Echinacea: Nature's Cold Fighter?

IMAGE Many people who become interested in herbs and natural remedies began with an introduction to echinacea, an herbal remedy commonly used for treating colds. Does it really work?

What Is It?

Echinacea is a perennial plant that grows 1-2 feet (0.3-0.6 meters) in height and looks something like a Black-eyed Susan. Grown both commercially and in the wild, its flower, stem, and root are marketed in pill, liquid, or powdered form.

What Is the Background on It?

Originally, echinacea was used by many Midwest Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of infections and poisonous snakebites. As early as the 1880s, echinacea came into favor among American medical practitioners. Despite the fact that in 1910 the American Medical Association dismissed echinacea as worthless, it remained popular in the United States until penicillin and other anti-infection drugs were discovered. In the 1930s, a German doctor, Gerhard Madaus, began researching the medicinal properties of echinacea. He discovered that it contained certain complex sugar molecules, known as polysaccharides, which he believed might stimulate the immune system. Dr. Madaus also developed a juice form of echinacea that was derived from the plant's flower.

What Is It Used for?

While echinacea has been promoted as a substance that can stimulate the immune system, this action has not been proven. There is no evidence that echinacea strengthens the immune system when taken over the long term. However, studies do support the use of echinacea as a treatment for colds and flu. The herb, taken at the first sign of illness, may reduce your symptoms and help you recover faster. It does not seem, though, that daily doses of echinacea will prevent you from getting sick. Echinacea has been studied for other infections, as well, like chronic bronchitis and ear infections, but more research needs to be done in these areas.

How Does It Work?

While it is not clear exactly how echinacea works, some evidence hints that echinacea acts by doing the following:
  • Stimulating phagocytosis, the process by which white blood cells and lymphocytes consume (and thus destroy) foreign organisms in the body
  • Increasing the rate at which the immune system ejects foreign organisms from the body
  • Increasing the number of cells working as part of the immune system
  • Increasing the production of interferon, a major component of the body's immune system

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