What do you think of when you think of echinacea? If you're like most people, you likely think of it as the herb that you reach for when you have a cold. Even for people disinclined to use herbal medicines, echinacea is pretty well known as an "immune stimulant". And although this is true to some extent, it is not the end of the story. Echinacea indeed has immune stimulating properties, due to the presence of certain polysaccharides, but the immune system is complicated and just because a certain component stimulates one part of the immune system, it does not always been it is appropriate to use for stimulating other immune pathways. As such, echinacea is not a herb to be used indiscriminately as a "cure all."
Research on Echinacea
There have been a number of studies on echinacea that have concluded that echinacea is ineffective for minor head colds and minor upper respiratory infections. According to herbalist, Matthew Wood, the studies were flawed because echinacea was not being studied for the traditional herbal uses (discussed below).
However, there are studies that do support the use of echinacea in the prevention and treatment of acute upper respiratory tract infections. Other research has shown echinacea has been shown to have some activity agains Streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as Trichomonas vaginalis and Candida albicans.
Traditional use of Echinacea
Traditionally, echinacea was used for more serious infections, not mild respiratory infections. According to Matthew Wood, it is most indicated in boils (especially cases of chronic boils), abscesses and long term stress and exhaustion. Echinacea is a great herb for the person who works themselves very hard and gets sick the moment they relax or get a day off. Interestingly, if misused and taken over the long term, echinacea can actually make a person feel exhausted.
The traditional herbalists used echinacea for its immune stimulating properties, but specifically in cases where the individual was extremely exhausted and also where there was a depressed circulation (dark, swollen veins) and sluggish lymph (swollen glands). Also, echinacea was used in cases of septic infections, sores, bee stings, tonsillitis, and eczema due to "bad blood".
Effect on the Immune System
Echinacea increases white blood cells, therefore is indicated to cases where an increase in white blood cell production is required to fight serious infections. The polysaccharides activate macrophages, which destroy microbes. Other white blood cell levels are also increased, helping to fight infection.
Echinacea as "Snake Medicine"
Echinacea is considered a "snake medicine" by the Indians for the Great Plains. They used it to treat snake bites. The reason that this worked for them is that echinacea inhibits hyaluronidase, an enzyme in the venom of rattlesnakes and brown recluse spiders, that breaks down hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is a chemical that holds the cells of your body together. Rattlesnake bites and brown recluse spider bites inject hyaluronidase into your body, which leads to break down of tissue that can be disfiguring and even life threatening. This should not be thought of as an alternative to anti-venom, by any means, but it would not hurt to carry a tincture of echinacea root with you while hiking in rattlesnake territory, in the case of a rattlesnake bite, to take orally and also apply topically while you seek out anti-venom.
Some bacteria also activate hyaluronidase as a way of getting past the body's connective tissue defenses. Echinacea, as a hyaluronidase inhibitor, fights back against this bacterial tactic to create infection. Additionally, anti-hyaluronidase activity helps to repair the damage to connective tissue that occurs during an infection.
Dr. Harvey Felter warned that echinacea is "by no means a cure all". Echinacea is far too often inappropriately used as a daily immune booster. This is not ideal and if used when not indicated over the long term, echinacea can actually cause what it is supposed to cure; it can lead to exhaustion. A more appropriate use of echinacea would be using it to treat active infection or at the very first signs of an infection, especially when there is also exhaustion, lymphatic stasis and a depressed immune system.
Frances, D. (2014). Practical wisdom in natural healing:. Chandler, AZ: Polychrest Publishing.
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Wood, M. (1998). The book of herbal wisdom: using plants as medicine. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Wood, M. (2009). The earthwise herbal: a complete guide to New World medicinal plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.