The Truth About Echinacea and How to Use It to Boost Your Immunity
Here we go.
It’s that time of the year when the joys of the fall season are overshadowed by the return of the ever-dreaded cold and flu bug. And this year is no different. Already our local news has been warning the public of a new emerging virus – Enterovirus D68 – which, although related to the mild common cold (Rhinovirus), has placed many in the hospital with severe respiratory distress. (Source)
Thankfully, our family has found over the years that a dose of homemade Winter Immunity Tincture is just what’s needed to ward off colds and flus.
Echinacea: A True Fighter
Although a majority of the public would by no means call themselves “herbalists”, chances are most have heard of the medicinal herb, echinacea. This astringent plant has exploded in popularity over the last decade as THE natural home health “treatment” for colds and flus. And little wonder!
Echinacea is proven to reduce the length and severity of the common cold and can inactivate many strains of influenza, including the much dreaded H1N1 that struck fear into the hearts of many back in 2008/2009. (Source)
Historically echinacea was utilized by Native Americans for a variety of uses and it continued to be valued through the early 1900s. But with the advent of antibiotics, echinacea fell out of the spotlight until recently… when drug-resistant bacteria arrived on stage. Now people are once again fascinated with this healing plant and are forking out millions of dollars to determine if it really is the virus-fighting warrior the health market pronounces it to be.
But surprisingly, many find themselves disappointed in echinacea’s healing powers.
Sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work… but why?!
There’s still a lot science has yet to uncover about this special herb and how it works, but there are a few key tips that can ensure it’s powerful healing effects work to boost your immune health!
By following these tips I think you’ll agree with me that echinacea IS a wonderful herb to keep stocked in your natural medicine cabinet this winter and all year long!
Tip #1: Know Your Echinacea Species
Did you know there are nine different species within the echinacea family?
Of these nine species only three are recognized for medicinal use, with the two most used species in the United States being Echinacea purpurea (E. purpurea) and Echinacea angustifolia (E. angustifolia).
Historically E. angustifolia was the species of choice for healing. The first individuals to use the herb in the medical community were the Eclectics, a group of early American botanical physicians who were alerted to the benefits of echinacea by the prairie doctors of the Midwest following the Civil War. The latter had, in turn, gained knowledge of the herb from the Dakota and Sioux Indians. These groups predominately used E. angustifolia for their medicinal needs.
However, herbalists have long debated which species is best.
Truth is, each echinacea species possess different medicinal properties that affect the body in different ways. The concentrations of these properties, too, can vary considerably from plant to plant, harvest to harvest, etc. This can play a huge role in echinacea’s ability to help you fight off your cold or flu.
That being said, BOTH E. purpurea and E. angustifolia contain immune-stimulating properties. The most recognized of these properties are the caffeic acid derivatives (chiefly echinacoside) and the water-soluble polysaccharides.
And here’s where the species start to differ.
E. angustifolia notably contains echinacoside, a caffeic acid derivative NOT found in E. purpurea. (Source) This particular phytochemical has demonstrated antibiotic activity against dreaded bacteria such as Strep and Staph, and offers protection against free radical cell damage. (Source)
But where E. purpurea falls short in echinacoside, it leads the way in possessing an abundance of immune-stimulating polysaccharides not found in E. angustifolia. (Source)
So does it matter which species you use?
Is one variety really better than another?
Stephen Buhner, author of the fantastic book Herbal Antivirals, strongly asserts that E. purpurea is generally useless for treating colds and flus. He goes on to say that E. angustifolia is stronger and generally more effective at treating influenza and cold viruses.
In Mr. Buhner’s clinical experience this rings true, but many scientific studies conclude that E. purpurea demonstrates a strong affinity to warding off these viruses, too.
And the debate continues.
So what’s the takeaway? If you find one echinacea species doesn’t seem to work for you, be sure to try the other.
And keep in mind it may not be the species that matters as much as the plant parts used and their preparations… as we’ll see in the following tips.
Tip #2: Know Your Echinacea Plant Parts
Just as each species varies in it’s medicinal properties and concentrations so does each plant PART. (Source) Choosing the proper part of the plant plays a huge role in echinacea’s ability to ward off a particular disease.
When considering echinacea’s use for colds and flus the following plant parts are preferable :
- For E. angustifolia the root should be used.
- For E. purpurea the fresh, aerial parts of the plant are best. (Source) The root does contain immune-stimulating polysaccharides as well, but the amount is much less.
To again quote Mr. Buhner:
…E. purpurea (in the form in use in most of the West [the root]) will not work [for treating viruses]. The Germans use only the fresh, stabilized juice of the stalks, not the root, and it is the root that nearly every American herbalist and company use in their products.
Herein lies one reason why echinacea may seem to be ineffective. Within the natural health market you’ll find E. purpurea root used in most standard echinacea products. E. purpurea is significantly easier to grow than it’s counterpart E. angustifolia, making it the cost-effective species of choice for manufacturers. Furthermore, the fluid extract of E. purpurea is generally more costly to produce and is thus avoided by mainstream producers in favor of the dried root.
Tip #3: Know the Best Echinacea Preparations
Not only do mainstream manufacturers miss the mark in their choice of plant parts, but also in their preferred preparations of those parts. This is perhaps the greatest reason why echinacea fails to produce desired results for many.
Echinacea products available at your local drug store are chiefly available in capsule form.
Placebo at best. Don’t waste your money on echinacea capsules. They just won’t work!
To again quote Mr. Beher:
Capsules, of any [echinacea] species, are completely useless for viral and bacterial infections.
Here’s why: For echinacea to work the plant components must touch the affected membranes. The plant components responsible for giving echinacea it’s immuno-stimulating properties do not seem to be absorbed into the bloodstream, which is why they are only effective when they come into direct contact with the virus. (Source 1, Source 2)
Consequently, one of the most effective ways to use this plant is as an infusion or decoction.
And if you’re not a fan of echinacea’s astringent taste flavoring your cup of tea, consider using a tincture instead!
As a side note, a good quality echinacea should leave a tingling sensation in the mouth and on the tongue because of it’s astringent properties. You can also use the sensation to help you determine if your echinacea stash is still fresh and potent.
Tip #4: Know How to Take Echinacea
Last but not least, Echinacea requires a few things to work well:
- A healthy, functioning immune system with lots of white blood cells ready for action
- A head start in waging battle against microbial opponents
- A short period of use followed by a time-out 🙂
As previously mentioned, echinacea’s immune-stimulating benefits come from the way it’s water-soluble polysaccharrides and caffeic acid derivatives mobilize the body’s white blood cells to engulf and destroy viruses. Thus, without a healthy population of white blood cells, echinacea’s capacity to fight infection is limited.
Furthermore, take your echinacea preparation at the FIRST sign of a cold or flu! Echinacea likes to have a head start marching onto the battlefield and thus should be taken at the first onset of infectious symptoms (within the first 24 hours). It’s stimulating activity will offer little help once microbial opponents have established a stronghold within the body. (Source)
According to Mr. Buhner:
If [a] virus penetrates deeper into the body the herb just won’t work…. [Echinacea] is only effective at the first sign of infection!
This is one reason why echinacea is such an excellent herb to pair with other immunomodulating herbs like elderberry, eluthero, reishi and astragalus. While echinacea is certainly useful for shortening the duration of a cold or flu, other herbs like elderberry are sure-fire choices for warding off colds and flu and helping the body overcome a virus for the long-term.
Lastly, studies have demonstrated that echinacea should not be taken for extended periods or else the body may become accustomed to it’s immune stimulating effects, reducing it’s benefits to the body. Herbalists believe the herb to be more effective at stimulating the immune system when taken in an “on-off regime”, such as 2 weeks on, 1 week off.
At the end of the day…
Echinacea is a wonderful anti-viral herb to keep on hand for fighting off whatever viruses may come your way!
And here’s one last tip: If you find yourself still debating which echinacea variety to use (E. angustifolia or E. purpurea) consider using both! In fact, herbalists do agree that an ideal echinacea preparation should include a combination of BOTH popular species of echinacea.
In keeping with this, I’ve purposefully included both E. angustifolia and E. purpurea in our Winter Immunity Tincture.
Could that be why the tincture works so well? I’m not sure, but I do know I love incorporating this herb into my family’s winter cold/flu regime and I’m sure you will too!
Interested in grabbing your own bottle of Winter Immunity Tincture? Click here!