Echinacea is a versatile and popular herb derived from the purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, E. pallida), a plant native to North America. The healing compounds are found in both the root and the aboveground parts of the herb.
Traditional uses: Echinacea (pronounced eck-in-a-shuh) was a favorite herb of various Native American tribes, who used it to treat snakebites, insect bites, and wounds. Its use in strongly alcoholic, over-hyped patent medicines of the late 1800's may have given rise to the pejorative term "snake oil" applied to quack cures. Modern research has demonstrated the herb offers real herapeutic benefits.
* Colds, Flu, and Respiratory infections: There is limited
clinical evidence that sufficient oral doses of Echinacea can reduce the
duration and severity of upper respiratory infectionsócolds, bronchitis,
pneumonia, flu, etc. There is more evidence that injected doses of echinacea
are an effective therapeutic agent against respiratory infections, especially
in children. Results of two placebo-controlled, double blind German studies
indicate that therapeutic doses of Echinacea purpurea may reduce the severity of
colds, and that continuous use may reduce their frequency. Patients with weakened immune response
(CD4/CD8 ratio less than 1.5) received the most benefit. The dose was critical.
Treatment with two droppersful (450 mg) of a crude alcohol extract (1:5
ratio of herb to alcohol) was ineffective, but treatment with 4 droppersful
(900 mg) produced a statistically significant advantage over placebo. Several
controlled clinical trials of European herb formulas featuring echinacea
(i.e., Esberitox) have shown benefit in reducing the frequency, duration
and severity of flu.
* Echinacea was found to have no clear advantage over placebo
in preventing upper respiratory tract infections, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled
trial involved 289 volunteers. Proportions of participants receiving Echinacea who developed an infection
were slightly lower than placebo, but this could have been due to chance.
Two out of three other controlled trials produced similarly inconclusive
results with regard to prevention.
Do scientists know how it works? Research has not clearly identified the herb's primary immune-stimulating constituents. Echinacea contains polysaccharides such as inulin and other compounds known to activate white blood cells and boost the immune system (e.g.,fucogalactoxyloglucans, arabinogalactan). Echinacea increases levels of the antiviral substance interferon (an important part of the body's response to viral infections such as colds and the flu) as well as an immune-related blood protein known as properdin. Echinacea also prompts the thymus, bone marrow, and spleen to develop more immune cells.
Other immunity-stimulating compounds include aliphatic amides; isobutylamides
of polyenyne, polyine, and polyene acids; phenols, including mono- and dicaffeate of tartaric
acid (cichoric acid, etc.), volatile oil, and derivatives of caffeic acid (dicaffeoylquinic acids,
cynarin, echinacoside, chlorogenic acid). Echanoside possesses bacterio- and fungistatic properties.
Types of products: Herbal companies offer Echinacea in a wide variety
of dry and liquid forms, including freeze-dried, tablets, capsules, fresh
juice, concentrated drops, tinctures, teas, ointments, and gels. Echinacea
extracts may be standardized for low percentages of compounds such as echinacoside.
Echinacea is often combined with goldenseal, elderberry, vitamin C, zinc,
propolis, and other natural substances. Many herbalists and users believe
that the potency of a liquid Echinacea extract is revealed by the strength
of the tingling sensation produced on the tongue by its isobutylamidesóand
the stronger the better.
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