Are the Health Benefits of Echinacea Unsubstantiated?
Echinacea is a healing plant known to Native Americans. Echinacea was tremendously popular about fifteen years ago, but its faddish lure has since dissipated.
This led us to wonder if the health benefits of echinacea were ever clearly substantiated. Our findings were rather positive.
A caveat about evidence
Science is a great thing. It has given us a set of values by which things can be tested and measured. However, science doesn’t only exist in the laboratory. It also can be found in the real world.
Echinacea is one of many plants that have been tested and proven effective in the world laboratory by traditional healers. Since then, modern scientists have been studying the plant to find out how and why it works.
Echinacea’s healing qualities
Echinacea is antibiotic, antiviral,and antifungal. So whatever you’d use an antibiotic for now, a traditional healer would use echinacea for.
Echinacea stimulates the immune system and leads to the production of more white blood cells. And the plant stimulates the production of interferon, used to neutralize viruses.
According to researchers at the University of
Maryland Medical Center:
“Echinacea contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects. These include polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids. “
What echinacea can be used for
Echinacea can be used internally and externally — you can eat it or use it as a topical ointment, salve or poultice.
Some of the health problems echinacea can be used on include sore throat, gingivitis, mouth sores, ulcers, acne, herpes, inflammation, cancer, ear aches, urinary tract infections, and sinusitis.
Debate over frequency and dosages
Echinacea has been the target of slander by doctors who’d rather use drugs than have their patients heal themselves with herbs. One of the main claims was that it’s dangerous to take echinacea for an extended period of time.
Any herb can lead to side effects, so these claims have some partial truth.Compared with drugs, though, echinacea and most herbs are much safer. But if you’re taking drugs, echinacea can interfere with their effectiveness. And, as with any herb, food or plant, some people can be allergic to echinacea.
In Germany (where herbs are regulated by the government), the above-ground parts of Echinacea purpurea are approved to treat colds, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and slow healing wounds. The root of the Echinacea pallida plant is also approved for the treatment of flu like infections.
There are no good studies showing that echinacea is dangerous to take over a prolonged period of time, but it may lose its effectiveness, so it’s best to take it for about eight weeks, take a week break then resume if needed.
Some scientific references showing echinacea’s value
(1) Rininger JA, Kickner S, Chigurupati P, et al.: Immunopharmacological activity of Echinacea preparations following simulated digestion on murine macrophages and human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Leukoc Biol 2000;68:503-10.
(2) Vomel V: Influence of a non-specific immune stimulant on phagocytosis of erythrocytes and ink by the
reticuloendothelial system of isolated perfused rat livers of different ages. Arzneim Forsch 1984;34:691-5.
(3) Bauer R, Jurcic K, Puhlmann J, Wagner H: Immunological in vivo and in vitro examinations of Echinacea extracts. Arzneim Forsch 1988;38:276-81.
(4) Burger RA, Torres AR, Warren RP, et al.: Echinacea-induced cytokine production by human macrophages. Int J Immunopharmacol 1997;19:371-9.
(5) Goel, V, Chang C, Slama JV, et al.: Dose related effects of Echinacea on macrophage stimulation in lungs and in spleens of normal rats. In press.