Echinacea: Crush the Common Cold with THIS
At first glance, this ornamental plant seems more suited to your garden than your medicine cabinet. It’s pretty pink and purple petals do make it a popular choice for home gardeners and landscapers alike.
It’s probably the last thing you’d think of when trying to quell a cough, sneeze, or sore throat.
This flower isn’t just for show, however. In fact, some studies suggest that it may be a real contender in our fight against the common cold.
But is it really as effective as proponents would have you believe?
And are the products on the market even reliable?
Not Just for Show…
Also known as purple coneflower, Echinacea is a perennial flowering plant native to North America. Today, it’s often used as an ornamental plant in gardens and parks. But its medicinal potential is much more compelling.
Echinacea has a long history of use by Native Americans, particularly the North American Plains Indians, who used it as a remedy for infections and wounds. In fact, they found its purported effects so impressive that they revered it as a sacred herb.
Soon, the settlers got wind of Echinacea’s possible benefits and added it to their own medicinal repertoire. By the 1800s, it was being marketed by alternative doctors as a cure-all, although the conventional medical community dismissed it as quackery.
Although Echinacea fell out of favor with American healers as the popularity of antibiotics grew, German researchers became interested in the herb, studying its possible effects on the immune system.
Today, Echinacea has seen a resurgence in popularity here in the US. You can find Echinacea even in most mainstream supermarkets, available as tablets, capsules, powders, tinctures, and teas, which are used to ward off colds.
But how does this plant-based product measure up in studies?
A Potent Immune Booster…
More than anything else, Echinacea is recommended for and used to boost immunity. But, contrary to what some people believe, it doesn’t appear to act as an antibacterial or antiviral to accomplish this. Instead, the herb seems to stimulate the immune system to fight infection.
Unlike antibiotics, which directly kill bacteria, Echinacea appears to make our own immune cells more efficient in attacking bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells.
Indeed, laboratory studies show that Echinacea activates T-cells, and increases the number of white blood cells and other immune cells. It also appears to activate an anti-inflammatory response, which could explain why it helps ease cold symptoms.1,2
Combating the Common Cold…
Yet when it comes to humans, evidence of the remedy’s effects are mixed. Some research is very promising.
For example, one study of 95 people with early symptoms of cold and flu (such as runny nose, scratchy throat, and fever) found that those who drank several cups of Echinacea tea every day for 5 days felt better sooner than those who drank tea without Echinacea.3
A review of 14 clinical trials found that Echinacea reduced the odds of developing a cold by 58% and the duration of a cold by up to 4 days.4 And another meta-analysis suggested that Echinacea might reduce the odds of developing a cold by 45%.5 In another study of a specific Echinacea extract, the total number of colds and total days with cold symptoms was reduced by 21%.6
But the results of other studies aren’t so impressive.
A study published in 2005 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Echinacea was no more effective than a placebo in preventing colds. It also did not reduce the severity of cold symptoms.7
Two studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also did not find any benefit from Echinacea for the common cold in either children or adults.8,9
Why the Discrepancy?
There may be a very good explanation for the confusing discrepancies between studies that have found Echinacea to be effective and those that haven’t.
See, these studies have looked at different types and strengths of Echinacea, as well as different parts of the plant or root. There are three varieties of Echinacea – E. purpurea, E. pallida, or E. angustifolia– and all variants have different levels of phytochemicals that improve the immune system. Many Echinacea preparations contain one, two, or even all three of these species.
Different products may also use different parts of the Echinacea plant, including the roots, stems, or leaves. But the chemicals contained in the root differ considerably from those in the upper part of the plant. For example, the roots have high concentrations of volatile oils (odorous compounds) while the upper parts of the plant tend to contain more polysaccharides (substances known to activate and enhance the immune system).
Some formulations appear to be better than others. Studies that found positive effects used a preparation of Echinacea purpurea containing a blend of the root and upper portions of this plant. If you try Echinacea, you may want to look for products that meet this description. Echinaforce is one such brand.
The recommended dose of Echinacea depends on the preparation you use: Take 300 mg of standardized, powdered extract (containing 4% phenolics) or 1 to 2 mL of the tincture three times a day at the first sign of cold symptoms until you feel better, but for no longer than 7 to 10 days.
A Few Words of Advice…
Watch for side effects which may include fever, nausea, vomiting, an unpleasant taste in your mouth, stomach pain, diarrhea, sore throat, dry mouth, headache, numbness of the tongue, dizziness, insomnia, disorientation, and joint and muscle aches.
You may want to avoid this herb if you have an autoimmune disease (such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis) or take immunosuppressive drugs, as it may increase immune activity. It’s also best to pass on Echinacea if you’re allergic to ragweed, mums, marigold, or daisies, since the herb can cause similar reactions.
As long as you stick with a high-quality preparation of Echinacea purpurea as outlined above, I would give Echinacea a shot. It may just be the weapon you need to win the cold war.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
3Lindenmuth GF, Lindenmuth EB. The efficacy of Echinacea compound herbal tea preparation on the severity and duration of upper respiratory and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Altern Complement Med. 2000 Aug;6(4):327-34.
4Shah SA, Sander S, White CM, et al. Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis 2007;7:473-80.
5Schoop R, Klein P, Suter A, Johnston SL. Echinacea in the prevention of induced rhinovirus colds: a meta-analysis. Clin Ther 2006;28:174-83.
6Brinkeborn RM, Shah DV, Degenring FH. Echinaforce and other Echinacea fresh plant preparations in the treatment of the common cold. A randomized, placebo controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Phytomedicine. 1999 Mar;6(1):1-6.
7Turner RB, Bauer R, Woelkart K, Hulsey TC, Gangemi JD. An evaluation of Echinacea angustifolia in experimental rhinovirus infections. N Engl J Med. 2005;353(4):341-8.
8Barrett BP, Brown RL, Locken K, et al. Treatment of the common cold with unrefined echinacea: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine.2002; 137(12):939–946.
9Taylor JA, Weber W, Standish L, et al. Efficacy and safety of echinacea in treating upper respiratory tract infections in children: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2003; 290(21):2824–2830.
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