What is Echinacea?
Echinacea (pronounced “eh-kin-AY-sha”), also known as purple coneflower, is one of the top selling herbal supplements in American. In fact, of the estimated 60 million Americans taking botanical remedies, 50 million of them have used Echinacea. The herb’s name derives from the Greek word “Echino” meaning hedgehog (its spiny central disk resembles the spines of an angry hedgehog).
How Does it Work?
Native Americans and Europeans have long used Echinacea purpurea (and other species of the plant) to boost the immune system, prevent colds and flu, and fight infections. It is thought that Echinacea works by activating a number of chemicals (complement, interferon, tumor necrosis factor) which then recruit immune cells into areas of infection. The movie courtesy of NPR NPR shows an animated depiction of what an encounter between bacteria and our immune cells might look like.
There is an ongoing debate about whether Echinacea is effective against the common cold with some studies showing that the herb is effective, and others casting doubt on its effectiveness. Part of the reason for the disparity in study results has to do with collecting methods (i.e. during what part of the plants lifecycle was it collected, what species was used, what region of the world was the herb grown in, and what part of the herb was used-flowers, roots) which can greatly affect the amount of the active chemical present in the plant. For these reasons, it is important to use only high quality Echinacea supplements.
How To Use Echinacea
Freshness is important. Dried roots and powdered herbs in capsules can be old, minimizing their effectiveness, so look for fresh root tincture in natural food stores. Tinctures are a mixture of herbs in alcohol (alcohol-free tinctures are available). When you buy dried root for homemade remedies, check its freshness by tasting a piece: does it have a tingly, buzzy effect on your tongue and does it make you salivate? This test reveals if the herb is potent and if it will be effective. Typical doses are:
1) Capsule- Take 500mg by mouth three times daily for 5-7 days
2) E. Purpurea root extract- Take 3ml every 3-4 hours for the 1st two days of upper respiratory infection, then decrease the dosing to three times daily for the rest of the week.
3) Echinacea tea (made from E. purpurea or E. augustifolia root)- Take a 6-8 oz cup four times daily for the 1st two days of infection, then twice daily for the remainder of the week.