Echinacea is a herb that has been increasingly used over the past years, mainly for its effectiveness against the common cold. But does it really help?
Echinacea : How Does It Affect Your Immune System?
The genus Echinacea is comprised of 9 species, of which only 3 (E. Purpurea, E. Angustifolia, E. Pallida) are used for pharmaceutical purposes. Its name derives from the Greek word “echinus” i.e. hedgehog, due to the spiky appearance and feel of the flower heads. It is also known as the purple coneflower.
The plant is endemic to North America, where native Indian tribes used it widely as a remedy against toothaches, snakebites, and various infections. The European settlers discovered it and began to study its properties in the 17th century. During the 19th century, more and more Europeans were fascinated by its healing potential and began using it.
Nowadays, the research mainly focuses on the increased concentration of pharmaceutically interesting substances found in the roots as well as the rest of the plant. The most notable of those are echinacoside, flavonoids, glycoproteins, polysaccharides, volatile oils, caffeine acid and alkamides.
Due to the development of antibiotics during the last century, the use of herbs, including echinacea, had been put aside. The increasing use of herbal products in the latest years, however, has led to a resurgence of interest in this herb.
Echinacea is considered to act as a natural stimulant of the immune system that reduces inflammation, treats pain and has antiviral and antimicrobial action. For this reason, it has a wide range of uses, the most important of which are:
- Common cold – Echinacea is mostly used in products against common cold
- Flu – Due to its antiviral properties, the plant is considered to be effective against influenza
- Other skin diseases
- Disinfection of wounds
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Dry mouth
- Urinary infections
- Vaginal yeast infections
- Athlete’s foot
The pharmacological effect of echinacea is associated with T-Lymphocytes and macrophage activation and increased interferon production. This results in activation and enhanced response of the immune system. Meanwhile, polysaccharides found in the plant have anti-inflammatory action.
Despite the broad range of applications of the herb, it is worth noting that there are so far conflicting results for its effectiveness. Therefore, further research is needed to conclusively correlate the components of the plant with a clear pharmacological effect. The effect of the use of echinacea against the common cold, though, are encouraging.
Echinacea is likely safe when taken orally and for a short period of time. Most side effects that may occur are of gastrointestinal nature. It may cause nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea or constipation, sleep disturbances, fever, dry mouth and/or muscle pains. Its consumption also burdens the liver.
Pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding should avoid using it or giving it to children. Furthermore, patients aged 2 to 11, might even develop a rash. Even though echinacea is considered possibly safe, the advice of the physician or pharmacist before consumption is important.
The herb also affects the immune system and can, therefore, provoke or worsen an autoimmune disease. As for people with allergies to plants, especially those of the Asteraceae family (eg chrysanthemum, daisies, marigold, ragweed etc), they should be extra cautious of an allergic reaction.
When it comes to diseases and other conditions, there is, in fact, a significant number of contraindications. More specifically, people suffering from asthma, lupus, HIV, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia, diabetes, pneumonia, tuberculosis, sleep disorders, pneumonia, stomach disorders, cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, kidney disease or skin diseases should avoid using echinacea. The same applies to people who take antibiotics or corticosteroids (because of the burden on the liver) or medicines that affect the immune system.
The interactions of echinacea with other substances are still under investigation, although the risk seems to be considerably low. Most of those interactions concern immunosuppressants and drugs metabolized by CYP3A4 or CYP1A2. Echinacea might interact with the following substances: prednisone, cyclosporine, azathioprine, tacrolimus, sirolimus, mycophenolate, daclizumab, corticosteroids, lovastatin, amiodarone, methotrexate, ketoconazole, diltiazem, estrogen, triazolam, haloperidol, olanzapine, propranolol, pentazocine, theophylline, indinavir, clarithromycin, clozapine, imipramine, fluvoxamine, darunavir, ritonavir, midazolam, caffeine.
There are plenty of products in the market and this is why it is advisable to consult your doctor or pharmacist before purchasing any of them. Depending on the form of the preparation, it is recommended to take echinacea three times a day, for a short period of time (usually up to 10 days) in the following doses:
- Powdered extract – 300mg
- Tincture (1:5 in 45% alcohol) – 1 to 3 mL
- Tea made from dried root – 0,5 to 1g
- Stabilized liquid extract (1:1 in 45% alcohol) – 0,25 to 1,25 mL
- Intravenous use is not recommended and should be avoided
Long-term use of echinacea preparations should, in any case, be avoided due to its impact on the immune system.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Before using any product, you must consult with your doctor or pharmacist.
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