What is it and how does it work?
Echinacea is one of the top-selling herbal remedies throughout the world. It is also one of the oldest. Not only has this healing herb enjoyed long popularity, it also has been the subject of much scientific research. Echinacea is a native American plant that was recognized over a century ago as a natural infection fighter. It is an immunostimulant, a substance that boosts the body’s immune system. Unlike traditional antibiotics that kill bacteria directly, echinacea works indirectly, killing the germ by strengthening your immune system. While the entire echinacea story is still being researched, there is some evidence that it stimulates the body to produce more infection-fighting white blood cells, such as T-lymphocytes and killer white blood cells. It may also stimulate the release of interferons, one of the body’s most potent infection-fighting weapons. Interferon kills germs and also infiltrates their genetic control center, preventing them from reproducing. Besides helping the body produce more infection- fighting cells, echinacea helps these cells to produce more germ-eating cells, called macrophages, and it helps these cells eat the germs more voraciously, a process called phagocytosis. Echinacea also prevents bacteria from secreting an enzyme called hyaluronidase, which enables them to break through protective membranes, such as the lining of the intestines and respiratory tract, and invade tissues. Echinacea also seems to search out and destroy some viruses, such as the common cold and flu viruses. Here are some questions you may have about this valuable addition to your home pharmacy.
Is there proof that echinacea works?
Absolutely, but the research is not well known in America. The best research on echinacea comes from Germany, a country that is far ahead of the United States in the scientific study of over-the-counter herbal medicines. Echinacea has been studied in Germany using double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, the gold standard for scientific research on drugs. In this type of study, one group gets the real pill and the other group, the control group, gets a look-alike dummy pill. Neither the researcher nor the research subjects know who has gotten which pill until data collection is completed and the data are analyzed. This kind of research is especially necessary in studying herbal medicines to correct for the well-known placebo effect in which even a dummy pill can produce healing effects because of the power of suggestion. A double- blind, placebo-controlled study has shown that echinacea users experienced less frequent and less severe virus infections (colds and flus) by one-third to one-half compared to the group that took dummy pills (which interestingly also reported a decrease in severity of flu symptoms).
Is echinacea safe?
Studies have not shown any toxic effects of echinacea. The occasional person may experience some G.I. disturbances, such as diarrhea.
How should echinacea be taken and what is the proper dosage?
When and how much echinacea to take depends on your individual immune system and the medical reason why you want to take it. Best to seek dosage and timing advice from a naturopath or medical doctor knowledgeable about herbal medicines. For example, there are conditions in which you wouldn’t want to hype up your immune system, such as illnesses presumably caused by an overactive immune system called “autoimmune diseases.”
Studies on the safety and efficacy of echinacea in adults suggest the following dosage:
- 300 milligrams three time a day for a total of 900 milligrams a day.
- The dosage in children has not been studied as much, but a sensible amount would be one- half the adult dose for children ages six to thirteen, and one-quarter the adult dose for children under six.
Some people take echinacea all the time to prevent colds and flu, and others take it just for a couple of weeks when they feel the first signs of a cold coming on or if they have been exposed to a contagious viral infection. While there is no scientific evidence that taking echinacea daily for months is harmful, theoretically, taking any immune booster for too long could cause it to lose its punch or could stress the immune system. Another theoretical concern is that any drug that tampers with the genetic material of a virus cell (as echinacea does) could also affect the genetic material of cells in the body or could cause viruses to change genetically and become more resistant and more virulent.
Because of these concerns, taking echinacea as a preventive medicine during the cold and flu season (two weeks on / two weeks off) may be unwise, as there is no scientific basis for this popular regimen. Instead consider the following:
- When you feel a cold coming on or have been exposed to a contagious virus, take echinacea for two weeks, then stop.
- When you are under stress because of life changes (positive as well as negative)–pressures at work or at home, travel, or any other situation that affects your emotional or physical health– take echinacea for a couple of weeks.
- When entering a situation that challenges the immune system, such as the beginning of school in September, entering a new daycare situation, or exposure to any other new group of people that increases your contact with germs, take echinacea for two weeks.
Feeding your immune system each day is one way to help your medical bills go away.