Properties and Benefits of Echinacea: A famous member of the daisy (Asteraceae) family, echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) has gained recognition as a potent medicinal herb exhibiting a wide range of health benefits. Echinacea is well known for its immunostimulating properties which not only help prevent various infections, but also reduce recovery time as well as disease intensity.
Its use is recommended for common colds, flue, sinusitis and other respiratory as well as urinary tract infections. Pairing echinacea with vitamin C is said to benefit the immune system immensely due to the combined antimicrobial action of the herb and nutrient. However, pregnant women, people with an overactive immune system and those at risk of allergic reactions are advised to avoid the plant altogether.
What is echinacea and what does it look like? Echinacea refers to several species of brightly-colored flowers from North America, commonly referred to as coneflowers due to their cone-shaped flower heads. Petals may be slightly upright or facing downwards like an umbrella and range in color from pink, purple and lavender to red and yellow.
Of all 9 species, 3 have been shown to posses medicinal properties:
1) Echinacea angustifolia, a variety of echinacea with narrow, feather-shaped, purple-lavender petals.
2) Echinacea pallida, a species with string-like, pink-lavender petals facing downwards like an umbrella.
3) Echinacea purpurea, a variety quite similar in appearance to a pink-purple daisy, with slightly plumper petals, also facing downwards.
Echinacea roots and dried flower heads are used in the form of infusions, extracts, tinctures and poultices to treat a variety of illnesses which stem from poor immunity. Although studies show mixed results, with researchers both praising and disregarding the health benefits of echinacea, reality is that the extracts, tinctures and infusions made from this herb do help with a variety of health issues.
So what conditions is echinacea believed to help with? What is it good for?
1) Colds, flue, sinusitis, bronchitis and other respiratory tract infections.
2) Gingivitis, mouth sores.
3) Ear infections.
4) Urinary tract infections.
5) Reproductive system infections (in the case of women).
6) Swollen lymph nodes, hay fever.
7) Reducing the incidence of respiratory tract infections.
8) Building up immunity as a prevention method, especially during the cold season or in spring when our body may have difficulties adjusting to warmer weather or allergens.
How does echinacea boost immunity? Apparently, echinacea works in not so mysterious ways when it comes to stimulating immunity. First of all, the herb stimulates the production of T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells found in our tonsils and thymus. T lymphocytes basically destroy cells infected with various pathogens (as well as cancerous cells). Echinacea being an immunostimulator, it increases their aggressiveness (or hunting abilities), making them much more efficient. As a result, our body not only recovers faster from various illnesses, but may also elude infection.
Secondly, echinacea stimulates phagocytosis, a natural defense process of our immune system through which cells known as phagocytes eat dead, sick or infected cells, free pathogens and various other potentially harmful microorganisms and particles. This prevents the spread of the infection and promotes faster recovery with as little damage as possible.
Thirdly, echinacea stimulates the production of interferon, an immune system protein that regulates our body’s response to viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and so on. When a cell is infected with a virus, it starts producing interferon in order to warn nearby cells of the threat present, so they amp up their defenses. At the same time, interferon proteins activate special lymphocytes which eat (phagocytes) and destroy (killer cells) pathogens, preventing the spread of the infection. What echinacea does is increase this natural response of our immune system.
A study released by BBC showed that taking echinacea together with vitamin C (both potent immune system stimulants) reduced colds incidence by 86%. Pretty amazing, right?
Studies reveal that taking echinacea food supplements, tincture or drinking echinacea tea as a prevention method during the flue season or at a certain point during the cold season might help one either elude sickening or develop a mild form of infection. Taking echinacea while sick is said to speed up the healing process and recovery time considerably.
However, doses may differ immensely between individuals so it might be best to consult your doctor and see what your body’s requirements are. Moreover, you might want to be very picky when purchasing echinacea by-products because not all brands are true to the label, nor contain a quality product.
Nevertheless, researchers advise that it might be best to avoid echinacea in the following situations:
2) Lactation. As with all herbs, use during pregnancy and/or lactation is done under the careful supervision of your doctor. This is because there is little to no research done on the effects echinacea may have on unborn babies and newborns. (It is known that even the most common tea herbs can cause uterine contractions that may lead to a miscarriage, so prevention until further notice is advisable).
3) Allergy or sensitivity to the daisy (Asteraceae) family. Always seek advice from your doctor before resorting to alternative treatments.
4) Auto-immune disorders. Echinacea stimulates the immune system so using it when you are suffering from an overactive immune system will worsen the condition and reduce the effectiveness of immunosuppressive medication.