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Echinacea
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[Benefits of Echinacea | Echinacea Safety | How Echinacea Works]
[Echinacea Dosage | Scientific Support | References]

Photo of Echinacea flowerEchinacea, the purple coneflower, is the most widely used herb for stimulating the function of the immune system. Without a doubt, Echinacea is also America's favorite herbal remedy, topping the list of best selling herbs since 1996. While Echinacea may be a novelty to many modern Americans, Echinacea's current popularity has a historical precedent. Native Americans of the Great Plains region used Echinacea more than any other medicinal plant, and Echinacea was the most widely prescribed remedy of the American Eclectic physicians during the 1920's. After the introduction of antibiotics, Echinacea was all but forgotten in American medicine, despite the fact that antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections, including most colds. Today, however, with concerns about the dangers of antibiotic overuse on the rise, Echinacea extracts can once again be found in medicine cabinets across the country.

Millions of Americans and Europeans now use Echinacea as their primary therapy for colds, flu, minor infections, and Echinacea's general immune-boosting effects. European physicians prescribe Echinacea for minor infections and even use Echinacea in injectable form for a number of more serious conditions. Topical Echinacea preparations are used in the treatment of wounds, burns, eczema, psoriasis, herpes infections, and other skin conditions.

Echinacea, a North American native herb, is supported by an impressive record of laboratory and clinical research. According to the evidence, Echinacea increases the "nonspecific" activity of the immune system. In other words, unlike a vaccine, which is active only against a specific disease, Echinacea stimulates the overall activity of certain immune cells responsible for fighting infections. Unlike antibiotics, which are directly lethal to disease-causing bacteria, Echinacea makes the body's own immune cells more efficient in attacking bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells.

The best-studied and most widely used species of Echinacea are Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Echinacea pallida. There has been a great deal of speculation and some research aimed at determining which of these Echinacea species delivers the most potent immune-stimulating effects, with few conclusive results. The Echinacea research has been complicated by a number of factors, including variations in the types of Echinacea preparations and plant parts tested and even uncertainty about which Echinacea species were actually used in the Echinacea tests. Currently, the consensus among experts is that the three Echinacea species can be used interchangeably. There is no scientific evidence to support the notion that wild Echinacea angustifolia is a stronger or otherwise superior remedy to cultivated Echinacea purpurea. Researchers found that root and aerial (above ground) parts of Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia were roughly equivalent in activity in vitro (in laboratory studies) and in vivo (in the body).

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Benefits of Echinacea

  • Echinacea stimulates phagocytosis
  • Echinacea increases the number and activity of immune cells
  • Echinacea shortens the duration of colds and flu
  • Echinacea aids in the treatment of wounds and other skin problems

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Echinacea's Safety
Echinacea is considered an extremely safe herb with no known toxicity.
Side effects: None known.8
Contraindications: According to Commission E, Echinacea should not be used by people who have diseases such as tuberculosis, leukoses, collagenosis, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, HIV infection, and other autoimmune disorders.9 However, this recommendation has been challenged on the grounds that Echinacea's primary effect is stimulation of phagocytosis, and so would not be expected to exacerbate these diseases. Echinacea has demonstrated no adverse effects in people with any of the conditions listed above.10
Drug interactions: None known.9,11

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How Echinacea works
The immune system utilizes two basic approaches in defending the body against disease. These can be described simply as specific and nonspecific immune defenses. These two types of defenses work together to find and destroy disease-causing invaders, such as bacteria, but each in a somewhat different way. For a specific immune response, the immune cells must recognize specific invaders in order to destroy them. Immune cells called symphocytes (including B-cells, T-cells, and natural killer cells) are involved in specific immune responses. Vaccines work by stimulating the function of specific immune defenses.

Echinacea, on the other hand, stimulates the nonspecific activity of the immune system. Nonspecific immune defenses do not require immune cells to recognize invaders. Instead, invaders are destroyed by functions such as fever, release of antiviral proteins called interferons, and phagocytosiis, the process by which nonspecific immune cells engulf and destroy disease-causing organisms and abnormal cells. Stimulation of phagocytosis is one of Echinacea's best-documented effects. Echinacea increases the number and activity of immune cells called macrophages, granulocytes, and leukocytes, all of which are directly involved in phagocytosis, and stimulates the production of interferon and tumor necrosis factor. Echinacea also inhibits the action of enzyme hyaluronidase, which bacteria produce and use to help them gain access to healthy cells. Echinacea's benefits in helping to heal wounds are believed to be related to its ability to stimulate fibroblast production and to inhibit the body's production of hyaluronidase, which plays an important role in wound healing.3

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