Echinacea, otherwise known as the Purple Cone-flower is that prolific “purple daisy” that we have all seen growing so vigorously in our North American highway ditches and fields. It belongs to the same family as the dandelion, sunflower and daisy. Native Americans used it in Traditional Herbal Medicine for upper respiratory tract infections, and even wild elk have been known to eat this herb when they’re ill. Today it remains one of the most popular ‘go to herbs’ for a lot of people when they’re fighting a cold and Echinacea has certainly been popular in health food stores since the ‘Hippie’ days of the 60’s and 70’s. People commonly claim that it helps boost their immune system, treat colds and flus and fight infections of any kind – even wounds. But does it really work or is this herb just incredibly popular because it’s been around so long? Well, let’s take a look at what’s actually been proven about Echinacea and what new discoveries are being made about this tall purple daisy.
From Hippies to Health Canada
Each natural health product sold in Canada has to have what’s called a NPN or Natural Products Number. Products receiving this NPN must have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of each ingredient in the formulation. Echinacea, as a single herbal ingredient, has been approved by Health Canada for the following claim: “Supportive therapy in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections (e.g. common colds, laryngitis). Helps to relieve the symptoms and shorten the duration of upper respiratory tract infections.” Approval of these two claims tells you that there is a solid body of good research supporting these statements. So, it seems that Echinacea is indeed the real deal – not just a popular hippie solution for your common cold. But can it do more than just treat a cold?
Researchers are Excited
With its ability to help in the fight against the common cold, Echinacea has obvious immune-boosting properties. It is, in fact a primary remedy for helping the body to get rid of microbial infections as it turns out that it is quite often effective against both bacteria and viruses. In fact, it can be used for infection just about anywhere in the body. Much research has been focused on this simple plant and researchers are excited to discover its multiple uses for a variety of health issues. It seems that Echinacea contains polysaccharides and phytosterols – important components which help to activate white blood cells and increase the production of interferon (critical for fighting viruses). Echinacea also stimulates the body’s army of macrophages which set to work destroying bacteria, viruses and possibly even certain types of cancer cells.
German researchers are learning that when ample amounts of macrophages are stimulated that they can engulf and eat up yeast cells such as Candida. This has important implications as so many people world-wide suffer from Candida infections due to the overuse and abuse of medications such as antibiotics and the birth control pill.
Current research is also demonstrating that Echinacea has the ability to speed healing and reduce inflammation and may be particularly helpful if applied as part of a skin cream for inflammatory conditions and infections such as acne. It has been compared to cortisone for its ability to reduce inflammation.
In the tropics, Echinacea is being studied as a weapon against leishmaniasis a disfiguring tropical disease. However, it may also be effective against trichomonas a common sexually transmitted disease caused by a protozoan parasite. In the United States alone, an estimated 3.7 milion people are infected with this tiny parasite. Regular dosing of a tincture of Echinacea during a research study reduced both the rate of growth and the rate of reproduction of trichomonas vaginalis.
Studies examining the effects of taking this herb to prevent colds or shorten the duration of colds have been mixed in their approaches and have been mixed in their conclusions. Generally, studies on Echinacea suffer from a lack of well-controlled trials. The University of Connecticut did try to combine the results of 14 previous studies on Echinacea and concluded that Echinacea can indeed cut the chances of catching a cold by more than half and shorten the duration of a cold by 1.4 days. Nay-sayers criticize the studies for not being similar enough and for measuring different outcomes. Proponents of Echinacea criticize a lot of the research for not using strong enough doses of Echinacea or for using poor quality herbal preparations. It seems that the best solution to this criticism is to try it out for yourself at the next sign of a cold. You might be very glad you did!
Echinacea is a very safe, non-toxic herb but it may cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to plants in the Asteraceae or daisy family. It also should not be used by those receiving immune-suppressive therapy or those individuals with autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis or Lupus) due to the plant’s immune-boosting properties. Anyone with a progressive systemic disease such as tuberculosis, collagenosis, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and/or HIV infection should consult with their healthcare provider prior to using Echinacea.
Who Can Take Echinacea? And When?
Echinacea is approved for use by anyone aged two years and up – including pregnant and breast-feeding women. That is good news for a lot of women who feel frustrated that they cannot do much for a cold when they’re pregnant or nursing an infant. It should be noted, however, that it is best to take echinacea at the very first sign of a cold or infection. It is appropriate to use it for an active infection but it is not a herbal remedy to be used as a “preventative”. Always follow the manufacturers directions for the correct daily dosing. Once you’re feeling better reduce your use of the herb and then stop – save some for the next infection that crops up.
Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea Pallida – Which One?
There are actually more than 40 genetically diverse groups of Echinacea but the three most commonly marketed species are: Echinacea purpurea, echincace angustifolia and Echinacea pallida. Each of these three species of Echinacea contain antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties and clinical data supports the use of the different species in a variety of situations. However, Echinacea purpurea is generally the most popular species used most often in the research and the preferred part of the plant used is the root extract. Be sure to buy good quality organic or wild-crafted Echinacea from a reputable producer. Tincture extracts are particularly effective because of their excellent and rapid absorption rates.
On Your Next Drive
The next time you drive down the highway and see those “purple daisies” waving in the breeze, give a wave back and say “I know you!” and give a nod of “thanks” for how they helped you through your last cold.