Echinacea your herbal hero for the cold and flu season
Echinacea is an immunostimulant and an immunodulator. It is anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. The plant Echinacea originated in North America. There are 3 types of Echinacea:
- Echinacea puperea
- Echinacea angustigfolia
- Echinacea pallida
Each type has a slightly different function, so my preference is to prescribe a product that combines two or more species.
What it’s used for
Echinacea has been traditionally used by Native Americans for infections, snake bite, colic external wounds. There is also anecdotal evidence that it is used traditionally as a general tonic. Following European settlement of the Americas, Echinacea was used by Eclectics for conditions such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhus, syphilis & septic wounds.
Modern uses include for the prevention & treatment of viral infections e.g common cold & influenza, urinary tract infections, & to enhance immunity, including in weakened individuals.
How it works
Echinacea works by stimulating non-specific cellular immunity, particularly that related to macrophages and phagocytes. Echinacea increases T-cell activity and B-cell leukocytes.
T-cells in particular have a role in hunting down and destroying abnormal cells, including those infected with viruses. Our immune system sees these virus infected cells as ‘non-self’ and destroys them through a number of different means.
Our immune system is clever in that it recognises ‘self’ from ‘not-self’ i.e it knows a virus or foreign bacteria when it sees one because it isn’t familiar. The immune response is quite complex and I won’t attempt to explain it here. Using Echinacea to stimulate the immune system assists in the destruction of cold and flu viruses.
The key with Echinacea, and any other immune stimulant, is to start taking the herb at the first sign of viral infection. This is before you’ve reached the “head full of snot feel like death warmed up stage” – at this point you may require a different herb. It’s the very early signs such as a tickle in the throat, a slight headache, maybe a low grade fever, and feeling a little off. Taking Echinacea at this stage can significantly reduce the severity & duration of the cold.
Echinacea also works well as part of program to assist in the prevention of colds and flu. This program generally starts at the beginning of the cold and flu season (April/May in Australia) and runs for 3-5 months.
How I use it
I prefer to prescribe Echinacea with other immune stimulants, such as Andrographis paniculata, Astragalus membranaceus, and Eleutherococcus senticosus. Which combination depends on the stage of the virus, the patient, and the symptoms. Herbs that provide symptomatic relief may also be included in the mixture.
It’s worth noting that not all herbal products are created equal. Purchasing a herbal product outside the clinical environment brings risks of herb/plant substitution & contamination, reduced therapeutic compounds leading to reduced efficacy, and potential instability. Herbal products I prescribe are sourced from the correct plant & plant part, have the correct level of therapeutic compounds, are manufactured under government guidelines, & are free from contamination.
- If you have a know allergy to the Compositae family of plants, do not take Echinacea.
- People with auto-immune disorders should not take Echinacea.
- People taking immunosupressive drugs e.g transplant patients, should only take Echinacea for a short time and only under medical supervision.
- Echinacea is considered safe during pregnancy and lactation provided it is taken only in recommended doses & with caution during the early to mid-stages of pregnancy.
If you have any concerns about taking Echinacea, seek advice from a qualified practitioner.
Reference: Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence based guide (3nd Edition), by Lesley Braun and Marc Cohen.
Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy (2nd Edition) by Kerry Bone & Simon Mills
The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety, by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone.
Medicinal Plants of the World by Ben-Erik van Wyk & Michael Wink.