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 immune system stimulating properties which not only help prevent various respiratory infections, but also reduce recovery time as well as symptoms severity. Infusions, extracts, tinctures and poultices are all used for stimulating immunity and speeding recovery following respiratory disease. Its use is recommended for common colds, flu viruses, 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. Other immune system boosting nutrients such as zinc may be added for a stronger immune system response against infection and disease. However, pregnant women, people with an overactive immune system and those at risk of allergic reactions are advised to avoid the plant altogether. If you suspect you are allergic to echinacea, avoid using it in any form until you can have a skin prick test to learn if you are really allergic to it or not.
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:
- Echinacea angustifolia, a variety of echinacea with narrow, feather-shaped, purple-lavender petals.
- Echinacea pallida, a species with string-like, pink-lavender petals facing downwards like an umbrella.
- 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.
What is echinacea good for?
The plant and preparations made from it are believed to be good for the following conditions:
1) Colds, flu, sinusitis, bronchitis and other respiratory tract infections.
2) Gingivitis, mouth sores or canker sores.
3) Ear infections.
4) Urinary tract infections.
5) Female reproductive system infections.
6) Swollen lymph nodes, possibly hay fever.
7) Reducing the incidence of respiratory tract infections.
8) Building up immunity.
This is done as prevention, especially during the cold season or in spring when the body may have difficulties adjusting to either colder or warmer weather. Building up the immune system is further helpful for preventing season-specific infections caused by various pathogens such as viruses or bacteria. Unfortunately, Echinacea tastes bad, bitter and unpleasant overall. You can try to improve the taste by adding raw honey, sugar, even milk or cream or other sweeteners to your Echinacea product. See my list of monofloral and polyfloral honey varieties to help you choose a great honey for you.
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 cell found in our tonsils and thymus. T lymphocytes basically destroy cells infected with various pathogens, including cancerous cells. Echinacea being an immune system stimulating agent, 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 the natural response of our immune system organs and cells.
A study by BBC showed that taking echinacea together with vitamin C (both potent immune system boosters) reduced colds incidence by up to 86%. Pretty amazing, right? However, emerging research suggests that the minimum recommended daily intake of vitamin C should be at least 500 or 1000 mg (0,5 or 1 gram) in order for us to enjoy visible and significant health benefits.
Studies reveal that taking echinacea food supplements, tincture or drinking echinacea tea as a prevention method during the flu season or at specific points during the cold season might help you either elude getting the flu or a cold 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 he or she recommends for you specifically. Moreover, you might want to be very picky when purchasing echinacea products because not all brands are true to the label, nor contain a quality product. It is not uncommon for such supplements to be contaminated to other herbs or even toxins or heavy metals, unless they are from a reputable producer.
Side effects and contraindications
Also, researchers advise that it might be best to avoid echinacea in the following situations:
1) Pregnancy. There is fear that the herb might not be safe during pregnancy because of its immuno-stimulating effects and because it is theorized that it may cause uterine contractions that can lead to miscarriage.
2) Nursing. As with all herbs, use during pregnancy and/or nursing period 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 always consult your doctor before taking any medicinal herbs in food, tea or supplement form.
3) 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. If you are taking prednisone, anti-rejection medication or other immuno-suppressants, talk to your doctor first about whether or not it would be good for you to take echinacea.
4) Allergy or sensitivity to the daisy (Asteraceae) family. Always seek advice from your doctor before resorting to alternative treatments. Echinacea is a member of the daisy family, a family of plants known for its allergenic potential. So if you are already allergic to other daisy family members such as chamomile it might be best to avoid echinacea too until you have the chance to take a skin prick test to see whether or not you risk suffering an allergic reaction to it.