What is echinacea?
A member of the daisy (Asteraceae) family, the name echinacea is derived from the ancient Greek word “echinos”, which means spiny or hedgehog, referring to the spiky seed head. The common name for echinacea is “purple coneflower” due to its cone-shaped flowering head and drooping purple petals. Depending on its intended medicinal purpose, either the root or the whole plant is used. In particular, three species of echinacea have been studied for their therapeutic effects: Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida, each of which has slightly varying medicinal properties. Native to the United States and grown widely in Europe, echinacea can be found growing in environments as diverse as open meadows to damp locations such as swamps and river banks.
Native Americans therapeutically used echinacea over the centuries for ailments ranging from eye conditions to snake bites, infected wounds, eczema, and stomach ache. In the “wild West”, echinacea was the original “snake oil” as one doctor travelled the country promising it could cure snake bite and offering to let a rattlesnake bite him and then use echinacea to counter the venom’s effects (don’t try this one at home!). Due to its versatility echinacea became known colloquially as “The Prairie Doctor”.
In the early 20th century, a group of physicians called “Eclectics” used echinacea for kidney and urinary tract conditions, chronic bacterial infections and syphilis. Today, echinacea is among the most widely available herbal supplements. It’s used primarily for its immune-boosting effects and has a variety of applications.
Echinacea as medicine
Stimulating the immune system
Echinacea today is most commonly known for its ability to stimulate and support the immune system. Its active constituents (caffeic acids, flavonoids, essential oils and polysaccharides) combine synergistically in accomplishing this immune-stimulating effect via stimulating white blood cell production. It’s the white blood cells that are your first line of defence and that help fight off infectious invaders.
Echinacea angustifolia has been found to be a mild antibiotic that inhibits Staphylococcus aureus (Golden staph). Golden staph is the most common staph infection that can initiate conditions as benign as pimples and boils to insidious diseases such as meningitis and pneumonia.
The common cold and respiratory infections
As its name suggests, the “common cold” is one of the most pervasive of medical conditions. It can be as uncomfortable and debilitating as it is common, which is why echinacea is so useful. Echinacea can reduce the recovery time of a cold, lowering the severity of symptoms and lessening symptom duration. Echinacea root preparations have been noted to reduce nasal discharge, sore throats and stuffy noses evident in a cold.
Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) occur in the nose, sinuses, pharynx and larynx. Conditions such as pharyngitis, ear infections and laryngitis are all URTIs. Early intervention (within 1–7 days from onset of first symptom) with echinacea root preparations can reduce the severity of symptoms in people with URTIs.
Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums (gingivae) caused by plaque and tartar, stemming from bacterial or viral infections. When inflamed, the gums become red and swollen and bleed easily when cleaning with a toothbrush. Long-term infection may lead to pus coming from the gums (pyorrhea). Liquid echinacea (tincture) can be used as a mouthwash for both gingivitis and pyorrhea due to its antibacterial and immune-stimulating properties. One to two droppers of echinacea tincture can be used. Keep in mind that, although harmless, your tongue will temporarily tingle or go numb.
A natural skin treatment
Germany, in particular, has embraced echinacea as a topical natural skincare treatment for minor wounds, sunburn and inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, acne, boils, cold sores and impetigo. Echinacea’s antibacterial activity prevents the enzyme hyaluronidase from forming. Hyaluronidase is an enzyme that can destroy cell walls of the skin that would normally act as a barrier to bacteria and viruses. If the skin barrier is compromised in some fashion, such as in eczema, the antibacterial properties of echinacea will fight off both staph and strep infections.
The following provides a guide to how varying Echinacea preparations should be taken but does not replace advice from a qualified professional.
- Dried root: 0.5–1.0g three times daily
- Tincture (1:5): ½–1 teaspoon three times daily
- Dry powdered extract (standardised to 3.5 per cent echinoside): 300mg three times daily
- Liquid extract (1:1): ¼–½ teaspoon three times daily
It’s not necessary to take echinacea constantly as this may inhibit the body’s natural immune responses. Echinacea should be taken at the first onset of symptoms of a cold or URTI to be an effective immune stimulant. Some practitioners, however, do advocate using echinacea for a season, such as winter.
The above-ground parts of the plant and roots of echinacea can be used fresh or dried to make teas, juices, extracts or salves for external use.
A word of caution
Echinacea has an excellent safety profile and there is minimal risk with root preparations. An individual who has an allergy to related plants in the daisy family (daisies, ragweed, marigolds, chrysanthemums) may be more at risk of having an allergic reaction to echinacea.
Caution should be used in combining it with immunosuppressive drugs such as corticosteroids, cyclosporine, amiodarone, methotrexate and ketoconazole due to echinacea’s immune-stimulant properties.