If you’re looking for an all-natural way to boost your immune system – whether to minimise the spread of COVID-19 or stave off the flu virus - echinacea may be the herb for you. A medicinal plant that has been used for centuries to treat a variety of illnesses, echinacea is believed to help naturally strengthen the immune system and fight off infection. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of echinacea and how to take it safely. We will also cover any potential side effects associated with the herb.
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea (also known as purple coneflower or American coneflower) is a genus of flowering plants, native to North America. Echinacea is identifiable by its purple flowers and distinctive spiny seed pod. Though native to North America, echinacea can also grow successfully in sunny gardens in the UK.
Echinacea contains nine different species, all with unique properties. The most commonly used echinacea species in herbal medicines are Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea pallida and Echinacea angustifolia. These species have the highest concentration of active compounds that give echinacea its medicinal properties. Studies show that most of the active compounds are derivatives of the flower, roots and leaves; all of which can be taken as supplements, tinctures or used as tea.
The plant was originally used as a herbal medicine by Native Americans, dating back to the 18th century. It was used to treat a range of ailments including the common cold, coughs, burns and throat infections. Modern-day use of echinacea in Europe is commonly associated with symptom relief of colds and coughs as well as wound treatment, and the plant is classified by the British Herbal Medical Association (BHMA) as a traditional herbal remedy.
How Does Echinacea Work?
Research into the activity of echinacea in the body is limited, although research into echinacea purpurea shows encouraging results. However, scientists still do not fully understand how echinacea works in the body and exactly which health benefits, if any, it has at all. Rather, the efficacy of echinacea is largely based on anecdotal reports from users, albeit over a significant period.
What we understand so far is that the active, immune-enhancing compounds with proposed significant therapeutic value within the plant are alkamides and polysaccharides. It seems that these compounds can increase the number of infection-fighting white blood cells and spleen cells within the body, which act quickly in the response to an attack and therefore increase your body’s defence against illness.
Echinacea also appears to trigger anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body, therefore decreasing inflammation which is at the root of many illnesses. Echinacea can stimulate the production of hyaluronic acid in the body and alkamides to prevent the production of enzymes that are involved in the inflammation process.
Potential Benefits of Echinacea
Echinacea has been used as a traditional herbal remedy since the 18th century and shows promise in its antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Relief of Common Cold and Flu Symptoms
Echinacea is most notably used for its potential to alleviate colds and flu-like infections, as well as reduce the length and frequency of such illnesses. The herb may also reduce viral load and could play a role in the prevention of respiratory tract infections including COVID-19. Different studies show varying results on the effect of echinacea on the common cold, however, this could be a result of a variety of strengths and preparations used. While the science is limited, anecdotal reports spanning hundreds of years are hugely promising.
- Wound and Skin Irritation Treatment
Echinacea is effective in improving the hydration of the epidermis and potentially reducing the appearance of wrinkles. It can provide a soothing effect when applied topically on bruises and minor cuts and grazes. Echinacea also has the potential to reduce inflammation.
- Anxiety Relief
Studies in this area are extremely limited, but some claim that echinacea can have calming properties and may reduce anxiety.
How to Use Echinacea
You can take echinacea in a variety of forms, including capsules, tinctures, tea, ointment and dry extract powder. If you are taking echinacea as a dietary supplement, it is important to follow the recommended dosage on the product label. For echinacea tea, you should steep one teaspoon of echinacea in eight ounces of boiling water for five to ten minutes. A typical dose of echinacea capsules is one tablet of 140mg of echinacea purpurea root extract, two times daily. However, the dosage does vary depending on the species and part of the plant used.
Many people choose to take echinacea during the cold and flu season in the UK (November to March). Some people choose to take echinacea combined with other natural remedies such as CBD oil to further strengthen the immune system. Children under 12, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with autoimmune conditions or diabetes should not take echinacea.
Echinacea Flavour Profile
Echinacea can have a strong, earthy taste, and echinacea tea is often described as an acquired taste. For a more palatable tea, you might combine echinacea with honey, mint or lemongrass. If you struggle with the taste, you could consume echinacea tablets or tinctures instead.
Possible Risks and Side Effects
It’s wise to discuss echinacea with your GP before taking it for the first time. While there are no known interactions with other medicines, some side effects (although uncommon) have been reported, such as nausea, dizziness and stomach upsets. Side effects in children can be more severe, and echinacea should not be taken by children under 12.
Some people are allergic to echinacea. If you have allergies to daisies, marigolds or chrysanthemums, you may be at a higher risk of an echinacea allergy.
The plant may also overstimulate the immune system in people with autoimmune disorders, therefore it should not be taken by people with an immune system condition or diabetes.
Echinacea can also interact with caffeine intake, potentially prolonging the stimulant effects on the body.