Echinacea can be recognized by its tall stems, bearing a single pink or purple flower and a central cone that is usually purplish-brown in color. The large cone is the seed head with sharp spines. Of nine echinacea species, only three are used for medicinal purposes: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea purpurea, often in combination.
Results of archeological digs indicate that Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general cure-all. The herb, historically, has been used to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning and diphtheria.
Today, people use echinacea to shorten the common cold and flu and reduce corresponding symptoms. It is also recommended to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections. More specifically, echinacea contains active substances that enhance the activity of the immune system, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral, and antioxidant effects.
Echinacea preventing or treating the common cold remains under debate. Several trials have shown that people who take echinacea as soon as they feel sick reduce the severity of their cold and have fewer symptoms than those who do not take the herb.
Echinacea as a supplement contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects; including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils and flavonoids.
The roots of the plant have high concentrations of volatile oils (odorous compounds) while the above-ground parts of the plant tend to contain more polysaccharides (substances known to trigger the activity of the immune system). The combination of these active substances is responsible for echinacea’s beneficial effects, though research suggests that the above ground portion of echinacea purpurea is the most effective.
Echinacea, including one, two, or all three of the medicinal species, is available in extracts, tinctures, tablets, capsules and ointments. As colder weather is upon us, any boost to the immune system could mean the difference between misery and a festive winter season.
Adult: For general immune system stimulation, during colds, flu, upper respiratory tract infections or bladder infections, choose from the following forms and take three times a day:
• 1 to 2 grams dried root or herb, as tea
• 2 to 3 mL of standardized tincture extract
• 300 mg of powdered extract containing 4% phenolics
• Tincture (1:5): 1 to 3 mL (20 to 90 drops)
• Stabilized fresh extract: 0.75 mL (15 to 23 drops)
• For slow-healing wounds, creams or ointments should be applied as needed.
Pediatric: Adjust the recommended adult dose (based on a 150 lb adult) to account for the child’s weight. If the child weighs 50 lb, the appropriate dose of Echinacea would be 1/3 of the adult dose. Always use alcohol-free preparations for children.
The American Herbal Products Association gives Echinacea a class 1 safety rating, meaning that it is safe when used appropriately and with the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Those suffering from tuberculosis, leukemia, diabetes, connective tissue disorders, multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS, any autoimmune diseases or liver disorders should not take Echinacea. There is some concern that Echinacea may reduce the effectiveness of medications that suppress the immune system. For this reason, people receiving organ transplants who must take immunosuppressant medications should avoid this herb. Consulting a physician concerning specific side effects and interactions with other supplements or medications is recommended.