Echinacea is one of the most popular herbs used by people in the Western world and many people swear by it. However, a tour around what is written about Echinacea on the web can leave you a bit confused. There is no agreement on how to use the herb and how long to use it for. Some also question the effectiveness of the herb.
Well, for the many people who rely on Echinacea to keep them healthy and free from colds and flu each year, data from research published recently will be of great interest and reassurance that they have been right all along!
How does Echinacea work?
We have long known that Echinacea has the ability to influence the functioning of the body’s immune system. The herb has been used by herbalists to strengthen the body’s defence mechanism, protecting against invading organisms such as viruses in particular and also bacteria. The theory is that with a strong immune system, bugs are far less likely to overcome the body’s own natural defences, preventing us from catching colds and flu.
Well, this new research has confirmed that the benefits of Echinacea are not merely theoretical or in the mind. Scientists from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland set up a series of experiments to work out how Echinacea benefits the body’s immune system and came up with some very interesting findings.(1)
Firstly, they were able to confirm that using Echinacea can indeed improve the way the body’s immune system functions. Long-standing advocates of the herb will say ‘I told you so!’
However, what was most interesting was the finding that Echinacea benefited people in different ways. Those with well-functioning immune systems only saw mild or moderate benefits when using the herb. On the other hand, the scientists found that people whose immune systems were weakest benefited the most from using Echinacea – those who were under stress, overworked, or with a history of being prone to cold and flu infections.
So what does this all mean?
If your immune system needs help, Echinacea can help improve its effectiveness. However, it will not over-stimulate your immune system – this is one of the theoretical reasons why in the past, it has been said that you should only take Echinacea for short periods of time (ranging from 7 to 14 days). Research now tells us that this is untrue.
For those using Echinacea, it is confirmation that what they have been doing all along to support their immune system has been correct. In addition, this research indicates that regular or even daily use of the herb will not lead to problems.
For those yet to be convinced, this new research provides us with another layer of scientific proof that using Echinacea can improve the way the immune system functions – it is a key bit of research which helps us better understand how Echinacea works in the body.
For the career sceptics – well, in truth, I am not sure anything will help.
The 3 ways of using Echinacea
No matter what your opinion is of Echinacea, you may find it useful to consider the 3 ways in which herbalists use Echinacea. These are:
Prevention of infections – If your immune system is below par because of stress, too much work, worry or responsibility, poor diet or a combination of these factors, it is likely that you will be more prone to colds, flu and other infections. Using Echinacea can help to prevent infection by supporting the way the immune system functions.(2,3)
Staying healthy when others around you have the cold – We have all been in places we would rather not be in. In the tube, on a bus, at work or at a party and sitting next to someone who is coughing, sneezing and merrily spluttering away. No matter how strong your immune system is, you can lay bets that one of these nasty bugs will reach out and grab you by the throat. In these situations, Echinacea can provide ‘short term’ prevention.(4)
Fighting the misery of colds and flu – It happens to all of us at some point or another, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. If you do catch the cold or flu, research has confirmed that Echinacea has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties which help to reduce the severity of symptoms and help recovery from colds and flu.(5,6)
Choosing your Echinacea carefully
There are many types of Echinacea products available and it is sometimes difficult to know which one to choose. Do you simply go by price, or are you drawn to a familiar name?
The truth is, not all Echinaceas products are equal. Some are of poor or inconsistent quality. So how do you know which Echinacea product to take?
The UK law governing herbal remedies has changed recently and one way for you to know if a product is of good and consistent quality is to see if it is licensed by the Department of Health. In addition to this, the internet makes it so much easier for you to look ‘behind the scenes’ – how the manufacturer makes its products and what other people say about the brand you choose to use.
Remember that, if an Echinacea product does not do what it says it should do, it could be that the quality of the product may not be up to scratch.
(1) Ritchie MR, et al. Phytomedicine 2011;18:826-31
(2) Schoop R, et al. Clinical Therapeutics 2006;28(2):174-183
(3) Shah SA, et al. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 2007;7(7):473-480
(4) HMPC Monograph on Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench, herb recens, 8 May 2006, EMEA/HMPC/104945/2006Corr
(5) Sharma SM, et al. Phytomedicine 2009; doi10.1016/j-phymed.2009.10.022
(6) Brinkeborn RM et al. Phytomedicine 1999;6(1):1-5