When it comes to fighting nonviral infections, echinacea -- an herbal treatment and natural home remedy option -- is usually no substitute for punch-packing pharmaceutical antibiotics. But research does support echinacea's effectiveness for some viral infections -- such as the cold and flu -- because it significantly boosts your body's immune system and helps you to heal faster than you otherwise might.
Compared with some other herbal treatments, we know quite a bit about how echinacea works. In the past 35 years, more than 200 scientific studies have been conducted to determine the herb's safety and efficacy.
How Echinacea Works
Echinacea appears to boost the body's immune response. Unlike a vaccine, which is active only against specific invaders, echinacea stimulates overall activity of cells responsible for fighting any infection that exists in your body.
Unlike antibiotics, which simply kill bacteria, echinacea stimulates the body, at a cellular level, to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. In other words, echinacea tells your body to heal itself.
Early on, researchers determined that echinacea has a profound effect on the number and kind of blood cells in the bloodstream. Echinacea works by promoting the production of white blood cells when the percentage is too low and helps them get to where they can fight the infection more effectively.
The main active compounds in echinacea are complicated and fall into several categories. Complicating matters is the fact that there are some differences among the three main species of echinacea used. There is no single "magic bullet" chemical that explains how echinacea works -- it is a combination of many ingredients.
Some of echinacea's chemical constituents also appear to be involved in regrowth of connective tissue that has been destroyed during infection, an action that greatly stimulates the healing process.
When germs get into your bloodstream, they stimulate an enzyme called hyaluronidase to break down the connective tissue surrounding cells. Once these connective tissues have been compromised, germs can easily latch onto the cells and begin the progressive cellular destruction known as infection. But studies in Eastern Europe in the 1960s found that echinacea neutralizes hyaluronidase, so the germs can't get a cellular foothold.
Echinacea also helps your body to produce natural infection-fighting chemicals. Your spleen, liver, and lymph nodes contain large white blood cells called macrophages, which filter lymphatic fluid and blood and engulf and destroy bacteria, cellular debris, and other foreign particles in a process called phagocytosis.
Before a virus-infected cell dies, it releases a small amount of interferon, which boosts the ability of surrounding cells to resist infection. Echinacea stimulates macrophages to produce interferon and other immune-enhancing compounds, including interleukins, and tumor necrosis factor, which then fight off infections that cause colds, flu, respiratory and urinary tract illness, and other conditions.
The most consistently proven effect of echinacea is in stimulating a process called phagocytosis, which encourages white blood cells to attack invading organisms. Learn more on the next page.
Among other scientifically proven actions, echinacea:
- Increases the number and activity of immune system cells, including anti-tumor cells
- Stimulates new tissue growth to aid in wound healing
- Reduces inflammation in arthritis and inflammatory skin conditions
- Induces mild antibiotic action against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other germs
- Inhibits the enzyme hyaluronidase and helps prevent bacterial access to healthy cells
- Slows the spread of infection to surrounding tissues and helps to flush toxins from infected areas
In Germany, extensive research over the past few decades has uncovered a host of echinacea's infection-fighting properties, including the ability to power up the immune system, treat colds and flu, and prevent infection.
Researchers discovered this after bathing cells in echinacea extract and then exposing them to two potent viruses: those that cause influenza and herpes. Unlike the untreated cells, only a small proportion of echinacea-treated cells became infected.
A study in Germany in 1978 found that in the presence of echinacea, viruses and bacteria had a greatly diminished capacity for causing infections. That means the herb either prevents the virus from reproducing or actively competes with the virus for receptor sites on cells to which the pathogen is naturally attracted, thus preventing microbial invaders from gaining entrance to the cells.
Several research groups have tried to make sense of the echinacea studies using a process called metanalysis. This is a mathematical method that treats all the data of different studies as if the information were part of one large study.
All the groups note that the results of the research are inconsistent, but they do say that various preparations of echinacea have been shown to reduce the risk of catching a cold, to shorten the time people stay sick once infected, and to produce milder symptoms when people do get sick.
For example, one metanalysis conducted by Swiss researchers found that of the three studies that involved people taking standardized extracts of the flowering tops of Echinacea purpurea, the risk of developing a natural cold was about one-half that of people given a placebo (dummy pill). A group of German researchers concluded that extracts of Echinacea purpurea flowering tops are also generally more useful than placebo to reduce duration and severity of symptoms if started soon after a cold beings.
You may have heard about several large studies published in the past few years that came to negative conclusions about the efficacy of echinacea. However, almost all of these studies had serious flaws, which calls into question their validity.
For example, a large study (437 adults participated) of three tinctures of Echinacea angustifolia root was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005. This study found that none of the extracts studied was effective for preventing or treating experimentally induced colds. However, the doses used (1.5 milliliters, or a quarter-teaspoon, three times per day) were dramatically lower than what almost any clinician would ever recommend using.
A similar problem of underdosing (3.75 to 5 milliliters, or three-quarters to one teaspoon, twice per day) was the flaw in a large study of Echinacea purpurea flower juice that found no effects in treating symptoms of natural colds in 407 children (this study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004). Still, in this same group of children, taking these low doses did show a moderate ability to prevent them from catching colds.
To learn about how to use echinacea to treat a cold, continue to the next page.
Echinacea Cold Treatments
Using Echinacea to Treat Colds
Most herbalists advise taking echinacea in high doses the minute you feel a cold coming on, so your body can ward off the illness before symptoms get a foothold. If you have a sore throat, it is particularly useful to gargle echinacea tincture or juice mixed with water. This quickly reduces pain due to an anesthetic effect.
There's a myth that echinacea loses its effectiveness when used continually. There's no evidence to support this. Indeed, clinical evidence supports echinacea's effectiveness in long-term use.
Even if you do catch a cold, echinacea may help you to shake it off sooner than you otherwise might. During a period of infection, when the body is running low on resources, using echinacea to treat colds has been found to have a strong and direct force on the body's ability to speed healing. In other words, when you're in bed with a cold, your body can use all the help it can get.
Tackling the Flu
The same general results hold true for using echinacea to treat the flu. In one study conducted in Germany, liquid echinacea extract was shown to help ease the symptoms of influenza and speed recovery.
Another study, this one reported in 1978, found that echinacea root was significantly effective in attacking influenza viruses. Another clinical study, in 1992, found that volunteers who took echinacea showed marked resistance to flu viruses.
And volunteers who took echinacea, but who still came down with the flu, exhibited far fewer symptoms than untreated patients.
Every year, millions of people suffer from colds. Fortunately, by following the home remedies and natural treatment options outlined in this article, you can make your bouts with the sniffles more tolerable.
For more information on preventing and treating colds and flu, see the links on the next page.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.