content, allows the plant to be stored. Most plants contain 60 to 80 percent moisture when harvested and must be dried to within 10 to 14 percent moisture before storage.

The properties of plants will vary. The strength of their compounds will vary from year to year, according to climate, soil condition and a myriad of other factors as well as processing, yet our bodies will respond to a wide variety of quality and strength. There are also cases where one person will swear by a remedy and the other finds it “doesn’t work” or has no effect. Why? They are rarely comparing like for like.

Over the years, I have come to realise that the way a herb is prepared and extracted has very different outcomes which are sometimes vital to correct treatment and also that dosage is critical. However, the arguments of fresh v dried and cold v heated are not really relevant. What is relevant is the quality of the plant while it is growing and then, that the type of processing undertaken is the most appropriate to the biochemistry of the medicine we wish to create for the specific condition being treated. The following are examples of research on a variety of herbs that illustrates this.

N.B. Disclaimer! One important note is that I have tried to explain some of the processes that take place between plant medicines and the body very simplistically. The danger of simplicity is it can lead to inaccuracy so, if you find this interesting, please research it further yourself. These examples are intended to stimulate the mind only!

Autumn Crocus (Meadow Saffron) Colchicum autumnale

A toxic, cathartic, emetic and interesting Schedule 3 herb (can only be prescribed by a qualified herbalist and is kept in the poisons cupboard), it is traditionally used by herbalists to treat gout. It contains the tricyclic alkaloid colchicine which was made into a pharmaceutical drug colchicine to treat… gout.

It has also recently been heralded as a potential new cancer drug when injected directly into a variety of tumours. In gout, colchinine relieves pain and inflammation because it can bind to tubulins, which are small globular proteins in the body. Tubulins are made up of microtubules, which move chromosomes and other organelles around inside cells, some of which influence cell division. When colchinine binds to tubulin it prevents changes in the tubulin. Amongst others this decreases the movement of neutrophils – these are components of white blood cells that respond to injury and are found in pus and inflammation but they can be hijacked by cancer cells allowing it to grow quicker. Immobilising tubulins are the purpose of anticancer drugs like the “taxanes” from the Pacific yew Taxus brevifolia (e.g. paclitaxel (Taxol), Tesetaxel) and the “Vinca alkaloid” drugs derived from Madagascan periwrinkle Catharanthus roseus (e.g. vinblastine and vincristine).

In the wild, especially before flowering, autumn crocus can sometimes be confused with wild garlic Allium ursinum and will cause fatal poisoning in the unwary forager. If you would like to know the medical symptoms of crocus poisoning and why you should be careful when identifying wild garlic Allium sativum click here Ref: PMID 15088997

Is fresh best?
In one instance of poisoning it was recorded that “If the leaves were boiled before being eaten, 64% of the patients suffered moderate, severe or fatal poisoning; when the leaves were eaten raw, only 33%. It is presumed that heating may promote the liberation of colchicines from the plant.” Ref: PMID 16626006

In this case, one could argue that fresh, raw, cold processed Autumn crocus should make a medicine less likely to have side effects but that a heated extract would make a stronger, faster acting medicine with more side effects. In any case – don’t try it at home!

Ginger Zingiber officinale

I have already waxed lyrical about the efficacy of ginger in treating diarrhea. It is also exceptionally effective for travel sickness, morning sickness and chemotherapy nausea. The active constituent Zingerone is the likely active in treating diarrhea caused by E coli (Escherichia coli) and other microorganisms that release toxins into our intestines. Interestingly, fresh ginger does not contain zingerone. It is only by heating ginger that gingerol, which is present, is transformed into zingerone. This explains why people who have tried powdered dried ginger spice in capsules or cold infused tincture claim they have no efficacy.

Is fresh best?
In this case, one could argue that only a heat processed ginger will be effective against diarrhea. A cold processed tincture or powdered root capsules will not help. Notably, where Victorian herbalists (e.g. William Box’s Radiant Health Tablets) used it in laxative to prevent the griping oten caused by senna or buckthorn, they used a soft extract which is obtained by boiling it!

However, in the treatment of pain from inflammation in osteoarthritis it appears that there is little difference in effect between raw and heated ginger. They both work just as effectively 25% v 23% Ref: PMID 20418184  There is also the issue of dose and frequency. A 2 g dose taken 45 minutes after exercise had no discernible effect to a placebo, but when taken on a daily basis there was a substantial difference with ginger being a more effective treatment than a placebo. Ref: PMID 21031618 Herbalists have always known that a gentle, non-invasive herbal cure without side effects takes a little time to achieve!

Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus

Skunk cabbage has a foul smell and white acrid juice that burns the skin. In herbal medicine it was often used in cough & chest mixtures to treat respiratory disease although not used so much today. It hardly sounds like an attractive, delicious plant to forage yet I am indebted to Euell Gibbons for this line of thought. He found that cooking fresh skunk cabbage filled his kitchen with “a thick, heavy and foul odor” and after cooking, it not only tasted as it had smelled, but it burned his mouth and throat. This did not vary with different specimens gathered over a 200 mile radius. He dried it and kept trying it at monthly intervals. It took 6 months of drying the root and leaves for the “powerful, unpleasant drug” in it to evaporate enough to be palatable. The part used in traditional American Indian medicine is the fresh, dried root. The Menominee Indians used a compound infusion of dried, powdered root to treat convulsions in children and adults, while the Iroquois used an infusion of powdered root for consumption and tuberculosis.

Is fresh best?
In this case it would seem that there is a window of ‘freshness’. Used completely fresh, and you are likely to experience the acrid, emetic effects very quickly. It appears it is best to use the root dried but within a few months. Anecdotally, perhaps after six months, some compounds have been lost – good for the forager but perhaps not for the patient! Although there is no scientific research to support skunk cabbage, here is an example of the importance of the passing down of herbal knowledge through generations. Hypothetically, one day we may learn of a powerful compound found in skunk cabbage that is only tolerated by the body after the biochemical transformation it undergoes on drying or else, derived without biochemical change, it may have ‘chemo-type’ side effects.

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioca

Stinging nettle can be used fresh, dried or cooked. It is a micronutrient rich, nutritious food commonly foraged and very tasty, However, it must be steamed or wilted before eating to destroy the stinging hairs on the leaves and stem. The hairs contain histamine, formic acid, acetylcholine, acetic acid, butyric acid and other irritants. Nettle seems to work by helping the body to block the activation of histamine receptors. Fresh or unprocessed nettle would logically be better for treating hayfever and allergic rhinitis (although nettle tea does also help). In the clinical trials with positive outcomes, freeze dried nettle leaf is used.  Ref: PMID 19140159 Alternatively, while topical applications of fresh, nettle leaf are used as counter-irritants to manage pain, a 50 g helping of cooked nettle leaf a day also helps patients manage arthritis symptoms. Gently pasteurised fresh nettle juice is also helpful in managing eczema.

Whilst nettles are very high in mineral nutrients, it is pointless trying to benefit from these in a herbal tea as most of the minerals transfer very poorly in hot water. Ref: PMID 21916535 and PMID 18666620 On the other hand, dried nettle contains an incredible amount of protein. A WW1 German report analysed nettle’s protein content for feeding livestock instead of the usual linseed oil cake. Linseed oil cake contains 35% average protein, whereas dried nettle has a protein value around 42% (fresh nettle 6.9%). So perhaps pressed nettleburgers would be a great addition to a vegan diet.

Nettle root lignans are hydrophilic (attracted to water) and are key compounds in its effectiveness as a treatment for BPH (enlarged prostate). (Also supported by its steroidal compounds stigmasterol, stimast-4-en-3-one, and campesterol.) Urtica dioica agglutinin (UDA) is a heat-resistant and acid-resistant lectin which probably induces T-lymphocyte activity, slowing the progression of BPH. Obviously the processing method here is vital if one compound is particularly attracted to water and the other resistant to heat and acid.

Duration of treatment is also an area that needs to be considered. In one clinical trial Ref: PMID 2192379, freeze dried Nettle was rated only slightly higher than a placebo in the treatment of allergic rhinitis (hayfever). However, this trial only lasted a week! Most herbalists will ask their hayfever patients to start taking nettle leaf at about a month before the pollens are expected to appear – in the UK this is typically in April. Managed prophylactically nettle gives excellent results.

Is fresh best?
It entirely depends on the condition being treated!

Fluid extracts v tinctures.

Once of our traditional herbal licence remedies is a combination of skullcap, oat, passionflower and vervain. The latter are all fluid extracts however, the skullcap is in twice. Once as a fluid extract and once as a tincture. Why is this? Perhaps because herbalists noticed that the effects of the fluid extract and slightly different to the effects of the tincture. I have yet to find out which components are released by each process.

This also occurs with Napiers Skin Soother Herbal Remedy for acne and eczema. It contains sarsaparilla, queen’s delight, red clover, burdock (fluid extract) and burdock (fluid extract). In one 5 ml spoonful there is 0.05ml fluid extract of burdock root extracted in 21% ethanol (equivalent to 50 mg of burdock root) PLUS 0.10 ml fluid extract of burdock root extracted in 17% ethanol (equivalent to 100 mg of burdock root). Now, this formula has been manufactured over quite a period of time and you would have thought that someone would have streamlined the production process as this is both costly and time consuming. So I can only assume it is there because there are qualitatively different results in the different extracts. I need to examine the process further – perhaps one uses fresh burdock root and the other dried!

Please comment below if you can shed any more light on this!

Herbal Power Juices – The Recipies

A “herb shot” for me is 20 ml in a 200ml glass of juice. Or around 30 ml in a 300 ml glass. All approximate as Paleolithic people did not carry a measuring jug around with them! I use 1 or 2 shots per glass depending on the taste of the plant and the effect I want to achieve. You can also dilute them. Goosegrass or nettle with lemon and ginger is very nice diluted with sparkling water – a sort of wild lemonade. For more on the benefits of power juicing click here.


Shot:  Clivers (also called cleavers, goosegrass or sticky willie. Use the leaves and stems)
Juice: Pear (or apple) juice
Dash: Lemon juice
Use:   Clivers (Galium aparine) is a great lymphatic tonic. It is alterative, diuretic and stimulates the lymph system and is used to treat conditions like lymphadenitis, tonsillitis, glandular fever, enlarged adenoids, tissue oedema and water retention. Historically it was considered one of the great ‘blood purifiers’ and used to cleanse a sluggish system to rid the body of “scurvy, scrofula, psoriasis, skin diseases and eruptions generally.”

Shot:  Nettle (Leaves – tops are tenderest, roots)
Juice: Beetroot (raw is tastiest but you can used cooked)
Dash: Ginger
Use:   Nettle (Urtica dioica) is diuretic (makes you pee more), very high in iron, and has an antihistamine effect. Nettle juice and nettle tea is helpful in managing a variety of allergic type conditions including hayfever, asthma, eczema and rashes. The root is also used to help manage the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia. So for men over a certain age, drinking nettle root regularly can help to avoid the urinary symptoms associated with an enlarged prostate.

Shot:  Sweet Cicely (Leaves, flowers, seeds and roots are all edible)
Juice: Apple
Dash: You choose!
Use:  Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) contains an essential oil called anethole (as does Fennel) which makes it a soothing digestif for the stomach and helpful in preventing flatulence! It has an aromatic anise/licorise scent and sweet flavour. Sweet Cicely is fantastic cooked with cabbage or brussel sprouts (to reduce the windy effect) and when cooked with tart fruit such as rhubarb or gooseberries where it provides sweetness and flavour. Dried leaves can be used in tea instead of sugar and the dried root nibbled instead of sweets. This juice combination is the guaranteed favourite of the day in our Spring workshops.

Shot:  Wild Garlic (leaves, flowers, bulbs)
Juice: Tomato
Dash:  Cayenne / Tabasco / Wild Mustard
Use:  Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is a member of the onion family. A milder form of garlic which is a well-known remedy taken internally to help reduce high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries The typical ‘garlic’ smell is caused by sulphur compounds, which have beneficial effects on the circulatory, digestive, and respiratory systems. Garlic (Allium sativum) is the most pungent and the strongest therapeutically.  This combination makes a tasty savoury juice. Wild garlic can cause stomach aches if taken in very large quantities.

Shot: Dandelion leaves
Juice: Carrots
Dash: Ginger
Use: Dandelion Taraxacum offcinale is a well know diuretic used in detox, weight loss and cleansing programs. Diuretics are also taken to clear sluggish conditions and skin congestion. Young leaves should be used as bitterness increases with age!

Shot: Mint
Juice: Cucumber
Dash: Ginger / Lime / Honey

Use: Mint Mentha piperita is a digestif that is soothing and calming after meals. Ginger also helps to prevent griping and nausea.

Shot: Parsley
Juice: Carrots / Tomatoes
Dash: Lime
Use: Parsley Petroselinum crispum is high in vitamins. It is used in Chinese medicine to reduce blood pressure. Parsley also helps the body absorb manganese, needed by the body to build bones, especially when eaten with shellfish and wholegrains. It also contradicts the smell of garlic so helps to keep the breath fresh if chewed after garlicky meals. Parsley, especially the seeds, contains apiole oil which is a diuretic and kidney stimulant. Another medicinal use is to stimulate blood flow in the pelvic area, useful for irregular periods and should not be eaten in large quantities by pregnant women.

These are just some suggestions. Experiment wildly!

I use a simple manual wheatgrass juicer because:

  1. It is easy to assemble, easy to wash, easy to transport
  2. It does not require electricity so it can be used anywhere
  3. It is perfect for high fibre ‘weeds’ that will tangle blender blades and burn out motors
  4. Everyone including the kids love turning the handle!!
  5. It costs under £30 (as of writing this)

So here is where you get The Lexen Healthy Juicer.

If you want to preserve your juices for an all-year round supply then consider pasteurising them.

Pasteurising Elderberry, Nettle, Cleavers and other juices

How do you make sure you have a year round supply of your favourite herbal power shots and wild juices? Pasteurising is the best way to ensure you can keep them without buying a second fridge, although they must be refrigerated once opened. If like me you love the sight of larder shelves groaning with bottles and jars, labeled with mysterious handwritten labels, then pasteurising your own juices is definitely for you!

Pasteurised fruit and herb juices can be made by heating the extracted, filtered juice and then hot-filling it into sterilised bottles. This method works perfectly well and is a lot easier to do in a domestic kitchen than heating or baking the already filled bottles! Ironically, I have found that elderberry juice pasteurises itself when the juice is extracted by boiling to make elderberry syrup. This makes a really rich juice that is excellent for cooking.

Heat the juice in a stainless steel pan* to 80-95 degrees C for 1 to 10 minutes. The exact time can vary according to the fruit. I prefer using a lower heat as I think that this preserves more of the beneficial properties of the juices. The length of time depends on the size of bottle that you are then going to fill. As a rule of thumb – and this has worked for all the wild juices I have tried – allow:

10 minutes at 80 degrees when filling 0.33 cl bottles (330 ml)

15 minutes at 80 degrees when filling 0.50 cl bottles (500 ml)

20 minutes at 80 degrees when filling 0.75 cl bottles (750 ml)

Check your temperature with a cooking thermometer and make sure you sterilise your bottles. It’s that simple!

If you do decide to go into small scale production, drill a hole in a stainless steel bucket and attach a tap (or two) to make a very effective bottle filler.

* A stainless steel saucepan is best as the fruit acidity reacts with aluminium. Although leaf juices are not so fussy it is best to avoid using aluminium as there is early evidence that aluminium contamination can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers.