Ancient medicine, modern myths and present debate
Many Australians have heard of Echinacea, in fact it may be said that it is one of the most popular herbs in Australia. Coming to this time of year, I would often be asked for Echinacea for colds and flus. Though few medicals professional recommended the herb, few realize why and the population are often left scatching their heads wondering if bed rest and fluids really are the best why to kick the flu. But what of Echinacea and its history? And what can the research tell us, if anything? All this and more will be answered.
Echinacea was first used by native Americas for hundreds of years to treat snake bites, infection both internaly and externally among other things. In the 17th century, in was introduced into standard medical practice in the USA by a group of Doctors called the eclectics (fore runners to modern day naturopaths). After the arrival of antibiotics, Echinacea fell out of support few used it. It has however,re-emerged and has under gone modern clinical studies.
The two types and parts:
Actions and indications
Contrary to popular belief, Echinacea works to balance the immune response, rather than just enhance it. For example, in resting immune cells, Echinacea will produce a faster response, bringing its action in cold and flus to the picture. However in over active immune cells, Echinacea reduces the response. Though controversial at this stage, some Naturopaths will use Echinacea in autoimmune cases. In regards to up regulation on immune cells, there have been some human clinical trails investigating this. Overall, these studies support its use, but it is worth noting at that note all the evidence weighs in on its benefit, why exactly, we will look at.
A recent Cochrane review (the gold standard of medical reviews) evaluated data from 16 studies, whist the authors commented that it was difficult to evaluate because of the different prepartions used, it was concluded that preparations bsed on the aerial parts of E. purpurea might be effective for early treatment of colds and flus. Other studies from the Lancet infectious diseases shows positive improvement and other factors have been shown from Echinacea including quality of life and wellbeing in additional studies. Other studies observed that Echinacea can reduce the time of infection by 1.4 days. Other studies also suggest that Echinacea can have a application in the healing of wounds. These include wounds, burns, skin infections and inflammatory skin conditions. Topical applications (direct to the skin) produced a 85% overall success rate. Traditional use of the plant is also worth taking into consideration as it has a rich history of successful use.
Anti-viral and anti-fungal
Extracts of Echinacea have shown to process antiviral acitivity against herpes simplex virus. Other pathogens it has shown activity on include: Candida and Saccharoyces.
The Alkylamindes from the roots of Echinacea have shown to inhibit inflammatory pathways, particularly COX-1 and COX-2. This ability is most useful in inflamed and pus-filled wounds.
Several experimental studies in mice have found that treatment with Echinacea reduces the incidence of tumor development showing the possible use of reducing chemotherapy side effects.
Echinacea may also help reduce the incidence of the common cold. It is believed that lessens mucosal immune suppression known to occur with intensive exercise and can reduce the incidence of colds and flus in athletes. This suggests that those with active lifestyles may benefit from Echinacea use leading up to the winter months and perhaps beyond.
Echinacea is also used for lymphatic clearance, gastrointestinal disturbances and urinary infections.
Oral use of Echinacea is generally considered safe in pregnancy, particularly after the first trimester and only at recommended doses. This is shown by early results from a study of over 200 women, and no risk for major malformations where found.
Herb of the Month: Echinacea
By Jeremy Brown, Naturopath
(Adv. Dip. Nat.)
Ancient medicine, modern myths and present debate
Many Australians have heard of Echinacea and in fact it may be said that it is one of the most popular herbs here in Australia. Coming to this time of year, I am often being asked for Echinacea for colds and flus. Patients are often left scratching their heads, wondering if bed rest is the only way to fight the flu and if not, what else can they do? Many might have been recommended by a friends or family to try Echinacea to fight the dreaded flu, but not understood much about it. So what of Echinacea, it’s history, and it’s uses? Further, what does the research say about it?
About the plant
It’s not just a pretty flower. There are two main parts of this plant that are used to treat various infections conditions. These are the aerial parts and the root and there is much debate about which part to use as each part contains various levels of the actives ingredients.
For hundreds of years, Native Americans were the first to used Echinacea to treat snakebites and infections, both internally and externally, among other things. In the 17th century, in was first introduced into standard medical practice in the USA by a group of doctors called the Eclectics (fore-runners to modern day Naturopaths). After the arrival of antibiotics, Echinacea lost its attention and few used it. However, it has re-emerged and has under gone modern clinical studies.
Echinacea was forgotten about when antibiotics were discovered. Now many people are rediscovering this ancient herb and its many benefits.
What can Echinacea be used for?
One of the key chemicals responsible for its action, the Alkylamindes from the roots of Echinacea have shown to inhibit inflammatory pathways, particularly COX-1 and COX-2. This ability is most useful in inflamed and infected wounds.
Anti-viral and anti-fungal
Extracts of Echinacea have shown to process antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus. Other pathogens it has shown activity on include Candida and Saccharomyces. Of course, this anti-viral effect is naturally effective with colds and flus also.
Several experimental studies have found that treatment with Echinacea reduces chemotherapy side effects, and even the incidence of tumor development.
Treatment of wounds
Research suggests that Echinacea can have an important role in the healing of wounds. These include burns, skin infections and inflammatory skin conditions. Topical applications (direct to the skin) produced an 85% overall success rate in some studies.
Fighting the common cold & flu
Not only does Echinacea reduce the incidence of the common cold, various studies have shown Echinacea can significantly reduce the length of time of infection. Echinacea works to balance the immune response. This is in addition to just enhancing it. For example, in resting immune cells, Echinacea will produce a faster response in the cells, leading to its helpful actions in cold and flus. Some research has specifically shown how Echinacea can assist athletes or other people with active lifestyles in achieving better health, by lessening the mucosal immune suppression known to occur with intensive exercise – which in turn, leads to less colds and flus even with active, healthy people.
Questions often arise around Echinacea and pregnancy use. Results of research, particularly a study of over 200 women, have shown no risk associated with the use of Echinacea during pregnancy. Oral use of Echinacea is generally considered safe in pregnancy, particularly after the first trimester, but only under the supervision of a health professional at correct doses.
Echinacea is also used for lymphatic clearance, gastrointestinal disturbances and urinary infections. Ask your Naturopath about other uses of Echinacea… one herb is often useful for more things than a mere Blog can mention.
What the Research says about Echinacea
Overall the body of clinical research supports the use of Echinacea for the common cold. However, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions as various parts of the plant was used for different studies, with many using the aerial parts (the bit growing above the ground) of the plant – which is not always the most medicinal part of the plant. The aerial parts are not the parts of the plant traditionally used by Native Americans, nor are they the parts that have been shown to have the most important chemical components thought to be responsible for the plant’s assistance with immunity. These are some of the reasons that the use of Echinacea has been unfairly debated. It is worth noting that even the most critical meta-analysis (the golden standard of medical reviews) admit that there may be some clinical relevance to Echinacea use. The World Health Organisations also backs it use for supportive therapy in colds and infections.
And my favorite bit of research about Echinacea? Studies show that Echinacea generally improves quality of life and wellbeing. In short, that’s probably the most important bit for you to remember of everything you just read.
Yours in health.
Naturopathic practitioner and principal at Brown’s Wellbeing Centre.
Braun L & Cohen M. 2010, Herbs and Natural supplements. Elsevier Australian, Chatswood. NSW
Hechtman L. 2012, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier Australia, Sydney, NSW Australia.
Thomsen M & Gennat H. 2009, Phytotherapy Desk Reference 4th edition, Global Natural Medicine, Sydney, NSW Australia.
*Please note that this advice is of a general nature and does not replace the instruction of your health care practitioner.