Echinacea is the most common over-the-counter natural medications out there. It’s been around for years and is most commonly used as an anti-dote to the common cold and a general immune system enhancer.
Echinacea is one of the most popular but least understood supplements out there. It’s not overrated, and it doesn’t contain medicinal uses that it doesn’t get credit for….it’s just that really, nobody knows a damn thing about echinacea.
It does seem to have very positive effects on general aspects of your immune system. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Immunopharmocology found that even with very low dosages Echinacea significantly increased immune cell count within the human body.
But when it comes to being able to recommend echinacea as a targeted antidote to a specific conditon? Fuhgetaboudit.
Most clinical trials done on Echinacea and the common cold are crap. For example a meta-study that analyzed 234 of the studies done on Echinacea and the common cold found that 231 of them had to be discarded due to poor quality. The problem is that the common cold is a generic condition and the quality of people’s immune systems vary wildly, so lumping two dozen sick people together and giving them some echinacea juice for 4 weeks tells you nothing.
The following excerpt sums up the general state of knowledge about echinacea and the common cold:
Existing controlled clinical trials indicate that preparations containing extracts of Echinacea can be efficacious immunomodulators. However, the evidence is still insufficient for clear therapeutic recommendations as to which preparation to use and which dose to employ for a specific indication. Further methodologically sound, randomized clinical trials should be conducted.
It’s really a mixed bag.
Why Deciphering the Usefulness of Echinacea is a Complicated Cluster****
Echinacea is not a distinct plant but a whole family of them. There are three different types of echinacea known as Echinacea Purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia, and Echinacea Pallida. The echinacea plant also consists of the root and the leaf, and the supplements you buy are different parts juice and extracts of the three species and two parts of the plant.
Put all this together and it’s all but impossible to get a clear picture of how echinacea treats sickness. E. purpurea and E. angustifolia are the most studied and consistently show the most general effect on the immune system. The root seems to contain most of the biologically active compounds found in the plant, of which there are several.
Not A Medicine, But Not Useless
Echinacea isn’t a cure for the common cold. At least not for most people most of the time. But it’s still a useful immune booster. The Purpurea and Angustifolia species of the plant consistently increase immune cell count in different animals, and seem to be able to reduce your chance of getting a cold even if you can’t really use it to treat the one you already have.
These two plants also seem to exhibit their effect at fairly low dosages, so you don’t have to load yourself up with dangerously high amounts to feel an effect. Most of the brands you buy in the store are Purpurea and Angustifolia already, so you needn’t be too picky about that. You’ll just want to make sure you’re eating the root and not the leaf, particularly if you’re taking E. Angustifolia. It has compounds like caffeic acid and alkamides which goose your immune system.
So What Does Work?
In my estimation a combination of fresh ginger tea, plenty of greens, and perhaps a zinc supplement are the best antidotes to fighting off the cold. Lots of rest helps too.
If you’d like to prep your immune system during flu season then echinacea is a sound bet, just don’t expect it to make you better once you’ve caught the bug.
Bauer, R. “Echinacea: Biological Effects and Active Principles”
Burger, Roger, et. al. “Echinacea Induced Cytokine Production by Macrophages”
Barrett, BP, et. al. “Treatment of the Common Cold with Unrefined Echinacea: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Trial”
Melchart, D. et. al. “Immunomodulation With Echinacea – A Systematic Review of Controlled Clinical Trials”