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Shorten Sick Time with Echinacea

Echinacea is thought to support the immune system by activating white blood cells. Echinacea may also increase production of interferon, an important part of the body’s response to viral infections.

Parts used and where grown
Echinacea is a wildflower native to North America. While echinacea continues to grow and is harvested from the wild, the majority used for herbal supplements comes from cultivated plants. The root and/or the above-ground part of the plant during the flowering growth phase are used in herbal medicine.

Historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies)
Echinacea was used by Native Americans for a variety of conditions, including venomous bites and other external wounds. It was introduced into US medical practice in 1887 and was touted for use in conditions ranging from colds to syphilis. Modern research started in the 1930s in Germany.

Active constituents
Three major groups of echinacea’s constituents may work together to increase the production and activity of white blood cells (lymphocytes and macrophages), including alkylamides/polyacetylenes, caffeic acid derivatives, and polysaccharides. More studies are needed to determine if and how echinacea stimulates the immune system in humans.

Several double-blind studies have confirmed the benefit of echinacea for treating colds and flu. Recent studies have suggested that echinacea may not be effective for the prevention of colds and flu and should be reserved for use at the onset of these conditions. In terms of other types of infections, research in Germany using injectable forms or an oral preparation of the herb along with a medicated cream (econazole nitrate) reduced the recurrence of vaginal yeast infections as compared to women given the cream alone.

How much is usually taken?
At the onset of a cold or flu, 3 to 4 ml of echinacea in a liquid preparation or 300 mg of a powdered form in capsule or tablet can be taken every two hours for the first day of illness, then three times per day for a total of 7 to 10 days.

Are there any side effects or interactions?
Echinacea is rarely associated with side effects when taken orally. According to the German Commission E monograph, people should not take echinacea if they have an autoimmune illness, such as lupus, or other progressive diseases, such as tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, or HIV infection. However, the concern about echinacea use for those with autoimmune illness is not based on clinical research and some herbalists question the potential connection. Those who are allergic to flowers of the daisy family should not take echinacea. Cases of allergic responses to echinacea (e.g., wheezing, skin rash, diarrhea) have been reported in medical literature. In the first study to look at echinacea’s possible effect on fetal development and pregnancy outcome, women taking echinacea during pregnancy were found to have no greater incidence of miscarriage or birth defects than women not taking the herb.

Echinacea root contains approximately 20% inulin, a fiber widely distributed in fruits, vegetables, and plants. Inulin is classified as a food ingredient (not as an additive) and is considered safe to eat. In fact, inulin is a significant part of the daily diet of most of the world’s population. However, there is a report of a 39-year-old man having a life-threatening allergic reaction after consuming high amounts of inulin from multiple sources. Allergy to inulin in this individual was confirmed by laboratory tests. Such sensitivities are exceedingly rare. Moreover, this man did not take echinacea. Nevertheless, people with a confirmed sensitivity to inulin should avoid echinacea.

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