Echinacea is taking the world by storm. It is currently the most popular natural herb in the United States. The plant’s name is derived from the word ‘echinacea’ is from the Greek word ‘echinos’ which translates into ‘hedgehog’. The unusual name refers to the spiny conical seed heads that form on the echinacea plant.
History and Health Benefits of the Echinacea Plant
The echinacea plant’s history can be traced all the way back to the Native Americans who used the plant for its many medicinal qualities. Archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans have readily used the herb for over 400 years to treat wounds, blood poisoning, infections, as a fever reducer, and also for numerous other ailments. The American settlers also learned to turn to the plant to treat scarlet fever, malaria, diphtheria, and syphilis throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It was only when antibiotics became readily available that the use of the plant declined. However, a resurgence of the plant occurred in Germany during the 20th century. Nowadays, a vast majority of scientific research on the plant has emerged from trials performed in Germany and the United States. The herb is thought to shorten the duration of colds and the flu, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. It also reduces the discomfort of pharyngitis (a sore throat), alleviates coughing, and lowers fever. It is also believed to boost the immune system which assists the body in fighting off a variety of infections, viruses, and other diseases.
A Perennial Plant that Grows in much of North America
A perennial herb, the Echinacea plant grows throughout the midwestern region of North America. There are three distinct species of echinacea commonly used as a herbal supplement and medicinal treatment source: the Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and the Echinacea purpurea. Depending on the product, it may contain only one species of the plant or several. Each one is believed to have different effective properties that play critical roles when combined to treat various ailments.
In its native habitat, the perennial plant grows in an upright fashion and bears pink or purple flowers. Each flower has a central cone that appears in shades of either brown or purple. The cone contains numerous seeds and is adorned with sharp spines.
Chemical Compounds of the Plant
The plant contains numerous chemicals such as polysaccharides, alkamides, volatile oils, flavonoids, and glycoproteins. Within the plant’s root system are very high concentrations of volatile oils. It is believed that the aboveground section of the plant, that is rich in polysaccharides, is the most beneficial from a health perspective. Germany has approved the aboveground portion of the plant as an acceptable treatment for upper respiratory infections, common colds, urinary tract infections, and slow healing wounds. The plant’s root system is approved as an effective treatment for flu infections.
The Many Health Benefits of Echinacea
Boosts Immune System: The University of Connecticut recently conducted a unique study on the herb known as a meta-analysis. The study combined the results of 14 clinical trials that involved the total participation of 1,300 patients. The research goal was to see how effective the herb was at preventing the common cold. An additional 1,600 participants were studied to see if the herb limited the duration of the cold. The study revealed that the chances of catching a cold were reduced by 58 percent and the duration of the cold once it was contracted was shortened by 1.4 days. This is believed to be a direct result of the herbs ability to boost the immune system.
- Anti-Inflammatory: In a study undertaken by the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada researchers found that when consumed, the herb causes the stimulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines so they can be reversed or alleviated. It is advisable that people who suffer from conditions that cause chronic inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, may benefit from a daily intake of the herb. The herb’s anti-inflammatory properties could also be one of the reasons why the pain of a sore throat and a stuffy nose are reduced.
- Eye Problems: The Nationa Eye Institute reports that the herb helps relieve eye inflammation caused by uveitis. Uveitis is a form of eye inflammation that left untreated gradually destroys the tissue.
- Cancer: Recent research was undertaken by the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the McGill University in Montreal in Quebec, Canada found that using the herb in combination with a non-toxic and non-immunosuppressive agent has great success in leukemia treatment. This research indicates that there could be great promise when using the herb to treat other cancers.
- Skin Problems: The herb has been used to improve a wide array of skin issues such as:
- Arthropod bites
- Inflammatory skin conditions
- Skin infections
How to Take Echinacea
You should never give your child any herbal preparation without first consulting with your child’s pediatrician to determine the safety and exact dosage. Many physicians advise against using herbal remedies on children but others embrace the idea. If you opt to use a preparation for your child then you should only use alcohol-free products.
To stimulate the immune system to effectively battle upper respiratory tract infections, colds, flu, or urinary tract infections you can use the following forms.
- 1 to 2 grams of herb or dried root in tea form
- 2 to 3 mL of tincture extract
- 6 to 9 mL of expressed juice
- 1:5 Tincture should be 1 to 3 mL (which is about 20 to 90 drops)
- 300 mg powdered extract
- 75 mL (which is 15 to 23 drops) of stabilized fresh extract
All of the above dosages can be taken three times per day for seven to 10 days. Herbal creams or ointments can be applied directly to a wound as needed until the area heals.
Precautions When Taking Echinacea
For centuries natural healers have turned to echinacea to boost the body’s function and treat diseases. However, it is undeniable that the herb contains active substances which may cause some side effects in users. The chemical properties of the plant could interact with medications, herbs, and supplements. Great care should be taken when using this herb if you suffer from certain underlying health conditions such as tuberculosis, diabetes, leukemia, liver disorders, connective tissue disorders, multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS or any autoimmune diseases.
It is believed by some that the herb suppresses the effectiveness of certain medication. Prior to taking the natural supplement, you should always talk to your physician to make sure it is safe to use if you are currently taking prescription medications.
The herb is available in various forms such as extracts, tablets, tinctures, ointments, and capsules. It is also sometimes sold in combination with other health-enhancing herbs to more readily fight various health problems. Unfortunately, not all herbal products are created the same. Studies have revealed that the purity of numerous nutritional products is often not as stated on the product’s label. In fact, some brands contain no active ingredients whatsoever. Many brands are mislabeled and some simply lack a sufficient quality of active ingredients to prove effective.
Such concerns in product purity drive home the fact that consumers must be savvy and only buy products from reputable companies. Ideally, the herbal supplement should be guaranteed for potency, tested by an independent laboratory, and made from only top-shelf-herbs.
Some individuals may suffer from allergic reactions to the herbal supplement. Allergy symptoms range from a simple rash to anaphylaxis shock (a life-threatening reaction that features throat closure, shortness of breath, and fainting). People with allergies or asthma should be very cautious about using the herb. If you are allergic to any plant in the daisy family (compositae) you must avoid taking the supplement without first consulting with your physician.
- On rare occasions, certain people may develop erythema nodosum, which is a very painful skin condition that often occurs in flu sufferers who take the supplement.
- Some users report a numbing and tingling of the tongue when taking the herbal orally.
- There has been one report of an individual developing erythema nodosum (a painful skin condition) after taking echinacea to treat the flu.
- When taken by mouth, echinacea may cause temporary numbing and a slight tingling on the tongue.
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding then you should consult with your physician prior to taking the supplement.
Interactions that May Occur
If you are taking the following medication then you should abstain from using echinacea unless advised to use the herbal supplement by your physician.
- Econazole: Some people use the herb in combination with econazole, an antifungal medication, to treat yeast infections. When taking in conjunction with the antifungal medication may people report a reduced recurrence rate.
- Immunosuppressants: Immunosuppressants are often used to treat cancer or to suppress the immune system after a person undergoes an organ transplant. Echinacea enhances the immune function so it contradicts immunosuppressive medications and should be avoided by patients taking such pharmaceuticals.