Echinacea is one of the most popular supplements in the U.S., being touted for its use in preventing and treating the common cold. You can find Echinacea in various forms including pills and teas or you can buy the actual plant parts and press out its juice. The question is “Does it work?”. Listen to today’s episode to find out!
Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking. I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann.
During the cold and flu season, many people break out their various pills and concoctions to boost their immune system and ward off the germs. Among these is the ever-popular Echinacea, the topic of today’s episode.
Echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower or black-eyed susan, is a perennial that originates in Eastern North America. There are three varieties that are used for their medicinal properties—(I will substitute the letter E for Echinacea when talking about the different varieties which are: Echinacea purpurea (or E, purpurea, E pallida, and E angustifolia, with E. purpurea being the most potent. Echinacea sales represent about 10% of the whole US dietary supplement market, so I’m sure that either you or someone you know uses this.
Echinacea is toted for its potential effects in preventing and treating colds and upper respiratory tract infections. Historically, Native Americans used Echinacea to treat coughs, sore throats, headaches, and other ailments. We adopted this practice and use Echinacea primarily to reduce the symptoms and duration of colds.
The constituent of Echinacea that gives this pharmacological effect is the caffeic acid derivatives, including (forgive the scientific names) cichoric acid and echinacosides among others. Cichoric acid is the main phenolic compound in E. purpurea and works to stimulate the immune system, and protect against free radicals (bad foreign bodies). Echinacosides are the main phenolic compound in the other types of Echinacea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida. They work as anti-oxidants and also have anti-inflammatory properties.
So basically the way Echinacea is supposed to work is through a short-term stimulation of the immune system, where there are greater amounts of circulating white blood cells and an activation of other cells that fight off foreign bodies.
That was the good news. Now here’s the bad news. Research shows that this doesn’t work very well.
Note: all the studies that I’m going to talk about are randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials—the gold standard, so what they have to say is reliable.
The first study was done in 2006 on 32 subjects for 28 days and found that there was no significant different in the number of colds between those taking E purpurea or a placebo, but in those with colds, the duration of the cold was significantly less for the Echinacea group.
The second study was conducted on 48 subjects for 2 weeks comparing cold symptom scores in people taking E. purpurea with those taking a placebo. There was a trend towards a decrease in the amount of symptoms and the frequency of colds in the Echinacea group.
The third study was conducted on 58 subjects for 2 months and also measured symptom scores. This study found an insignificant difference in the number of symptoms, though the median total # of sick days was less.
The fourth study was conducted on 128 subjects for about 7 days and also used symptom scores as their research tool. Once again, there was no statistically significant difference between the placebo group and the E purpurea group.
Lastly and thank you for bearing with me, a questionnaire was given to 95 subjects who had early symptomsm of a cold or flu and were given Echinacea Tea or a placebo. This study did show a significant difference between the 2 treatments, with the Echinacea tea being more effective for relieving symptoms.
So, what should I take from all these studies and their findings? Well:
Know that the Studies done on Echinacea are full of methodologic problems (type and dose of Echinacea used, when it was administration (morning, night, etc), outcomes measured (runny nose, sore throat, symptoms in general, etc)
Also remember that the Studies are inconclusive as to benefits of Echinacea in URTI, and there is no strong evidence for its use in prevention of colds or URTI
Since there’s a very low # of side effects?no one should tell you not to take it, but know that there is no scientific agreement on its benefits due to the fact that the study designs are not the same, and be sure to take only the type that has been studied (E. purpurea, E. pallida, E. angustifolia)
For the greatest immunity boost, choose the fresh pressed, upper-part juice extract of E. purpurea ; the root extracts of E. purpurea also have health-promoting properties.
For safety’s sake, Do not use for > 2 weeks
You should also know that though there are few side effects, people with asthma, allergic rhinitis, or skin allergies can have flare-up of their disease and should avoid Echinacea. Also, people who are allergic to certain plants such as (ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and similar plants) can have an allergic reaction to Echinacea. Echinacea should not be taken by patients with chronic immune-mediated disease, and studies have not been conducted on either pregnant/lactating women or children, so Echinacea should not be used in these populations.
Echinacea can interact with some drugs, so it should not be taken along with immunosuppressants or hepatotoxic drugs, and It also has the potential to interfere with anesthesia
I hope that I’ve stock-piled you full of good, research-based evidence to help you decide if you want to take Echinacea and what kind you should take if you choose to do so.
Thanks for listening to nutritionally speaking and I’ll see you next time!