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Echinacea

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echinacea EchinaceaOverview:

One of the most popular herbs in America today, Echinacea is the Native American medicinal plant best known for helping prevent or shorten the effect of colds and flu symptoms. This immune support herb is believed to:

  • increase white blood cell activity
  • fight infections
  • have antibacterial properties
  • stimulate adrenal glands
  • stimulate bone marrow
  • counteract immune suppression (such as form chemo)
  • reduce tissue inflammation

Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general “cure-all.” Throughout history people have used echinacea to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria. Although this herb was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, its use began to decline in the United States after the introduction of antibiotics.

Echinacea preparations became increasingly popular in Germany throughout the 20th century. In fact, most of the scientific research on echinacea has been conducted in Germany.

Today, people use echinacea to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu and reduce symptoms, such as sore throat (pharyngitis), cough, and fever.

Herbalists also recommend echinacea to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections.

General Uses

Several laboratory and animal studies suggest that echinacea contains active substances that enhance the activity of the immune system, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral, and antioxidant effects. For this reason, professional herbalists may recommend echinacea to treat urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast (candida) infections, ear infections (also known as otitis media), athlete’s foot, sinusitis, hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis), as well as slow-healing wounds. One study even suggests that echinacea extract exerted an antiviral action on the development of recurrent HSVI when supplied prior to infection.

Common Cold

Whether or not echinacea helps prevent or treat the common cold remains under debate. Some studies have shown that the herb can make you feel better faster. Others suggest that echinacea has no impact on a cold at all. Several clinical trials have shown that people who take echinacea as soon as they feel sick reduce the severity of their cold and have fewer symptoms than those who do not take the herb. One study of 95 people with early symptoms of cold and flu (such as runny nose, scratchy throat, and fever), found that those who drank several cups of echinacea tea every day for 5 days felt better sooner than those who drank tea without echinacea.

A review of 14 clinical trials found that echinacea reduced the odds of developing a cold by 58% and the duration of a cold by 1 – 4 days. However, some experts dispute these findings claiming that there were several weaknesses in the analyses. Echinacea preparations tested in clinical trials differ greatly. It is important to choose a high quality echinacea supplement. Talk to your health care provider for recommendations.

Nutrient Composition

Echinacea contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects. These include polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids.

The chemicals contained in the root differ considerably from those in the upper part of the plant. For example, the roots have high concentrations of volatile oils (odorous compounds) while the above-ground parts of the plant tend to contain more polysaccharides (substances known to trigger the activity of the immune system). The combination of these active substances is responsible for echinacea’ s beneficial effects, though research suggests that the above ground portion is most effective.

In Germany (where herbs are regulated by the government), the above ground parts of Echinacea purpurea are approved to treat colds, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and slow healing wounds. The root of the Echinacea pallida plant is also approved for the treatment of flu like infections.

A study performed by ConsumerLab.com (an independent company that tests the purity of health, wellness, and nutrition products) found that of 11 brands of echinacea purchased for testing, only 4 contained what was stated on their labels. About 10% had no echinacea at all; half were mislabeled as to the species of echinacea in the product; and more than half of the standardized preparations did not contain the labeled amount of active ingredients.

In rare cases, echinacea may cause allergic reactions ranging from a mild rash to anaphylaxis (a life threatening reaction accompanied by throat tightening, shortness of breath, and, possibly, fainting). People with asthma and allergies may be at an increased risk for developing these adverse reactions. People with allergies to plants in the daisy family (compositae) should not take echinacea unless they do so under the supervision of a health care provider.

Possible Interactions:

If you are taking any of the following medications, you should not use echinacea without first talking to your health care provider:

Econazole — Echinacea may be useful in combination with econazole, an antifungal agent used to treat yeast infections (such as athlete’s foot). When echinacea is used together with econazole, recurrence rates of these infections may be reduced.

Immunosuppressants — Immunosuppressants refers to a group of medications that are used for two main purposes — treat cancer and suppress the immune system following organ transplant so that the new organ is not rejected. Because echinacea can enhance immune function, people should not use the herb with immunosuppressive medications, especially when taken for organ transplant.

In terms of cancer treatment, a couple of test tube studies imply that echinacea may be useful when used in combination with cyclophosphamide, one medication in this class. Using echinacea with this or other chemotherapy agents that act as immunosuppressants, may allow the cancer fighting medicines to kill the tumors while still protecting the immune system. If this theory proves to be correct then echinacea could possibly prevent many of the side effects of chemotherapy.

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