A Chinese Medicine Perspective
Peter Holmes, L.Ac., M.H.
© Peter Holmes 2004
The stinging nettle as a common weed needs no
introduction: it provides a delicious springtime green vegetable and is
an important traditional source of plant fiber for fabric and clothing.
Nettle is also a foremost traditional Western remedy, having been used
by physicians as far back as Dioskurides in early traditional Greek
medicine. It saw a comeback in the herbal Renaissance of the early
sixteenth century with European doctors such as Brunfels, Bock and
Fuchs, and later with Turner, Cole and Culpeper in England. Nettle is
the whole herb of Urtica dioica in the Urticaeae or nettle family. Its
pharmaceutical name is Herba Urticae (using pharmaceutical
nomenclature). Its traditional usage centers aound its ability to
restore and nourish on one hand (Schauenberg 1977, Mills 1978, Weiss
1985, Valnet 1983 et al.), and astringe and stop various discharges on
the other (King 1898, Lyle 1897, Fyfe 1909, Weiss 1985, Valnet 1983 et
Energetic Properties and
In terms of its toxicity category, Nettle is considered a mild remedy
that possesses minimal to no chronic cumulative toxicity. It is a
typical food-like herb alongside alfalfa, watercress, dandelion greens,
and so on. It may therefore safely be used over long periods of time.
The taste is sweet, astrigent and salty. Sweet
gives it the potential for tonifying in deficiency conditions involving
the Blood, the Spleen and the Kidney. Astringent allows it to astringe
the lower warmer to contain fluids, and astringe to stop bleeding and
discharge. Its salty taste can be used clinically to soften hardness and
The warmth/thermal quality is neutral.
However, it can also act as a mild heat clearing herb in the presence of
mild damp-heat in the lower warmer. The channels entered are the Liver,
Spleen, Kidney, Bladder and Lung. In terms of the three warmers (san
jiao), Nettle targets all three warmers, although it is clinically used
primarily for conditions of the lower warmer. In the lower warmer this
herb nourishes the Blood, regulates menstruation, braces the Kidney,
clears damp-heat and softens hardness. In the middle warmer it tonifies
Spleen Qi and stops diarrhea. In the upper warmer it stops coughing up
of blood and relieves wheezing.
These qualities and essential actions in
concert now provide us with grounding for a modern application of this
herb in Chinese medicine.
Clinical Functions and Indications
1. Nourishes the Blood,
regulates menstruation and promotes lactation
Nettle's most important function is arguably to nourish the
Blood in patterns of Blood deficiency, with typical symptoms of fatigue,
weariness, pale complexion and dizziness. Sweet, tonifying in property,
it acts like the Chinese classics Shu Di Huang (Rx. Rehmanniae
praeparata) and E Jiao (Gel. corii Equi asini), with two main
differences. Firstly, it is neutral rather than warming. Secondly, its
mild astringent quality means that it tends to eliminate damp rather
than create it, unlike both these Chinese Blood tonics. This can be a
clear advantage in patients presenting heat or damp alongside the Blood
deficiency. Similar Western herbs here would include Artichoke leaf (Fm.
Cynarae), Alfalfa (Hb. Medicaginis) and Chicory root (Rx. Cichorii).
Nettle also has a good reputation for treating
Blood deficiency in gynecological disorders, especially with
amenorrhea, late and/or irregular cycles, PMS and insufficient
lactation. Here the classic models are Dang Gui (Rx. Angelicae sinensis)
and Bai Shao Yao (Rx. Paeoniae lactiflorae), with which Nettle will
combine with no problem. Western combining possibilities include Red
clover (Fl. Trifolii), Rose (Fl. Rosae damascenae) and Helonias root
2. Tonifies the Spleen, augments
the Qi and stops diarrhea
With its sweet, tonifying quality, Nettle's second important indication
is Spleen-Stomach Qi deficiency. As a good all-round Spleen tonic, the
herb adresses chronic Spleen deficiency with general weakness, loss of
stamina, weight loss and loose stool. Three Chinese herbs are very
similar here, all being sweet, neutral and tonifying in property: Shan
Yao (Rx. Dioscoreae oppositae), Huang Jing (Rz. Polygonati sibirici) and
Dang Shen (Rx. Codonopsis). Western similars include Parsley root (Rx.
Petroselini), Rosemary (Fm. Rosmarini) and Jamaica sarsaparilla (Rz.
Covering its first two functions so far, in
Western terms Nettle is considered a metabolic and hepatic restorative, a
hematogenic and an adrenocortical, thyroidal and gonadal restorative
Nettle also has a good effect in chronic
diarrhea, and is especially useful when the diarrhea arises from the
patterns Spleen deficiency, Spleen turbid-damp or Spleen damp-cold. This
indication results from a combination of its sweet, tonifying and
astringent, stabilising effects. Here it perform much like the similar
sweet, atringent herbs Lian Zi (Sm. Nelumbinis) and Qian Shi (Sm.
Euryalis), or Tormentil (Rz. Potentillae) and Stoneroot (Rx.
Collinsoniae) among the Western herbs.
3. Braces the Kidney to contain
urine, stop discharge and stop bleeding
With its sweet, astringent quality, Nettle is traditionally also used
for its ability to stabilise and astringe, and arrest various resultant
discharges and bleeding in the lower warmer, like the herbs in the
corresponding Chinese category. This implies essentially a Kidney
tonifying function that allows it to treat Kidney deficiency with
chronic urinary and/or vaginal discharges, dysuria and chronic bleeding.
In this syndrome the herb mimics similars such as Lian Zi (Sm.
Nelumbinis), Xu Duan (Rx. Dipsaci) and Hai Piao Xiao (Os Sepiae seu
Sepiellae), as well as the Western options Buchu (Fm. Barosmae), Poplar
bark (Cx. Populi) and Kava root (Rz. Piperis methystici).
Nettle astringes to stop bleeding in general,
and therefore applies to a broad range of hemorrhagic conditions, incl.
menorrhagia, metrorrhagia, hematochezia and epistaxis. It can be seen as
a somewhat milder version of Xian He Cao (Hb. Agrimoniae pilosae), a
good all-round hemostatic herb. Other similar herbs from the West
include Lady's mantle (Hb. Alchemillae vulgaris), Shepherd's purse (Hb.
Capsellae) and Butcher's broom (Rz. Rusci aculeati). Nettle has also
proven very useful for hemoptysis, whether from Lung Yin deficiency,
chronic Lung phlegm, etc., as well as helping to control chronic cough
and wheeze in these patterns. The comparison must go to Bai Ji (Rz.
Bletillae) and E Jiao (Gel. corii Equi asini). Western similar herbs
include Horsetail (Hb. Equiseti) and Chickweed (Hb. Stellariae).
4. Clears damp-heat and relieves
Astringent, salty and entering the Kidney and Bladder channels, Nettle
also has the ability to treat damp-heat in the lower warmer or Bladder.
This despite the fact that it is generally a neutral herb. Nettle is
especially indicated with urinary irritation and strangury-especially
Blood, heat and stone lin-present. Che Qian Zi (Sm. Plantaginis) and
Dong Kui Zi (Sm. Abutili seu Malvae) (both also sweet) are the obvious
comparisons here, as well as Western herbs such as Cleavers (Hb. Galii)
and Wild carrot seed (Fr. Dauci).
5. Dispels wind-damp from the
channels and skin
Another solid traditional use for this herb is chronic rheumatic and
skin conditions, which in this context must be attributed to wind and
damp pathogens. Nettle therefore adresses wind-damp obstruction of the
channels causing chronic muscle and joint pains, like Sang Ji Sheng (Rm.
Loranthi) and Wu Jia Pi (Cx. radicis Acanthopanacis). Western similars
would include Celery seed (Fr. Apii) and Horsetail (Hb. Equiseti).
In patterns of wind-damp invading the skin,
causing skin eruptions (eczema), Nettle acts like Hai Tong Pi (Cx.
Erythrinae) and Xi Xian Cao (Hb. Siegesbeckiae), or possibly Cleavers
(Hb. Galii) and Burdock (Rx. Arctii).
In Western terms, Nettle has alterative and
detoxicant (depurative) actions.
6. Softens hardness and
This little-known use makes sense in view of the herb's salty taste
quality, which is related to its high content in minerals and trace
elements. With its softening function, Nettle can help reduce hard
deposits and nodules, such as urinary stones, gallstones and hard
lymphatic swellings. The comparison here two-fold: firstly with the
stone-expelling herbs, e.g. Jin Qian Cao (Hb. Lysimachiae) and Shi Wei
(Fm. Pyrrosiae); secondly with the phlegm-nodule treating herbs, e.g. Fu
Hai Shi (Lapis Pumicis seu Costaziae) and Hai Ge Ke (Ca. Cyclinae seu
Nettle is a mild remedy with no chronic toxicity and may be used freely.
The basic preparation for Nettle is the long hot water infusion (e.g. 20
minutes) or the short decoction (5-10 minutes). It can simply be added
to a formula just before the end of decocting time.
Nettle can also be given in the convenient
tincture form and is available as such from various suppliers.
The dosage is somewhat higher than average: 10-20 g for the long
infusion or short decoction; 4-6 ml for the tincture.
Nettle is equally effective in all its functions with the exception of
draining damp-heat and softening hardness, both of which are milder and
more appropriate for mild cases or children's cases. Nettle root (Rx.
Urticae) is another traditional herb whose main function is to stabilise
and astringe, and as such is also used today for treating prostate
congestion with hyperplasia.
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