Echinacea: Health Benefits, Uses, Research

Echinacea is a very popular herb and people commonly take it to help combat flu and colds. It is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family – Asteraceae. It is also known as the American coneflower.

Echinacea was commonly used by Native Americans for hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers, settlers, and colonizers. It is endemic to eastern and central North America and thrives in moist to dry prairies and open woodlands.

By the early 1800s Echinacea became a popular herbal remedy among those who had settled in the USA, and soon became commonly used in Europe as well. It became much more popular after research was carried out on it in Germany in the 1920s.

Echinacea is available OTC (over the counter) at pharmacies, health shops and supermarkets as teas, liquid extracts, a dried herb, and as capsules or tablets.

Promoters of Echinacea say that the herb encourages the immune system and reduces many of the symptoms of colds, flu and some other illnesses, infections, and conditions.

Echinacea is a perennial plant, it lasts for many years. It is approximately from 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 centimeters) tall when mature. It is slightly spiky and has large purple to pink flowers, depending on the species. The center of the flower has a seed head (cone), which is also spiky and dark brown to red in color.

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Echinacea purpurea.

Three species of Echinacea are used as herbal remedies:

  • Echinacea Angustifolia – Narrow-leaf Coneflower
  • Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
  • Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower, Eastern Purple Coneflower

Active substances in Echinacea

Echinacea has a complex mix of active substances, some of which are said to be antimicrobial, while others are believed to possibly have an effect on the human immune system.

All species of this herbal remedy have compounds called phenols. Many plants contain phenols, active substances which control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors and protect the plant from infections and UV radiation damage. Phenols have high antioxidant properties, which are good for human health.

Echinacea also contains alkylamides or alkamides, (not in E. pallida), which have an effect on the immune system.

Echinacea also contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives.

How effective is Echinacea?

Several health claims and accusations of no health benefits have been made about Echinacea. The lay reader, as well as many health care professionals generally do not know how many studies there have been, which were scientifically carried out, and which claims are worth considering.

A number of studies were carried out in the mid-1990s, including randomized trials. However, they were nearly all sponsored by Echinacea manufacturers and marketers and were not considered by the scientific community as being of good quality. Most of them reported on the benefits of the herbal remedy.

Does Echinacea have any effect on catching colds or reducing symptoms of a cold?

Studies have produced conflicting results:

  • Yes – scientists from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy reviewed over a dozen studies on the effects of Echinacea on people’s risk of catching a cold.

    They concluded that Echinacea can reduce a person’s chances of catching a cold by approximately 58%.

    They also found that the popular herbal remedy reduces the length of time a cold lasts by 1.4 days. They published their findings in The Lancet Infections Diseases (July 2007 edition).

Echinacea history

Echinacea Angustifolia was used extensively by the North American Plains Indians for general medical purposes.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Echinacea was used for treating infection with anthrax, snakebites and also as a pain reliever.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Echinacea became extremely popular in Europe and North America as a herbal medication.

Echinacea was first used as a treatment for the common cold when a Swiss supplement maker mistakenly understood that it could prevent colds, and was used for such purposes by Native American tribes in South Dakota.

Echinacea was not commonly used for the treatment or prevention of colds by Native American Indians. Some, like the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, used it for sore throats and coughs, while the Pawnee said it was effective for headaches. The Lakotah said it was an excellent painkiller.

Native Americans say that humans learned to use Echinacea by watching elk seeking out the herb and eating them whenever they were wounded or sick. They named it the “elk root”.

Uses of Echinacea

Echinacea is widely used all over the world today for a wide range of illnesses, infections, and conditions. Below is a list – apart from some studies quoted earlier on in this article, most of the benefits claimed have been anecdotal.

Echinacea is used by people today for:

Echinacea supplements and bottle
Studies have produced results as to the benefits of echinacea.
  • Acid indigestion
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Diphtheria
  • Dizziness
  • Genital herpes
  • Gum disease
  • Malaria
  • Migraines
  • Pain
  • Rattlesnake bites
  • Rheumatism
  • Septicemia – Bloodstream infections
  • Streptococcus infections
  • Syphilis
  • The flu
  • Tonsillitis
  • Typhoid
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vaginal yeast infections

Echinacea quality control

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns consumers about being careful regarding some Echinacea products which are on the market.

Echinacea products are commonly mislabeled; some have been tested and were found to have no Echinacea in them at all. The term “standardized” may sound impressive, but has no real meaning, the NIH emphasized.

Laboratory tests have shown that some Echinacea products are tainted with arsenic, lead or selenium.

Herbal remedies are not regulated in most countries, including the USA and UK, in the same way, medications are. This can mean that a remedy – and Echinacea is a herbal remedy – which is bought at a drugstore might not contain what the label claims.

“Natural” does not mean “harmless”

Marketers of natural products tend to promote how harmless natural products are in comparison to man-made ones. It is important to remember that all natural means is that it exists in (or is derived from) nature, “natural” does not mean that it is harmless.

The following are all “natural” plants that can cause harm:

  • Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) – one of the most toxic plants in the Western hemisphere. Also known as belladonna, devil’s cherry, and dwale.
  • Apple seeds – they contain small quantities of amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside. If you swallowed all the pips from one apple, there would not be enough poison to harm you. However, if you kept eating mouthfuls, you would eventually reach a fatal dose
  • Rhubarb – the stalks are edible, but the leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause serious kidney disorders, convulsions, and even coma
  • Daffodil (Narcissus) – the bulbs are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If enough is consumed it can be fatal. The stems are also toxic and can cause blurred vision, vomiting, and headaches
  • Cicuta – also known as water hemlock, cowbane or poison parsnip. A highly poisonous plant that can kill humans if consumed. It has high levels of cicutoxin, a powerful toxin.