Herbal Supplements
Echinacea: Wonder cure or Snake Oil?

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, has been touted for many years as the wonder herb for an immune system boost. In fact, it is one of the top-selling herbal supplements in the world. Consult almost any book on natural remedies and you will see it listed within the top few as the best defense against most kinds of viruses, infection and useful in reducing the severity of hay fever.

Herbalists believe it is good for purifying the blood and has antibiotic properties. It has even begun appearing in mainstream supplements and preparations such as the wildly popular Airborne and Emergen-C “anti-cold” supplements. Questions remain, however, about its efficacy, and even about the safety of using the herb.

Echinacea has a long history as a healing herb, the American Indians long used it for a variety of ills, including measles and snake bites. Some studies have shown that Echinacea has properties that help white blood cells attack foreign cells and may even have some benefit as a tumor cell defense by preventing the development of an enzyme which acts to destroy the natural barrier between healthy tissue and harmful organisms and cells (such as cancer and even AIDS).

It is believed Echinacea aids in the production of interferon which is used in the prevention of influenza and seems to help ward off herpes flare-ups and can reduce the intensity of cold and influenza symptoms.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration, however, has not found Echinacea able to live up to these claims, although may show some efficacy in prevention of colds in people who do not suffer from hay fever.

More recently, Echinacea has been shown to be ineffective in treating colds and flu-symptoms when taken within the first appearance of symptoms; however, a number of European studies seem to signify some effectiveness in reducing the severity and duration of symptoms, if not actual prevention. Echinacea may increase the symptoms of hay fever, as it is related to the plant which causes hay fever in sufferers.

Some who swear by the effectiveness of Echinacea take the supplement daily, however, there is some evidence that taking Echinacea daily for longer than 3 weeks may actually damage your immune system. However, a recent double-blind placebo study performed in Germany showed that individuals who took Echinacea tended to suffer as much as one-third fewer viral infections than those who received placebo.

Phenols seem to be the chemical compound that is useful in disease prevention and treatment. There are three different species of Echinacea – E. pupurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida. In each, phenols are found in different levels and in different parts of the plants themselves.

The efficacy of the Echinacea may depends not just on the species of Echinacea used, but also what part is used in the supplement preparation. For all varieties the highest concentration is found within the root system, but for the E. purpurea variety the phenols can be found in the root stock and the above-ground portions of the plant.

One major problem with Echinacea is that many of the commercially available Echinacea products do not seem to work, while others contain high levels of contamination from such dangerous substances as lead. Since most are considered supplements, they do not require FDA approval, and bear a warning that the claims made are not supported by the FDA.

This also means many of them do not come under the same level of scrutiny as other medicinal products and may, in fact, not carry the amount of the substances that they claim.

Many of the most respected herbalists and natural health practitioners suggest taking Echinacea at the first sign of a cold or flu, or when exposed to the virus for two weeks, then stopping. In this way, it is possible to avoid the dangers plaguing more traditional antibiotics, in which the bacteria have mutated to adapt to the antibiotics and are thus rendered ineffective treatments.

The best way to prevent infection is to protect your immune system. Echinacea remains unclear as to the precise health benefits, but does not seem to offer an dangers, so long as the preparation is free of contaminants.

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