King Sting: the Spring thing to make nerves sing and aches zing (and a little of everything from offspring to shoestrings to pissing).
It’s late spring and the time of year I chew a bit of wild mustard and spit to muster up the grit to encounter my old friend, Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). Most people are familiar with this plant’s many virtues: its remarkable influence to calm allergies, the ability to move water from the body by invigorating the kidneys and the intercellular fluid, its nutritional super status that is especially hearty as a brew for promoting healthy fertility/pre and post natal, the cordage and textiles one can make from the fibers, the ability to restore the land on which it grows, and on and on. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the kind of plant that will introduce itself to you. In fact, I say, it is the only plant that you can properly identify at midnight on the new moon.
Today my courage is not being collected for these common and harmless applications of the plant. It is for a lesser known functional therapy that this plant can offer: one called “Urtication.”
What’s urtication? It is the verb used to describe the act of taking a live stalk of urtica (the genus taxonomic name for nettle) and purposefully whacking one’s self (or another) to elicit the sting upon the skin. Why? For punishment? Atonement? (Well, maybe in some cases, and I’ll get to that, but not necessarily.) It’s for the medicine, especially valuable medicine for chronic deep aches and nervous system mis-alignment. As an herbalist I don’t usually open with this suggestion unless I really want to lose the trust of a new client. Imagine asking “Got anything for my knee? It's been sore for a year now.” and hearing a response like, “Hey buddy, why don’t you go take a hike and find a patch of nettles, and roll around in it. That’ll stop your complaining about your knee.” You see my predicament. I do want to make the best suggestion, but first I have to read the tone and exchange some pleasantries. For the sake of utility and the reader’s time, let's just assume we have established that this is not punitive, is not a practical joke, it’s just a reputable age old remedy provided by the Creator for cosmic chuckles only. And by the way, it’s really not that bad.
Here, let’s have a closer look.
If you saw this aggressive looking plant and guessed that those little hairs look like hypodermic needles filled with a cocktail of plant venom that will create a physiological response visible on the skin of which they came in contact with, then you would be absolutely correct. That cocktail of plant venom is waking things up in the body. Especially energetic tissue states that I would describe as cold, damp, and tense. Let’s explore that point first so we have a foundation.
A cold tissue state is one that has a lack of vitality. Think slow, deep. This is juxtaposed from a hot tissue that is fiery, sharp, acute. A cold ache is deep in the tissue, spread out, chronic.
A damp tissue state is one that is bogged down and sluggish. Things get gelly and stagnant, it’s difficult for energy and information to move through. Imagine you work in the back of the post office and your job is to put all the postage in the P.O boxes all day, but the floor is under 2 feet of guacamole and 1 foot of mascarpone cheese. That’s how damp tissues have to work too.
A tense tissue state is constricted and doesn’t allow the movement of energy outward. There is inhibiting tension in an axis, or just a general surface tension, or both. You can create this by making a fist as tight as you can for a minute. Soon the blood vessels will start to pop out and the other connective tissues up your arm will start to lose energy.
Some people have these patterns because of their constitution. An individual might be generally more cold, or constricted, or damp. This is also the pattern that our body wants to break free from in the Spring. Spring cleanse from the coldness in our bones, joints, periphery, and shiver in me timbers from the winter. Have a rummage sale while I’m at it to go through all that unwanted junk in the basement. (hey, interesting to find you here at the right time most of us will need you, nettle sting, very interesting indeed…)
What we get when the nettle stings us is the remedy for these patterns when they have become pathological. The sting itself is hot, sharp, prickly, and immediate. It injects histamines, serotonin and dozens of other unknown phytochemicals into the top layers of the skin that set off a chain of events like a fire drill in the body. In a minute or so there generally will be some little red blisters that rise above the surface of the skin. After another minute the sharp pain will be gone and what is left is a general tingling, maybe a slight itch. I like to think of it as singing, ringing. This is not painful, it’s just awake. The nerves are vibrating and it is apparent hours later. If I sting myself in the morning, I will feel this ringing when I relax in the evening, maybe into the next day if I did a good job.
Like nature, our body likes to develop habits to find the least resistance. In my head I imagine a city intersection that is under construction. There's a concrete truck making some new slurry to pave that will take some time to cure. Everything is slow moving, cars bumper to bumper, honking, merging from 2 lanes to 1. And I’m trying to drive to work. It won’t take long before I decide to take another route. If there is a cold, congested, tight tissue, such as an old injury, some old energetic pattern that is just stuck in the myofascial or musculo-skeletal system, then a friendly urtication will direct the energy of our body to acknowledge these neglected patterns and move pro and anti-inflammatories through these places so that they may be expressed outwards through the surface. It speeds things up. The sting takes stagnant lymph fluids and old cellular metabolites laying all over the place and tells it to clean up now. The fascial tension being held snaps and unwinds like a parachute.
The central nervous system is washed in the process. This is the singing and ringing and recalibrating and defragmenting. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s like a cold plunge, except with tiny stabby ice that is hot and melty. There’s definitely a rush. The reductionist will say the serotonin in the sting is what helps bring a pain relieving euphoria. They would also say that we’re just a bunch of chemicals sloshing around anyway. (as if a random collision of chemicals can provide a basis of truth, such a philosophy is baseless and self refuting. We might as well make fart sounds all day than attempt to communicate coherently with other bodies of randomly colliding chemicals) Well, it may have something to do with it, but when asked what is the makeup of the compounds in a stinging nettle stinger, the answer is “Science is not able to determine.” (Huh. Who is Science? Is he also a bunch of chemicals sloshing around?) Regardless of the mechanism, there is a charge of energy. I have my own little intuition about why the nervous system becomes lit up like a chain of Christmas lights wrapped around an evergreen tree. It’s not a fully formed hypothesis, but here it is. I have this idea that the nettle stingers hold a kinetic electrical charge from the earth that is discharged into the passerby. The shock is unique to each individual based on the local frequency charge in their body, and the chemical makeup of the plant can alter instantaneously based on what electrons are exchanged in the process. That is why “science is not able to determine” the chemicals, because they are unique and adapted to every situation they are in. That’s what occurs to me when I get stung. I can’t prove that, nor do I care to try, it’s just a fun thought experiment.
I invite you to try it if you feel drawn to this kind of medicine. Let me know what you think.
I have a funny nettle sting story. I was touring with my band in Europe. These were different days, rowdy days, blurry days. There was one especially blurry, rowdy night in a squat in Switzerland where I fell UP the stairs and put my head through a wall. I woke up the next morn..afternoon and found a large lump on my head, a big old black eye, and my glasses broken. Here’s the thing; at the end of our tour in a few days we would be in Italy where a good woman was planning a wedding with her family and friends to marry me, and fly away to another country to be with me forever. I had a deadline to get rid of this black eye and lump or else this will look very bad, I thought. I know what to do! The ticket was that I needed to find some stinging nettle and sting my face with it as often as I could. Remember, cold, damp, tense tissue states. A black eye, which is a bruise and collection of old blood cells just sitting there doing nothing, looking ugly. Damp tissue, swollen. And tense from the pain. I needed to stimulate that circulation, get that pain to calm down, and open up my nervous system to come back online from the trauma of the injury from being such a freaking idiot. If you have been to Germany you know that the gas stations on the highway make you pay to use the toilet. Being a broke (and broken) musician and herbalist, I used the opportunity to go out back to find a bush to pee in and a patch of nettles to whack my face with. It worked very quickly, moving that black eye into a regular flesh-toned smile in the wedding photos. (spoiler alert, she married me and lived happily ever after… so far). I’m not sure if it was negative reinforcement to keep myself from returning to that state of mind (I haven’t since) or positive reinforcement to learn this incredible virtue and how it can bail me out in a pinch. One thing that stuck out to me in the process was the friendship I felt with this plant. It was so special to have a familiar ally in another part of the world where I felt at times like a dense and bumbling foreign lumphead that won’t adapt to customs like paying a euro to sit down while peeing. I’m grateful to know nettle and learn from it more every time I work with it.
What a true friend indeed. That prick!