Here’s some bad news. Stinging nettles are one of the most nutritious foods on earth and if you want even a hope of having clear skin, you have to venture out into the woods and feast on them right now.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but nettle root supplements, nettle root tea, or even gathering and steaming nettles is surging in popularity.
Unless you’re completely consumed by the paleo diet, eating nettles is the last thing you want to do, but consider this principle. The more physical defences a plant has against large animals, whether it be a nettle’s sting or the thorns of a blackberry bush, the less chemical defences it needs. Such plants have less need for antinutrients and toxins which increase inflammation.
Furthermore, nettle roots are wild plants; they’re so common that any farmer attempting to sell them would go bankrupt pretty quickly. Wild plants rely on their own natural compounds for survival, meaning that they’re richer in minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. This principle applies to wild dandelions, wild berries and more.
Our question today is whether risking everything to feast on nettles can clear your acne. Among acne clearing enthusiasts, its main benefits are said to be inhibiting DHT and calming inflammation.
Is the popular perception correct?
The DHT mystery
Among all anti-androgenic herbs, plants and oils, nettle root is one of the most interesting, but that does not mean that it’s one of the best. There’s a bunch of conflicting evidence and mechanisms, which nevertheless reveal that some sort of power exists.
It originally started when scientists were nobly investigating prostate health, and discovered that nettle root was able to inhibit 5-alpha reductase activity. Another study examined 11 different herbs for their ability to reduce 5-alpha reductase; nettle root ranked in second. It’s these studies which have got hormone manipulators everywhere excited.
If the evidence stopped here, it would be promising for acne; inhibiting 5-alpha reductase inhibits the conversion of testosterone into DHT, since that’s what the enzyme does.
The result would be less of DHT’s effects such as stimulating sebaceous glands to pump out more oil and even causing sebaceous glands to grow. But there’s a massive spanner in the works with another power: inhibiting SHBG activity.
Sex hormone binding globulin is the protein which binds to and transports testosterone and DHT around the bloodstream. The more SHBG you have, the less active the same levels of overall DHT in your bloodstream will be. It was discovered in this study that nettle root is loaded with rare lignan antioxidants which completely cripple SHBG activity. The study analysed lignans in nettle root including neoolivil, secoisolariciresinol, dehydrodiconiferyl alcohol, isolariciresinol, pinoresinol, and 3,4-divanillyltetrahydrofuran.
Every lignan inhibited SHBG’s DHT binding with the sole exception of pinoresinol. Secoisolaricisinol had modest effects, while 3,4-divanillyltetrahydrofuran inhibited the binding fully. These lignans literally bind to SHGB in place of DHT, suffocating the SHGB molecules.
Meanwhile, a whole extract of nettle root in 10% concentration decreased the SHBG binding of DHT by a massive 67%. If repeated in humans, that could even double active DHT.
Bodybuilders and sportsmen got very excited about these lignan studies when they appeared a few years ago. The implications for acne are clear. There’s no reason why both powers can’t occur at once – they don’t contradict each other – but they do completely cancel each other out. It looks like the SHBG powers are actually stronger than the 5-alpha reductase inhibition, so the result could be a small increase in DHT activity, and thus oily skin.
But there’s a final flaw, and an obvious one: the doses. Simply that they were too high to achieve by eating nettle root instead of spinach, or making a nettle root tea. Two earlier studies on 5-alpha reductase from the early 1990s detected no inhibition of 5-alpha reductase, when using a much lower nettle root dose. Actual studies on humans using normal supplemental doses of 120mg thrice daily detected little change in hormone levels, in testosterone or DHT.
So to summarise: the positive and negative effects on DHT cancel each other out, while the doses that achieved these results were too high to be realistic in the first place.
How it compares to other DHT inhibitors
The smart person’s money would be on a very minor effect on DHT from eating real nettles or drinking nettle tea. How does it compare to more storied hormone manipulators? Saw palmetto is the classic DHT reducer, via its high stigmasterol content. It was found in this study to reduce DHT levels by 32% in a normal human supplemental dosage, thrashing nettle root.
Another one is licorice root, which decreases testosterone more strongly than any herbal remedy, thanks to glycyrrhizic acid. Licorice decreased testosterone by a colossal 45% in this study. A decrease in testosterone will inevitably result in a DHT decline too.
Just as important is that we know the exact mechanism and nature of saw palmetto and licorice – basic 5-alpha reductase and testosterone inhibition.
If you’re focussing hard on reducing DHT, then nettle root isn’t a smart bonus supplement for amplifying effects either, because there’s only so far you can reduce your DHT levels for acne anyway. It’s not like with phytonutrients in fruit where you can keep stacking up the acne-clearing goodness higher and higher. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: I only recommend lowering testosterone and DHT for women,