From the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of The Essential Herbal
By Joe Smulevitz
One of the most popular medicinal plants in North America for stimulating the immune system is Echinacea. Its history can be traced to 1753, when a Swedish botanist, Linnaeus gave the plant its scientific name Rudbeckia purpurea. The name Echinacea came from the German botanist, Conrad Moench in 1794. He named the genus Echinacea, which is derived from the Greek word echinos (denoting sea urchin or hedgehog), referring to the plant’s sea urchin like cone-shaped seed head.
Echinacea is native to North America and is a genus of the aster family. The plant grows in mid-western North America from southern Saskatchewan, westward to Texas, eastward to Georgia, northward to southern Canada and the areas in between. Its most common name coneflower comes from the unique large cone shaped beam in the center portion of the flower head (the disk). It is known by different names in various parts of the United States, including snakeroot, black Sampson, red sunflower and Indian head. In North America there are nine species of the drought and frost tolerant perennial with stunning, daisy like flower heads. The colors of the flower heads vary from deep purplish-pink to white.
Only three of the species have a history of use and clinical testing, including E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea. The species differ in appearance. The angustifolia is narrow-leaved with short ray petals that do not droop. The pallida is taller and sturdier than angustifolia with pale purple flowers that droop and curve towards the stem. Echinacea purpurea is the tallest. The flower heads are large and colorful. The flowers are rose to deep purple. Purpurea’s lowermost leaves are coarsely toothed with irregular teeth, distinguishing this species form the other common Echinaceas. There are two species that are listed as federally endangered in the United States. They include E. tennesseensis from Tennessee and E. laevigata from the Appalachians. The other four species include E. paradoxa that is yellow-flowered, E.simulata similar to the pallida, E. sanguinea and E. atrorubens.
Echinacea was traditionally used as a blood purifier for fever and skin conditions. Since the 1990s, Echinacea has been one of the most popular herbal remedies, primarily used as a short-term stimulant for the immune system to help fight colds and flus. The roots and aerial parts are used medicinally. Echinacea preparations are useful for a wide variety of other conditions: These include general infection, poorly healing wounds, urinary tract infections, enlarged lymph glands, sore throat, bites, stings, allergies, skin regeneration, psoriasis, and other inflammatory conditions. Echinacea helps increase non-specific activity of the immune system, enabling immune cells to effectively attack viruses, bacteria, and abnormal cells as opposed to specific immunity such as antibiotics which are directly lethal to bacteria.
At the first sign of cold or flu, take Echinacea every 1 to 2 hours. The acute dose consists of 10 to 20 drops of Echinacea as a tincture, or 3 to 4 capsules every 2 hours, or 1-2 tablets every couple of hours. Slowly reduce dosage frequency as symptoms subside, lowering to 3 times per day after condition has cleared. It has been my personal experience that maximum stimulation occurs with frequent initial doses, when I feel a cold or flu coming on. For prevention purposes, take 3 times daily for one or two weeks, than stop for a rest. In cases of chronic immune imbalances take up to 3 or 4 times daily one week on and one week off. Use for longer than 10 consecutive days is not recommended even though some herbalists suggest using Echinacea on an ongoing basis. German researches have found that activation of phagocytosis (a process in which phagocytes destroy circulating bacteria, viruses or foreign bodies) lasts only 10 days and afterwards the immune system becomes accustomed to the dosage and no longer responds.
E. purpurea or/and angustifolia are the preferred species used medicinally. There are many kinds of commercial products available such as: Liquid extract or tincture of the root, capsules from the dried, powdered root of the herb, teas from the leaves or flowers and preparations made from the fresh juice of E. purpurea aerial parts, the best studied Echinacea preparation. This form of Echinacea is approved by the German Commission E, a group of experts that evaluates herbal medicines in Germany and serves as a guideline in Europe for regulation and supervision of herbal supplements.
Unfortunately, adulteration in the Echinacea trade has existed since 1909. The roots of Parthenium integrifolium has been used in some commercial products. Its root when cut and sifted looks like E. angustifolia root, but not E. purpurea. It is important to purchase products from reputable companies that identify or grow their own Echinacea, preferably “certified organically grown.” Purchase preparations as fresh as possible since the roots lose their effectiveness once exposed to air, warmth or moisture for more than a few months. Capsules in glass bottles last longer than if they are packed in plastic. Liquid preparation or tinctures retain their potency the longest. The alcohol in tinctures is irritating to some people but can be diluted by boiling.
Echinacea is a safe herbal medicine with no overdosed, contraindication, drug interactions of note, and few adverse effects having been reported. This is in sharp contrast to over the counter medications. The only unfavorable reports with Echinacea have been skin rashes, unpleasant taste in the mouth, and rare cases of nausea and vomiting. Echinacea should not be used by people who have tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, or autoimmune disorders (diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis), according to the Commission E. The concern arises of the possibility of the antibodies formed by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissue.
Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.