Two hot herbal healers

Stinging nettle does not exactly sound like something you'd want to swallow. And if it's in its natural form, you'd be right.

But some people suffering from sneezing and itching due to hay fever report relief after taking this common weed freeze-dried in capsules.

As we travel around the world of natural medicines, we've heard a lot of stories about this herb, so we decided to see if these nettle narratives have been backed by any scientific studies.

What we found was some groundbreaking research done a few years ago by a naturopathic doctor. Paul Mitt-man, ND, who now practices in Enfield, CT, followed 69 hay-fever victims in a trial he conducted while doing a residency at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, OR. Half got capsules of the freeze-dried herb while people in the other half were given capsules containing nothing but colored sugar.

After just one week, 58% of those taking the stinging nettle said they'd achieved moderate to excellent relief. The placebo takers had only 37% positive responders. A bigger difference was seen in the answer to the question: Would you actually buy this stuff? In the placebo group, 18% said yes; in the real herb group, 52%.

These results sure seem to point in nettle's favor, so you'd think that someone would pick up on Dr. Mittman's lead and continue to do research in this area. Unfortunately, that's not been the case. This study is the only one of its kind. And, truth is, we need the results of more than one small study before making any conclusions about whether or not nettle works.

So what's a hay-fever sufferer to do now?

That's what our research associate Susan Smith wanted to know, too. In early June, she was taking antihistamines and decongestants twice a day and eyedrops four times a day. Still, her hay-fever symptoms were pretty bad, especially after her morning run, when she sniffed in heroic snootfuls of pollen. So she decided to give nettle a try.

The first few days, she wasn't too sure about the effect, but after two weeks she reported, "I've seen a gradual improvement. I've been able to sleep and breathe comfortably during the night. I've been running in the morning and haven't had to use any drugs or eyedrops." Was it the two capsules of stinging nettle she was taking--or rainy days that washed away the pollen? She couldn't be sure. All we can do is chalk this up as another anecdote to add to the nettle narrative.

If, like Susan, you'd like to try stinging nettle, Dr. Mittman offers the following tips:

First, begin with no more than one capsule a day. That's because some people may actually see their allergy symptoms get worse with nettle. (Fortunately, Susan wasn't one of these people.) After a few trouble-free days, you can follow the instructions on the label. (If there are no specific directions, Dr. Mittman recommends one or two capsules three times a day.)

Keep in mind that not everyone in the study found relief with this herb. If you're taking up to six capsules a day and they're not helping after a week or two, Dr. Mittman advises not taking any more. Chances are the nettle is not going to do anything for you. Our second herb this month is perhaps the best-selling herb both in the United States and Europe. It's called echinacea (ek-ih-NAY-see-a), or purple coneflower, and what it does is blow reveille for your immune system.

The interesting point is that echinacea reportedly works to help your body better fight both bacterial and viral infections. "A general immune stimulant like echinacea is something we don't have in conventional medicine," says Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, "so it really fills a gap." Curiously, frontier doctors learned about echinacea from Native Americans over a century ago, after which it was widely prescribed by both physicians and natural healers. During the 1930s, however, the medical establishment abandoned the use of echinacea in favor of more conventional drugs that were just being discovered.

In actual practice, echinacea is best used against relatively minor infections like colds and flu and ideally should be taken at the first sign of the sniffles or a scratchy throat.

"It should never be used as the only treatment for a serious infection, like pneumonia," emphasizes Dr. Fugh- Berman, who is the former coordinator of the field investigations program in the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

"With a serious bacterial infection, I believe in antibiotic treatment," she says, "though you could use echinacea as a complementary treatment."

The results of over 25 controlled clinical trials give researchers good reason to believe in echinacea's immune-boosting ability. But when it comes to figuring out how to use echinacea for specific conditions, they can't help but shrug their shoulders. Despite many published studies, questions remain about the most effective amounts and forms of echinacea to use for different infections. Like Dr. Fugh-Berman, we'd like to see some strictly performed research that would show just how good echinacea is, including its combined use with antibiotics.

Two tips: First, echinacea shouldn't be used on a continuing basis, because it seems to lose its effect if used daily.

Second, Dr. Fugh-Berman cautions that echinacea shouldn't be used by people with autoimmune diseases like lupus because an already hyped-up immune system is partly to blame for these conditions. Using echinacea to boost immunity further doesn't make sense. Check with your physician if you have any chronic condition.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Nettle, Urtica; Purple coneflower, Echinacea.

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By MARK BRICKLIN and SUSAN C. SMITH, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE

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