Here’s some bad news. Stinging nettles are among the most nutritious foods on earth and for any hope of clearing acne, you have to venture into the woods and feast on them right now.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but nettle root supplements, nettle root tea, or even eating wild nettles is surging in popularity.
Consider that nettle roots are wild plants; they’re so common that a farmer attempting to sell them would go bankrupt pretty quickly. Wild plants rely on their own natural compounds for survival, making them richer in minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. This principle applies to wild dandelions, wild berries and nettles.
What’s more, the more physical defences a plant has against large predators, like a nettle’s sting or the thorns of a blackberry bush, the less chemical defences it needs. There’s less antinutrients and toxins which increase inflammation.
Our question today is whether risking your sanity to feast on nettles can clear acne. Its main benefits are said to be inhibiting DHT and calming inflammation.
Is the popular perception correct?
The DHT mystery
Nettle root is among the most interesting anti-androgen plants, but not one of the best, because there’s a bunch of conflicting evidence. It all 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, and nettle root ranked in second. It’s these studies which have got hormone manipulators excited.
If the evidence stopped here, it would be promising for acne, as 5-alpha reductase manufactures all DHT in the body via conversion from testosterone.
By lowering DHT, nettle root would reduce sebum production nicely, and even shrink your sebaceous glands. But there’s a massive spanner in the works with another power: inhibiting SHBG activity.
Sex hormone binding globulin is a protein which binds to bloodstream testosterone and DHT, essentially deactivating it. This interesting study discovered that nettle root is loaded with rare lignan antioxidants which completely cripple SHBG activity. The lignans in nettle root included 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, leaving DHT to roam freely.
Meanwhile, a whole nettle root extract in 10% concentration decreased the binding of SHBG to DHT by 67%. If repeated in humans, that could even double active DHT.
Bodybuilders and sportsmen got very excited about these lignans a few years ago, but the implications for acne are clear. The powers can easily both occur at once – they don’t contradict each other – but they completely cancel each other out. The SHBG powers actually look 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, obvious flaw: the doses. They were simply too high to acquire by eating nettle root or making a nettle root tea. Two earlier studies on nettle root detected no 5-alpha reductase inhibition, when using a much lower dosage. Actual human studies using normal supplemental doses of 120mg thrice daily detected little change in any hormone levels, including DHT.
To summarise: the positive and negative effects on DHT cancel each other out, while the doses that achieved those results were too high to be realistic in the first place.
How it compares to other DHT inhibitors
How does nettle root compare to more storied hormone manipulators? Saw palmetto is the classic DHT reducer, via its high stigmasterol content. It was found here to reduce DHT levels by 32% in normal dosages, thrashing nettle root, which is weak at best.
Another 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.
Importantly, 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 secondary supplement either, because you can only suppress your DHT levels so much. It’s not like with phytonutrients in fruit where you can stack up the acne-clearing goodness eternally. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: I only recommend lowering testosterone and DHT for women.
Nettle root’s one usage, in very high doses, might be if every other DHT inhibitor mysteriously triggers acne somehow – making it effectively useless.
Does nettle root reduce inflammation?
Luckily, the story is far happier with its anti-inflammatory properties:
STUDY ONE – scientists fed a hydro-alcoholic extract of nettle to 50 male and female diabetics, and after 8 weeks, the pro-inflammatory chemical interleukin 6 fell, as did c-reactive protein. CRP is the main biomarker of inflammation in humans, making this an excellent study.
STUDY TWO – this study tested nettle leaf rather than nettle root, but detected excellent benefits. Learning performance of the rats improved, along with antioxidant levels. The best change was down-regulation of the inflammation master regulator, NF-KappaB, which controls inflammatory chemicals such as TNF-a and IL-6.
STUDY THREE – nettle root also reduces the allergy chemical histamine according to this study. Nettle can thus inhibit inflammation from allergenic foods like tomatoes or aubergines. Nettle decreased the activity of the actual mast cells which release histamine in response to allergies. Nettle also inhibited the inflammatory agents cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1), cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), and prostoglandins.
It’s particularly interesting that nettle suppresses inflammation by inhibiting COX-2. Painkillers like aspirin inhibit COX-2, so nettle root might be a natural painkiller and reduce your dependence on acne-causing artificial ones.
There’s some contradictory studies where nettle root decreased inflammation very little, but overall, it looks like nettles are mildly anti-inflammatory, despite feeling like the opposite when you fall into a field of them. A nice bonus for acne is a glutathione increase; feeding mercury to rats slashed levels of glutathione in their cells, but nettle restored them.
How nutritious is the plant for acne?
Pills like nettle extract remain popular, but thanks to the popularity of the paleo diet, people are now getting gloves or tongs, and actually steaming nettles or brewing them into tea. Nettles have a nutritious reputation as well, and for acne, they contain fairly strong levels of vitamin A, at 100% of the recommended daily intake per 100 grams.
Vitamin A is the top nutrient for preventing oily skin. However, despite sounding amazing, 100% is beaten easily by many non-wild plant species like sweet potatoes. The same applies to the 22% content of vitamin C.
The magnesium is the best nutrient for acne, with 14% of the RDI, thrashing broccoli and celery at 4%. It looks feeble compared to vitamin A, but it’s actually stronger given how hard well-absorbed sources of magnesium are to find. Nettle magnesium is well absorbed too, because nettles contain little to no oxalates.
There’s also 40% of the RDI for calcium. Calcium isn’t a special mineral for acne itself, but crumbling bones aren’t much fun and if you’re dairy sensitive, you need alternative sources.
The other big feature is nettle’s antioxidants. The profile is varied, with the aforementioned lignans like isolariciresinol, and tons of specific antioxidant types including quercetin, quinic acid, terpenes, violaxanthin, kaempferol, rutin, and isorhamnetin. There’s also small amounts of serotonin, maybe to make the nettles feel happy while they sting people. The precise ORAC score is unknown; the scientists probably all ended up in hospital.
Overall, the nettle plant is far from a pimple killing monstrosity. Its nutrition is strong but overhyped; its strong flavour and wildness make the hidden compounds it relies on for survival our best bet. For example, what else will those unique SHBG-binding lignans accomplish?
How to become a nettle-munching lunatic
If you develop a sudden urge to eat nettles, how do you succeed without entering a world of pain? The nettle plant’s sting doesn’t come from spikes like a thistle, but hundreds of tiny, hollow hairs lining the stems and undersides of the leaves.
Within each hair is a waiting mixture of chemicals, including histamine, acetylcholine, and formic acid. When you brush past the hairs, they immediately burst, exposing sharp syringe-like points which lace your skin with the swelling and painful concoction.
Luckily, cooking nettle leaves neutralises these chemicals and their sting. Since nettles require no oxalates nor defensive toxins, cooking them with the harshness of kale is unnecessary. However, you should boil nettles for five minutes to deactivate every last drop of poison. Cooking decreases the calcium and antioxidants, but only slightly, while the vitamin A stays fairly constant.
What about nettle tea? Certain health shops sell dried nettle in tea bags, and if you’re a heavy tea drinker, this is a great option.
Of course, you might want the thrill of finally conquering this annoying plant too. While picking, nettle lovers recommend that you pick nettles using tongs, but gloves are sufficient. The nettle hairs do not lose their poisonous properties once harvested. They remain on the leaves, so be careful. People have been stung through plastic bin bags carrying harvested nettles; they never give up.
The verdict on nettle root
Firstly, the DHT connection is weak and unclear. If you’re drinking nettle tea to combat oily skin, you’re making a big mistake. Licorice or saw palmetto beat nettle root with ease, as do DHT inhibiting topical treatments like sea buckthorn oil.
Meanwhile, the anti-inflammatory properties and nutrients, are interesting but nothing special. As a wild plant which you can harvest while enjoying the feeling of being a prehistoric caveman, dandelions are easily superior. They contain over 300% of the daily allowance for vitamin A and are extremely rich in antioxidants like lutein. Plus, they’re not waging war on humanity; they’re so easy to pick.
In the unlikely prospect that you love the taste of nettles, they’re fine to eat, and you can add them to meals if you’re a recipe maniac.
But I would only ever recommend supplementing with nettles for an experiment, simply because you have higher priorities.
Thanks for reading!