Debunking the myth of stinging nettles and dock leaves

Image credit: Copyright by Kenneth Allen. CC BY-SA 2.0. The image shows stinging nettle on the left and dock leaf on the right.

It is the 2020 Corona virus lockdown and I am teaching online from home. Trying to keep things a bit interesting I am putting together small experiments to do at home. While thinking about possible experiments for the topic ”Acids and Alkalis”, I remember something I was taught myself in primary school. The sap of dock leaves is supposed to relieve the symptoms of nettle stings.

Me and many other children around the world were taught that stinging nettles sting because their poison contains acids. The sap of dock leaves is supposed to help because it is alkaline and neutralizes (cancels out) the nettle’s acid.

Perfect! I thought and was very excited to have found a great activity for the children. Finding stinging nettles and dock leaves and investigating their properties at home.

However, I did some further reading and quickly realized that I would not be able to use this activity.

The leaves of stinging nettles are covered in tiny hairs. When you brush against them their tip breaks of and they turn into tiny needles injecting the venom into your skin. It is true that the venom contains acids like formic acid oxalic acid and tartaric acid. Nevertheless, scientists argue that their concentrations are too low to cause any pain.

Today the bad guys of nettle stings are believed to be three compounds that are found in our own bodies as well. Serotonin, acetylcholine and histamine. Serotonin and acetylcholine are produced by our nervous system where they carry messages between nerve cells. But when injected directly into our skin, they cause irritation and pain. Histamine is probably the worst of the trio, causing inflammation and allergic reactions to the skin. The effect or nettle stings is most likely due to a nasty combination of all three. However, in some nettle species tartaric acid and oxalic acid are thought to at least contribute to a longer duration of the pain.

Now we know that the pain and itching of nettle stings is not really caused by acids at all. But what about the alkali part? Is dock leaf sap really alkaline? The answer is no. It has also been suggested that dock leaves may contain antihistamines to cancel out the effect of the histamines, but there is no evidence for this either.

The effect of dock leaves might simply by attributed to the sap cooling the irritated skin or a placebo effect. However, there is some evidence that dock leaves could contain a chemical that reduces the effect of serotonin in the nettle venom.

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