Although echinacea has become very popular in the last few years, its potential has yet to be fully understood.
Resembling a black-eyed Susan, echinacea is a North American perennial indigenous to the central plains where it grows on road banks, fields and in dry, open woods. Commonly known as the coneflower, echinacea can be found growing as a wildflower in the prairies, the midwest states and as far south as Texas. Today it is grown as both an ornamental and a cultivated herb. Of the several varieties of echinacea, the three most popular are purpurea, angustifolia and pallida.
Health Benefits—More Than Just a Pretty Flower
The Plains Indians used echinacea to treat toothache, sore throat, wounds, mumps, smallpox, measles, and poisonous insect and snake bites. The settlers quickly adopted the therapeutic uses of the plant. Echinacea is now one of the top selling herbs in North America.
Echinacea is harvested for the roots, flowerheads, seeds and aerial parts and can be made into capsules, extracts, tinctures and tea.
Echinacea’s health enhancing properties include:
- immune stimulant. Because it boosts immune function echinacea root may help to fight colds, flu, and other illnesses.
- anti-inflammatory. The seeds and plant parts are effective in fighting inflammation caused by a variety of infectious bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, for healing wounds, and for relief of swelling, pain and arthritis.
- antibacterial. It can stimulate healing of wounds, burns, insect bites and skin conditions such as ulcers, psoriasis, acne and eczema.
- blood purifier. Herbalists consider echinacea one of the best blood purifiers. Research suggests that itss activity in the blood may have value in the defense against tumor cells.
- antibiotic. As a mild antibiotic, Echinacea may offer benefits for nearly all infectious conditions, including upper respiratory infections, the common cold, sinusitis, and staph and strep infections. It has been shown in animal and human studies to improve the migration of white blood cells to attack foreign microorganisms and toxins in the bloodstream. Studies show echinacea prevents the formation of an enzyme which destroys a natural barrier between healthy tissue and damaging organisms.
- antiviral. Echinacea aids in the production of interferon and increases antiviral activity against influenza (flu), herpes, and inflammations of the skin and mouth. It may reduce the severity of symptoms such as runny nose and sore throat and reduce the duration of illness.
The constituents of echinacea include essential oil, polysaccharides, polyacetylenes, betain, glycoside, sesquiterpenes and caryophylene. It also contains copper, iron, tannins, protein, fatty acids and vitamins A, C, and E. The most important immune-stimulating components are the large polysaccharides, such as inulin, that increase the production of T-cells and increase other natural killer cell activity. Fat-soluble alkylamides and a caffeic acid glycoside called echinacoside also contribute to the herb’s immune empowering effects.
When buying echinacea, freshness is important. Dried roots and powdered herbs in capsules can be old, minimizing their effectiveness, so look for fresh root tincture in natural food stores. A tincture is simply a “steeped” mixture of the herb in alcohol.
Since the early 1900’s hundreds of scientific articles have been written about echinacea. Most of the research during the past 10 years has focused on the immunostimulant properties of the plant.
According to a 1987 research paper by Brian Weissbuch, echinacea contains polysaccharides called echinacins, which bind to cells and prevent pathogens from invading. By protecting cells and preventing their breakdown, it “counters the spread of pathogens and reduces inflammation.”
Echinacea also impoves immune functions by “increasing the chemical recognition of an invading pathogen … The speed at which the immune cells migrate to the site of infection and destroy the invader is markedly increased.”
Weissbuch documents echinacea’s “enhancement of native interferon production” which blocks the “transcription of viral and cancer cell DNA, preventing further infection and malignancy.”
Herbalist Jeanine Pollak, of Santa Cruz, CA, explains this process in lay terms: “The immune cells devour things that are bad for your body before they can develop and make you sick. I think of them as little Pac Men gobbling up the bad guys.”
The American Botanical Council states that “echinacea may be of value for any infection, chronic or acute, but especially where there is not long-term immune deficiency or dysfunction.” Echinacea helps to prevent colds and flu when everyone around you seems to be sick. You can take echinacea off and on as needed during the winter to keep your immune system strong. Even if you don’t start taking echinacea at the first sign of illness, this herb can shorten the severity and duration of many common illnesses. After you start feeling better, don’t stop taking echinacea “cold turkey.” After your symptons improve, keep your echinacea intake steady, and then gradually decrease your dosage over several days.
According to Robert Rogers, BSc, AHG, Master Herbalist, the belief that echinacea should not be used long term as an immune stimulant has no truth. In fact, in the acute phase of rheumatoid arthritis, nothing is better. There is also historical evidence of using echinacea in treating tuberculosis and leukemia. Echinacea has been found, in conjunction with econazole nitrate cream, to decrease the recurrence rate of vaginal candida. Echinacea does stimulate fibroblasts, so avoid it in MS.
Echinacea has been the subject of over 350 scientific studies. In one double-blind study of over 24 healthy volunteers, activity of one class of white blood cell was bolstered 120% by using 30 drops of an echinacea mixture three times per day for five days. Even medical doctors are recommending echinacea to their patients. Andrew Weil, MD, author of “Spontaneous Healing,” says “I advise patients to keep echinacea around the house, to take at the first signs of colds or flu infection.”