Part 1 of 2
by Susan Stanton
I first became acquainted with echincea in my early twenties. Working daily with young children– lots of runny noses– I was always getting sick or feeling anxious about getting sick. During an ordinary walk to work one day I had an extraordinary experience– being visited by what I will call a Plant Spirit– an Echinacea Plant Spirit. Looming about a foot in front of me the presence seemed to say, “I am here and you don’t need to worry.” After a moment of relief, confident that my sore throat would not blossom into a bout of cold or flu, I forgot about the experience for about 23 years.
Long before my journey with echinacea, in fact, centuries before the native North American plant became a best-selling cold and flu remedy in natural food stores, Plains Indians used Echinacea purpurea to treat snake bites, sore throat and gums, toothache, coughs, tonsillitis, sepsis, inflammation, and other conditions.
Modern clinicians (herbalists, naturopaths, and other holistic health practitioners) use echinacea along with other herbs to heal wounds, brown recluse spider bites, urinary tract infections, cervical dysplasia, and various conditions requiring antimicrobial, cleansing, immune, and tissue– healing support. Often– and for good reason– practitioners, consumers, gardeners, parents, teachers, etc., call upon echinacea to help deal with upper respiratory infections (URIs) such as the common cold or flu.
How does echinacea work during an acute upper respiratory infection?
Echinacea has direct antimicrobial effects on viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Incidentally, bacteria and viruses do not become resistant to echinacea the way they do with pharmaceutical antibiotic and antiviral drugs.
Echinacea stimulates the activity of phagocytes, the white blood cells that engulf and destroy viruses, bacteria, infected cells, and cellular debris.
Echinacea can lessen inflammation resulting from the immune response.
Read that last one again. Symptoms such as fever, runny nose, and cough are not the direct effect of viruses and bacteria, but the immune system’s inflammatory response to being infected with these pathogens. Echinacea does not just stimulate the immune system and kill pathogens. It regulates the immune system so that symptoms diminish and healing can happen more efficiently. We call a plant that does this an immunomodulator.
While research has proven echinacea’s ability as an immunomodulator to regulate the immune system, some herbalists still refer to echinacea as an “immune stimulant.” While I partially agree with this designation, it is unfortunate that it has caused fear of “overstimulating” the immune system, for example in people with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, clinical research has shown that echinacea does not trigger symptoms in these people as feared. But this brings up a good point: Echinacea is not always the best herb to take when concerned about getting sick.
Echinacea usually does its best work during acute infections. If a person is getting repeated infections, however, or wants to start the season with a well-prepared immune system– an herbal health practitioner may suggest immune tonics that strengthen a weak immune system, such as the adaptogens discussed in my December article. Remember all those young children with runny noses I mentioned? Back when I was constantly wiping noses, or getting sneezed on, I learned that I had less frequent need for echinacea if I used eleuthero, astragalus, or medicinal mushrooms such as turkey tail, maitake, shiitake, or reishi for several weeks at a time in early fall or when I felt depleted. You too may find that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of echinacea!
Knowing which herbs to use can relieve anxiety and so can this: recent research has inspired the creation of a new echinacea product that helps reduce anxiety. Europharma’s AnxioFit-1 features a specific alkamide from Echinacea angustifolia roots that has anxiety-relieving activity in the brain. While large amounts of echinacea, are needed for immune modulation (see the next article on this), AnxioFit-1 is only effective at very low doses. Reflecting on this and other uses for echinacea, I realize that what the “Plant Spirit” told me years ago was true in more ways than one: “You don’t have to worry.”
Still, some research has caused people to think echinacea doesn’t work. This claim is not the fault of the plant but rather a lack of knowledge on the part of the person using echinacea. So, in my next article, we’ll look at critical issues such as the correct species, preparation methods, and dosage for optimal echinacea effectiveness. These are critical with regard to current research and opinions about proven ways in which echinacea works.