Long used by Native Americans and consequently some early American settlers and doctors, echinacea fell out of favour with the advent of modern antibiotics. But it's fast regaining popularity as a safe and powerful immune-system booster to fight colds, flu and other infections.
What it is?
Echinacea (pronounced ek-in-NAY-sha) is a wildflower with daisy-like purple blossoms native to the grasslands of the central United States, where it is also known as the purple or prairie coneflower. For centuries, the Plains tribes used the plant to heal wounds and to counteract the toxins of snakebites. The herb also became popular with European-American pioneers and their doctors as an all-purpose infections fighter.
Of the nine echinacea species, three (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallid, and E. purpurea) are used medicinally. They appear in literally hundreds of commercial preparations, which utilize different parts of the plant (flowers, leaves, stems or roots) and come in a variety of forms. Echinacea contains many active ingredients thought to strengthen the immune system, and in recent years it has become one of the world's most popular herbal remedies.
What it does?
A natural antibiotic and infection fighter, echinacea helps to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi and other disease-causing microbes. It acts by stimulating various immune-system cells that are key weapons in the fight against infection. In addition, the herb boosts the cells' production of a natural virus-fighting substance called interferon. Because these effects are relatively short lived, however, the herb is best taken at frequent intervals – as often as every couple of hours during acute infections.
Echinacea can help prevent the two most common viral ailments – colds and flu. It is most effective when taken at the first hint of illness. In one study of people who were susceptible to colds, those who used the herb for eight weeks were 35% less likely to come down with a cold than those given a placebo. Furthermore, they caught colds less often – 40 days elapsed between infections, versus 25 days for the placebo group. Studies confirm that echinacea is also useful if you're already suffering from the aches, pains, congestion or fever of colds or flu. Overall, symptoms are less severe and subside sooner.
Echinacea may be of value in treating recurrent ailments, including vaginal yeast, urinary tract infections and middle ear infections. It is also sometimes used to treat strep throat, staph infections, herpes infections (including genital herpes, cold sores and shingles), bronchitis and sinus infections. Moreover, the herb is being studied as a possible treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS. And it may prove effective against some types of cancer, particularly in patients whose immune systems are depressed by radiation treatments or chemotherapy.
Echinacea can be applied to the skin as well. Its juice promotes the healing of all kinds of wounds, boils, abscesses, eczema, burns, mouth ulcers, cold sores and bedsores. To treat a sore throat or tonsillitis, the tincture can be diluted and used as a gargle.
- Reduces the body's susceptibility to colds and flu.
- Limits the duration and severity of infections.
- Helps to fight recurrent respiratory, middle ear, urinary tract infections.
- Speeds the healing of skin wounds and inflammation.
- Dried herb/tea.
How to take it?
Because echinacea contains in many different forms, check the product's label for the proper dosage.
For colds and flu: A high dose is needed – up to 200 mg five times a day. In one major study, subjects with flu who were given 900 mg of echinacea a day did better than those who received either a lower dosage of 450 mg a day or a placebo.
For other infections: The recommended dose is 200 mg three or four times a day.
For long-term use as a general immune booster: To derive the most benefits, especially for those prone to chronic infections, alternate echinacea every two months with other immune-enhancing herbs, including goldenseal, astragalas, pau d'arco and medicinal mushrooms. Echinacea teas, often blended with other herbs, are available as well.
Guidelines for use:
Echinacea can be taken with or without food. It should be used for no longer than eight weeks, followed by a one-week interval before you resume taking it. Some studies suggest that the herb's immunity-boosting effects diminish with continuous use. Starting and stopping, or rotating it with other herbs, may maximize its effectiveness.
Possible side effects
At recommended doses, echinacea has no known side effects, and no adverse reactions have been reported in pregnant or breast-feeding women. However, people who are allergic to flowers in the daisy family may also be allergic to this herb. If you develop a skin rash or breathing difficulty, call your doctor straight away.
- Buying echinacea can be confusing because it comes in so many different forms. Experts often recommend a liquid – either the fresh-pressed juice (standardized to contain 2.4% beta-1, 2-fructofuranosides) or an alcohol-based tincture (containing a 1:5 concentration of the herb). Those who dislike the bitter taste of the liquids can take standardized extracts in pill form. Look for pills containing at least 3.5% echinacosides.
- You may come across commercial preparations combining echinacea with an immune-enhancing herb called goldenseal, but the combination can be very pricey. For many ailments, echinacea on its own works fine, so you can skip the more costly mixture.
- Scientists are investigating whether echinacea may also be helpful in combating cancer. In a recent German study, a small group of patients with advanced colon cancer received echinacea along with standard chemotherapy. The herb appeared to prolong survival in these patients, presumably by boosting the immune system's ability to fight cancer cells. Additional research is needed to clarify the possible role of this herb in combating colon and other forms of cancer.
Did you know?
Echinacea contains a substance that makes the lips and tongue tingle when it's taken in liquid or herbal form. Look for this effect – it's often a good indication that you've bought a high-quality product.