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Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), one of the world’s most popular herbal remedies, is also one of the most ancient in medical history. Also called Purple Coneflower, it was used for over four centuries by the Plains Indians for a wide variety of conditions, from the flu to snakebites. It was later adopted by European settlers and it remained a popular remedy in the pre-antibiotic era.
Since the 1950s, several research studies have confirmed that echinacea has remarkable immune-stimulating and infection-fighting properties.
How It Works
Echinacea has incredible capacity to support the body's natural defense system. Unlike most antibiotics, which work by killing germs directly, echinacea fights infection by revving up the body’s own immune system. It does this by activating key white blood cells called macrophages and Natural Killer (NK) cells.
Echinacea triggers a process called phagocytosis, which is the action your body takes to defend itself against attack from micro-organisms. It does this by activating specialized white blood cells called macrophages, prompting them into action against invading germs. A macrophage, which literally means “big eater,” is a large white blood cell that helps the body fight off infection by ingesting the disease-causing organisms.
Macrophages are the first on the scene when germs attack. Infected or damaged cells signal for their help by releasing chemicals that attract them to the infected area. The macrophages engulf and destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Once engulfed, the microorganism is killed by enzymes, broken down and then released from the macrophage as harmless waste material
How Phagocytosis Works
In addition to activating macrophages, echinacea also enhances their functioning, boosting their capacity to attack the invading micro-organisms
In a 1995 article published in the Journal of Alternate Complement Medicine, researchers reported on the results of 5 clinical studies on Echinacea’s immuno-modulatory properties. A key outcome of the five studies was that the herb not only activated the immune system but also increased the levels of white blood cells by 54%.
From the study, researchers concluded that Echinacea has significant effects on boosting the immune system, when administered for five consecutive days.
Their findings support an earlier 1989 study that found echinacea significantly enhances the functioning of macrophages, making them 25% more effective in killing microorganisms.
Natural Killer (NK) cells
Echinacea also supports the immune system by enhancing the infection-fighting ability of another type of white blood cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells. Like macrophages, NK cells are on your body’s front line of defense: they play a critical role in targeting and killing any virus-infected or tumorous cells. They provide a rapid response, and can act to contain viral infection or tumor formation even before the body’s immune system is activated (Source)
A 1997 study by the Irvine Medical Center found that extracts of echinacea increased Natural Killer cell activity in blood samples taken from 20 healthy persons, 20 with AIDS and 20 with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Echinacea is widely accepted as an herbal remedy for colds and flu, and clinical studies support its use for this purpose.
One Swedish research study in 1995 involved participants who were experiencing the initial stages of a cold. Half of the participants were given placebos, and the other half given tincture of echinacea for up to 10 days. The dosage was 20 drops in water every 2 hours on the first day, and then the same amount 3 times a day.
The average recovery time for participants taking the placebo was 8 days. For those taking echinacea, however, their recovery time was cut by half to just 4 days.
"The specific clinical signs and symptoms improved and in fact disappeared far more swiftly with real treatment than with placebo treatment."
An earlier German, double-blind study in 1992 found that a daily dose of 4 droppers of echinacea tincture (equivalent to 900 mg of dried root) decreased the symptoms and duration of flu-like infections.
How It Works
Michael Castleman explains that echinacea works by mimicking the action of interferon, one of your body’s most powerful infection-fighting weapons.
When a virus-infected cell is dying, it secretes a small amount of interferon that, in turn, boosts the ability of neighboring cells to fight the infection. Echinacea appears to work similarly to help the body combat viruses.
How to Take Echinacea
To fight colds, most herbalists recommend using a tincture or an alcohol-based extract, made from fresh herbs. This can be taken in a cup of tea or a glass of juice. In this video, Rosemary Gladstar shows how to make your own echinacea tincture.
More Ways to Take Echinacea
The Mayo Clinic suggests taking echinacea in the doses below.
- 500-1,000 mg of echinacea, taken three times a day for 5 to 7 days
- 6-9 ml of echinacea juice daily in divided doses for 5 to 7 days
- 0.75-1.5 ml of tincture, gargled then swallowed, 2 to 5 times a day for 5-7 days
- echinacea tea: 2 teaspoons simmered in boiling water for 10 minutes, taken daily for 5 to 7 days.
When taking echinacea as an herbal remedy, there is a period of initial stimulation followed by a period of immune unresponsiveness, usually past 11 days. As a result, for long-term use, echinacea is commonly prescribed for 10 days followed by 2 weeks of rest.
Taking echinacea may cause a numb or tingly feeling on the tongue, but this is temporary and it is not harmful.
Echinacea is a safe herbal remedy when it is used as directed. However, people with auto-immune conditions such as lupus or those suffering from severe illnesses like multiple sclerosis should avoid it. It should also be avoided if you have a hypersensitivity to plants of the Asteraceae/Compositae family.
The Echinacea Debate
The debate regarding echinacea’s effectiveness in preventing and treating the common cold has, unfortunately, become emblematic of the unfortunate divisions between proponents of herbal medicine and those of conventional medicine. However, echinacea has stood the test of time, and remain the most popular medicinal herb in America.
Mark Blumenthol on the Echinacea Debate
- Echinagard Treatment Shortens the Course of the Common Cold: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial
- Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis
- Foster, S. 1991. Echinacea: Nature's Immune Enhancer. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
- Results of five randomized studies on the immunomodulatory activity of preparations of Echinacea
- In vitro effects of echinacea and ginseng on natural killer and antibody-dependent cell cytotoxicity in healthy subjects and chronic fatigue syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome patients
- Immunomodulation with Echinacea - A Systematic Review of Controlled Clinical Studies
- The potency of immunomodulatory herbs may be primarily dependent upon macrophage activation
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.