Echinacea has long been esteemed as a powerful immune system stimulator providing significant therapeutic value. It is perhaps most famous for its ability to cut the chances of catching the common cold by up to 58% and in reducing its duration by 1 – 2 days. (Published in the “Lancet” after a meta-analysis study by the University of Connecticut which evaluated 14 studies.)
Studies suggest that complex substances called “phenolic compounds” are responsible for Echinacea’s immune boosting abilities. They are thought to stimulate cells whose primary function is to fight invading particles and organisms. White blood cells and spleen cells increase after ingestion of Echinacea and the core body temperature rises. A higher body temperature accelerates the internal workings of cells meaning disease fighting cells respond faster and immune responses increase – this effect resulting in a two-pronged attack against disease causing germs and viruses.
Echinacea also contains a compound called echinacein, which can help against bacterial and viral infections. According to a study in Pharmaceutical Biology, Echinacea exhibited antimicrobial properties and is effective against 15 different pathogenic bacteria and two pathogenic fungi.
Inflammation is at the root of most diseases, including arthritis. The way Echinacea combats inflammation is twofold – it stimulates hyaluronic acid production in the body (the glue that holds the cells together), and it contains compounds (alkamides) that are known inhibit the production of cyclooxygenase - a key enzyme in the metabolism of arachidonic acid, which is involved in the inflammatory cascade. The highest concentration of alkamides is found within the plants roots.
Echinacea’s ability to increase hyaluronic acid production also makes it a great herb for cases of ligament, cartilage or joint injury or even arthritis. Hyaluronic acid is a major component in cartilage and synovial fluid. When joints are damaged either by injuries or by the inflammatory processes of arthritis, they need hyaluronic acid to effect repairs. Echinacea comes to the rescue by stimulating fibroblasts and chondroblasts (the cells that make cartilage) to make increased levels of hyaluronic acid.
- Conditions of the upper respiratory tract
- Septic sores and cuts
- Bladder infections
- Wound healing
- Skin repair, cuts and burns
Folklore and history
Echinacea was the primary medicine of the North American Indians, who used root poultices for wounds, bites, stings, and snakebites. They gargled with it for toothache and sore gums, and drank decoctions of it for colds, smallpox, measles, mumps and arthritis. Although it was adopted by settlers, it remained a folk remedy until a medicine containing Echinacea as a secret ingredient was patented by Dr H C F Meyer as a blood purifier, and ultimate cure for rattlesnake bites. Whilst this was a tall claim, Echinacea went on to be accepted by the North American Herbalists of the 1900's for many of the same properties it had been used for in traditional Native medicine.
Discovered by the Great Plains Indian tribes, Echinacea has been used as an effective herbal remedy for over 400 years. The flowers, leaves and roots are used to make various concoctions, with the roots containing high concentrations of volatile oils, whilst the flowers and leaves are rich in polysaccharides – powerful plant compounds that are known to trigger immune response.
Endemic to Eastern and Central North America, Echinacea was not used exclusively for the treatment of colds by the indigenous Indians. The Kiowa and Cheyenne used it for sore throats, the Pawnee for headaches, whilst the Lakota found it to be an excellent painkiller – all of these symptoms being prevalent in the common cold.
Echinacea is essentially nontoxic when taken orally. People should not take Echinacea without consulting a herbal practitioner if they have an autoimmune illness, such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Those who are allergic to flowers of the daisy family should take echinacea with caution. There are no known contra-indications to the use of echinacea during pregnancy or lactation.