Echinacea is a popular herbal supplement that is often taken to boost immunity. Its healing powers are associated with cancer, inflammation, and pain. Native Americans have been using echinacea for more than 400 years to treat wounds and cure infections. Scientific evidence also shows that echinacea can treat upper respiratory tract infections. Let us learn more about this beneficial herb and its numerous health benefits.
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea, also called the purple coneflower, is an herb that is native to the areas east of the Rocky Mountains in the US. Though this group of flowering plants in the daisy family has nine species, we use only three as herbal supplements. These include Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida (1).
The fresh or dried roots of these three species are used to treat various ailments. Flowers, leaves, and stems of Echinacea purpurea are also used. Echinacea contains a variety of active compounds, including caffeine acid, alkamides, phenolic acids, rosamarinic acid, polyacetylenes, and more (2). These compounds are responsible for the many health benefits of echinacea like improved immunity, reduced inflammation, and lower blood sugar levels.
History of Echinacea
Native Americans from the Great Plains Indian tribes have used echinacea for more than 400 years for medicinal purposes. The first archeological evidence dates from the eighteenth century. The traditional healers used echinacea for wounds, burns, and insect bites. They chewed the roots for toothache and throat infections. They also treated pain, cough, stomach cramps, and snake bites through the internal application of echinacea.
The first Echinacea preparation, known as Meyers Blood Purifier, which arrived in the market in 1880, was used for the treatment of rheumatism, neuralgia, and rattlesnake bites. By the beginning of the 20th century, echinacea became the most frequently used plant preparation in the USA. Commercial cultivation of this plant began in Germany around 1939. In Switzerland, Echinacea was introduced and cultivated by A. Vogel around 1950 (3).
Components of Echinacea
Each species of echinacea has a unique set of molecules with biological activity. Growing conditions, time of harvest, drying, and storage conditions can also change the number of active compounds in each plant. These include (4) –
- Glycoproteins and polysaccharides
- Caffeic acid derivatives
- Volatile oils
Alkaloids, flavonoids (quercetin, kaempferol, isorhamnetin, patuletin-3-rutinoside), anthocyanins, phenolic acids (p-coumaric, p-hydroxybenzoic, and protocatechuic acids).
Health benefits of Echinacea
Echinacea is well-known for its positive effect on immunity. Several studies have shown that echinacea can boost immunity and combat infections (5). This property of echinacea helps treat common colds.
According to an analysis of 14 studies by the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, Echinacea decreases the odds of developing common cold by 58% and the duration of a cold by 1.4 days (6). According to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, a 10 mg per kilogram dose of echinacea over ten days is useful as an immune-stimulant (7).
2. Has anti-inflammatory properties
Inflammation is a body’s natural response to infection. However, chronic inflammation can lead to health problems and diseases. Several studies have shown that echinacea can reduce inflammation. During a 2017 study, when researchers gave mice chicoric acid extracted from chicory and echinacea, it reduced important inflammatory markers and memory impairment caused by inflammation (8).
During another 2017 study, patients with knee arthritis were given echinacea and ginger supplements for 30 days; it reduced inflammation, swelling, and chronic knee pain (9). These effects may be due to echinacea’s ability to inhibit cyclooxygenase, an enzyme that helps in the formation of inflammatory molecules like prostaglandins, thromboxane, and levuloglandins. Cyclooxygenase is the target of anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.
3. Protects against cancer
Several test-tube studies have shown that Echinacea extracts can suppress cancer cell growth and even lead to cancer cell death. A study from the University of Pisa investigated the effect extracts from the three species of Echinacea plants on the human pancreatic cancer cells and colon cancer cells.
They observed that these extracts stimulate apoptosis in cancerous cells (10). Another test-tube study from Taiwan demonstrated that Echinacea extracts and chicoric acid have a strong inhibitory effect against colon cancer cells, presumably resulting from the reduced telomerase activity and the induction of apoptosis (11).
4. Reduces pain
Echinacea has been used traditionally to reduce pain. It is especially useful in reducing pain in the bowels, headaches, sore throats, stomach aches, tonsillitis, toothache, and pain associated with diseases like measles, gonorrhea, and herpes. You can either drink echinacea tea or make a paste of this herb and apply it on the affected area.
5. Treats skin conditions
Echinacea has been used by Native American tribes to treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, skin infections, stings, and bites. They also used this herb to heal wounds and inflammatory skin conditions. A 2011 study from the University of British Columbia revealed that the anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties of echinacea suppress the growth of Propionibacterium, a common cause of acne (12).
Another 2011 study revealed that Echinacea purpurea extract is effective in repairing the skin’s protective outer layer, thus making it an effective treatment for atopic eczema (13). Echinacea purpurea contains many beneficial constituents for the protection of skin from oxidative stress and for improving hydration of the skin. Echinacea purpurea contains many beneficial constituents for protection of skin from oxidative stress and for improving hydration of the skin. According to a 2010 study from Thailand, Echinacea purpurea cream can improve skin hydration and reduce wrinkles (14).
6. Improves mental health
Recent research has shown that echinacea can be a potential aid in relieving anxiety. Echinacea contains compounds like alkamides, rosmarinic acid, and caffeic acid, which help reduce the feeling of stress (15). A 2013 study from Hungary found that Echinacea extract can reduce the feeling of anxiety in both rats and humans (16). Echinacea is also considered an effective natural treatment for ADD and ADHD. A dosage of 20 mg at a time is recommended for this ailment. A higher dosage can cancel the benefits of echinacea.
7. Relieves upper respiratory infections
Several studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial for the early treatment of upper respiratory infections (17). The immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties of this herb help relieve acute sinusitis, asthma, common cold, croup, diphtheria, strep throat, tuberculosis, and whooping cough.
Studies show that Echinacea preparations can reverse secretion of asthma-related cytokines in bronchial epithelial cells. Echinacea also exhibits anti-inflammatory and bronchodilatory effects. These effects indicate that you can use echinacea as a supplementary treatment for allergic disorders of the airway like asthma (18).
Echinacea also helps to reduce blood sugar levels. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, Echinacea can keep your blood sugar from spiking if you are diabetic or prediabetic. It can also prevent your blood sugar levels from plummeting if you are hypoglycaemic (19).
According to a study by Hungkuang University, Taiwan, Echinacea purpurea extract can suppress the enzymes that digest carbohydrates, which reduces the amount of sugar entering the bloodstream (20). Another study from Denmark suggests that flowers of E. purpurea contain compounds that have the potential to manage insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes(21).
9. Improves digestion
Echinacea is also helpful in improving digestion and healing the gastrointestinal tract. This herb can be used as a mild laxative to provide relief from constipation. Drinking one cup of Echinacea tea every day can help improve chronic conditions.
10. Fights infections
Echinacea can also help treat various infections. It helps to manage blood infections, genital herpes, gum disease, malaria, syphilis, typhoid, UTI, and vaginal yeast infections. Studies show that echinacea disrupts the fungal cell wall, which makes it effective against fungal infections (22). When you take it along with antifungal cream, oral echinacea helps to prevent recurrent vaginal yeast infection.
Currently, there is no recommended dosage for echinacea. However, research has found that taking the following doses aids immunity –
- Dry powder extracts – 300 to 500 mg taken three times a day
- Liquid extract tinctures – 2.5 ml, consumed three times a day
Echinacea extracts often do not contain what is mentioned on the label. A study found that around 10 percent of echinacea samples did not contain any echinacea. So, always purchase echinacea products from a reputable source.
Side effects of echinacea
High doses of echinacea extracts can sometimes cause dizziness and nausea in people who have allergies. Echinacea injections can have more severe reactions. These include –
- Dry mouth
- Joint and muscle pain
- Numbness of tongue
- Stomach pain
Echinacea (purple coneflower), is an herb that is native to the areas east of the Rocky Mountains in the US. It improves immunity, lowers blood sugar, reduces anxiety, treats skin conditions, lower inflammation, fights infections, and boosts digestive health. Though there is no recommended dosage for echinacea currently, you must exercise caution while taking this supplement. Excessive intake can lead to side effects nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and fever.