Tiny stingers in this nettle provide microinjections of chemicals that can help relieve arthritis.
PHOTO: DAVID CAVAGNARO
Learn how to use these natural remedies for arthritis pain.
Back in the good old days, I played bass fiddle in a a five-member band. At that time, three of our band members or their relatives were using an herb known as stinging nettle to relieve arthritis pain. Although stinging nettle does cook up into a tasty vegetable, these musicians weren't eating it. Rather, they were stinging themselves with it by grasping the plant in a gloved hand and then swatting their stiff, swollen joints.
This practice, called urtication — from nettle's botanical name, Urtica dioca — dates back at least 2,000 years. Although it's an odd-sounding practice, there's no escaping the fact that it's been around so long precisely because it helps so many people.
Our banjo player kept a plant in his kitchen so he could self-urticate when his arthritis flared up. The guitar player's mother-in-law was unable to write because of arthritis in her hands, but the sting of the nettle improved that. The fiddle player's mother soon had stinging nettle taking over her garden and said her arthritis was much improved.
Just so you don't think that urtication is something only crazy musicians indulge in, my former secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) kept a nettle plant in the office. She would use the nettle to discreetly sting herself when arthritis stiffened her fingers. On a before-and-after photocopied image of her hand, you could see how the swelling went down.
Urtication often provides considerable relief, sometimes very quickly. I've seen arthritic swelling subside within minutes after the stings were administered.
The Case for Stinging Nettle
I'm open to the notion that stinging nettle's anti-arthritis action is based on distraction, meaning the irritation of the sting simply takes people's minds off their arthritis pain. That's an explanation you might hear from medical doctors. But as a botanist, I think what's going on is more chemical than psychological.
The tiny stingers of the nettle plant provide microinjections of several chemicals responsible for the stinging sensation the plant causes. One M.D. told me many of these chemicals might also trigger anti-inflammation action that would help relieve arthritis. The sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation.
On every continent where it grows, stinging nettle has developed a reputation as a treatment for arthritis. I don't think that's a coincidence. If you'd like to give urtication a try, you shouldn't have much problem locating a plant. It's a common weed throughout most of the United States. If you're not sure how to identify it, someone who works at a plant nursery or your local county agricultural extension agent should be able to help.
Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis
Arthritis literally means "joint inflammation." According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are more that 100 different diseases that produce joint pain and inflammation — everything from the flu to certain cancers. But when people say "arthritis," they usually mean osteoarthritis.
Also known as degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis is the most prevalent of more than a dozen different kinds of arthritis. Some 16 million Americans have it. The hips, knees, spine and tiny joints of the hands and feet are most frequently affected. Osteoarthritis usually develops gradually, beginning with minor aches that eventually lead to extended pain, stiffness, swelling and limited range of motion. Symptoms sometimes, but not always, subside with gentle physical activity.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), another form of arthritis, has a nasty reputation because it can cause crippling joint deformity. But many of the 2.1 million Americans with RA — approximately 75 percent of whom are women — have milder, non-crippling cases that flare up and subside mysteriously.
Frequently both hands are affected, but RA can strike other joints, as well. In addition to joint pain, swelling and warmth, possible symptoms include fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, enlarged lymph nodes, lumps under the skin and muscle stiffness after sleep or inactivity. Stiffness usually subsides with moderate activity.
Green Pharmacy for Arthritis
Along with stinging nettle, there are a number of other natural remedies for arthritis pain that can help.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale), and turmeric (Curcuma longo). I con sider these the herbal alternative to the new drugs Celebrex and Vioxx. In one study, Indian researchers gave three to seven grams (1 1/2 to 3 1//2 teaspoons) of ginger a day to 18 people with osteoarthritis and 28 with rheumatoid arthritis. More than 75 percent of those participating in the study reported at least some relief from pain and swelling. Even after more than two years of taking these high doses of ginger, none of the people reported side effects. Turmeric contains close chemical relatives of compounds found in ginger, so I'm not surprised this herb also has a major reputation as an arthritis treatment.
You can enjoy both herbs in a wide variety of spicy dishes, as well as using them for teas.
Pineapple (Ananas Comosus). Some intriguing research suggests bromelain, a chemical in pineapple, helps prevent inflammation. For some time now, athletic trainers have been recommending pineapple to athletes to prevent and treat sports injuries. It's also a good bet for people with arthritis. Bromelain can help the body get rid immune antigen complex, compounds that are implicated in some arthritis conditions. It also helps digest fibrin, another compound suspected of being involved in some types of arthritis. If you need an excuse to indulge yourself with fresh, ripe pineapple, this is it.
Red Pepper (Capsicum, various species). Red pepper causes some pain on the tongue but ironically interferes with pain perception elsewhere around the body. The pain-relieving chemical in red pepper, capsaicin, triggers the body to release endorphins, nature's own opiates. Red pepper also contains aspirin-like compounds known as salicylates.
You can make a tea by mixing red pepper into water, but it would be a whole lot more pleasurable to have your red pepper cooked in a variety of spicy dishes. For a quick hit, try a splash of hot-pepper sauce in tomato juice. Just biting into a hot pepper releases some of your own painkillers into your body.
Compounds in red pepper can also help relieve arthritis when you apply the herb to the skin. Researchers have discovered you'll get significant pain relief if you apply capsaicin cream directly to painful arthritic joints four times daily. In one study of this treatment, the capsaicin cream reduced RA pain by more than half. Osteoarthritis pain was reduced by about one third.
Look for capsaicin in the ingredient list of over-the-counter pain creams such as Zostrix and Capzasin-P or ask your doctor for a prescription capsaicin product. If you use capsaicin cream, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward: You don't want to get it in your eyes or other tender places. Some people are quite sensitive to this compound, so test it on a small area of skin to make sure that it's OK for you to use. If it irritates your skin, don't use it.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). Beyond stinging painful joints, there's another method of using this herb to treat arthritis: steaming the fresh leaves and enjoying then as a vegetable. Although you have to wear gloves to harvest the leaves, they lose their sting when cooked.
The Rheumatoid Disease Foundation suggests that three milligrams of boron daily may be helpful in treating both os teo- and rheumatoid arthritis. An analysis of stinging nettle provided by USDA scientists shows this herb contains 47 parts per million of the mineral boron, figured on a dry-weight basis. That means a 100-gram serving of stinging nettle — easily prepared by steaming several ounces of young, tender leaves — could contain more than the recommended amount of boron.
According to the Rheumatoid Disease Foundation, boron is effective because it plays a role in helping bones retain calcium. It also has a beneficial influence on the body's hormonal system, and hor mones play a role in helping the body maintain healthy bones and joints.
Celery seed. Since I wrote The Green Pharmacy several years ago, I have not had a single attack of gout, one especially painful type of arthritis. I started taking celery seed when I read it helps lower levels of uric acid — the gout culprit. In my database at the USDA I found there are nearly two dozen antiinflammatory compounds in celery, including one very important "miracle aspirin" called apigenin. I now enjoy curried celery when I'm not on the road, celery seed extracts when I am. And celery or serendipity has prevented my gout for more than six years now. (Knock my wooden leg.)
Brazil nut (Bertholettia excelsa) and sunflower (Helianthus annus). SAM is shorthand for S-adenosyl-methionine, a chemical shown to have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties similar to those found in the over-the-counter medication ibuprofen.
SAM can be found in high-methionine seeds and Brazil nuts. It would take 250 grams of sunflower seeds (about 9 ounces) of 500 grams of Brazil nuts (18 ounces) to provide a dose of SAM that's more effective than a standard dose of ibuprofen. It's not feasible to eat that many nuts and seeds, but every little bit helps, especially if you use the other natural approaches this article recommends.
Go ahead and sprinkle some sunflower seeds on your salad. And when you're nibbling mixed nuts in company, don't apologize for monopolizing the Brazil nuts.
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea) and other herbs containing glutathione. Studies indicate people who are low in the antioxidant compound glutathione are more likely to have arthritis than those who have higher amounts. Vegetables rich in glutathione include asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes and purslane. Fruits with healthy amounts include avocados, grapefruit, oranges, peaches and watermelon.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary was known in antiquity as the herb of remembrance, which is fitting, since rosemary has antioxidants that help prevent aging in cells, and the aging process is certainly associated with memory loss. One Greek American herb grower tells how her fishing relatives set out to sea with fish dishes heavily covered with rosemary. Even when it was unrefrigerated, this food lasted for days, thanks in part to the antioxidant activity of the rose mary.
Can an herb that keeps fish from spoiling help preserve your youth? The jury is still out on that one, but rosemary has preservative powers comparable to the commercial preservatives BHA and BHT. And since we know that antioxidants do help treat arthritis, it makes sense that this antioxidant-rich herb would help thwart this disease.
Vitamin C inhibits the progression of osteoarthritis in guinea pigs. Does it work in humans? There's no proof yet that it does. But it certainly can't hurt to get more vitamin C. Red pepper and many of the other herbs and vegetables mentioned in this chapter contain good amounts.
Look for more excerpts from James Duke's The Green Pharmacy in future issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. One of the world's leading authorities on herbal healing, Duke is author of The Green Pharmacy Anti-Aging Prescriptions (Rodale Press). Active in rain forest preservation, he regularly leads eco-tours in the Amazon. Contact him at jduke @ fathernaturesfarmacy.com.
Dr. Duke's Arthritis Broth Recipe
To make this broth, begin with a couple of cups of water and add red pepper, burdock, black pepper, celery seed, dandelion, garlic, ginger, horseradish, juniper, lemongrass, oregano, parsley, sarsaparilla, thyme, turmeric, valerian, watercress, white mustard and willow bark. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a few minutes.
I confess I have never made this broth in its entirety. I just opportunistically seize any of these ingredients that are near at hand. If you press me for a recipe, I'd say use four dashes each of burdock, dandelion, parsley, turmeric and watercress; two dashes of celery seed, garlic, ginger and oregano; and one dash each of the others, as available. If this is too spicy for you, alter the recipe to suit your taste.
Multimint Antioxidant Arthritis Tea
Rosemary and oregano are both antioxidant mints. Add several more antioxidant herbs to these two, and you get my Multimint Antioxidant Tea.The mints are basil, bee balm, horehound, hyssop, lemon balm (also known as melissa), marjoram, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, sage, savory, spearmint and thyme. It makes sense to top it off with a dash of ginger and turmeric. Many of these mints are loaded with not one but several COX-2-inhibitors. Oregano has more COX 2-inhibiting rosmarinic acid than rosemary itself.
I checked my database to see if, in addition to their antioxidant value, any of these herbs contain proven anti-arthritis compounds. Sure enough, basil had five, while marjoram, oregano and rosemary weighed in with a few each. How much of each herb should you use to make this tea? My teas are never the same; I use a little of this and a little of that. To satisfy people who need recipes, I'll say use two parts of the ingredients you like and one part of those you find less appealing. Pour boiling water over the herbs and let them steep for 10 to 20 minutes before drinking.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare). Studies are accumulating that the pizza herb, oregano, is a powerful antioxidant. Like other antioxidants contained in fruits and vegetables, the compounds in oregano may help prevent the cell damage caused by free radicals - highly unstable oxygen molecules that steal elec trons from other molecules they encounter. Free radical reactions are probably involved in inflammation, degenerative arthritis and the aging process in general. And evidence is accumulating that an tioxidants may help relieve osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
In a test of nearly 100 plants in the mint family, of which oregano is a member, the pizza herb was the one that had the greatest total antioxidant activity. Research has shown the antioxidant activity of oregano and other medicinal mints is due in large part to rosmarinic acid, a compound with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral properties. Considering how highly it ranks for this kind of protection, oregano is definitely worth adding to your pizza, or any other food, if you have arthritis. You could also try my Multimint Antioxidant Arthritis Tea (see recipe at the end of this article).
Willow (Salix, various species), garlic (Album sativum) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Willow bark was the original herbal aspirin. It contains a chemical called salicin, which Bayer eventually transformed into little white tablets of acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin.
Willow bark tea had pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects similar to those of aspirin. But because the irritation-causing ingredient in aspirin is diluted in tea, you'll have less risk of stomach upset, ulcer and overdose if you take the tea instead of the pills.
Still, because willow bark might upset your stomach, I've included licorice in this formula. Not only does licorice have antiinflammatory effects, it may also help treat any gastrointestinal problems caused by the willow.
But the formula is not quite complete without garlic. While long-term use or ingestion of large amounts of licorice can raise some people's blood pressure and lead to other problems (headache, lethargy, sodium and water retention, excessive loss of potassium), garlic helps reduce blood pressure.
So here's the formula for a well-balanced anti-arthritis tea: approximately three parts dried willow bark, two parts dried licorice root and one part minced garlic. Pour boiling water over the mixture and steep for about 15 minutes. If you don't like the taste, add lemon and/or honey, plus ginger and turmeric to taste.
Arthritis Soup Recipe
Here's one for people who like quantitative recipes.
Start by combining the main ingredients, then season them with dashes of any of the spices and flavors that appeal to you. You don't need all of every one of these, and you can play with the proportions and flavors, if you like. If an ingredient doesn't appeal to you or is unavailable, simply leave it out.
3-4 quarts water
2 cups chopped cabbage
1 cup sliced string beans (1-inch pieces)
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup stinging nettle leaves 1/2 cup diced carrot cup
1/2 chopped asparagus
1/2 cup dandelion leaves
1/2 cup finely chopped dandelion root
1/4 cup chopped spinach
1/4 cup cubed eggplant
1/4 cup chopped chicory
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons licorice
2 tablespoons evening primrose seeds
Ground black pepper
Ground red pepper
Place the water in a large soup pot. Add the cabbage, beans, celery, nettle, carrots, asparagus, dandelion leaves, dandelion root, spinach, eggplant, chicory, garlic, turmeric, licorice and evening primrose seeds. Season with the black pepper, red pepper, mustard, flaxseed, sarsaparilla, fenugreek and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.