The first time I became aware of Echinacea, was at a grocery store tea isle. The packaging of Echinacea tea promised improved immunity for the person drinking the tea. I never thought to check the validity of this claim until now with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and I found some interesting information.
Echinacea is an extract derived from a perennial flowering plant Echinacea purpurea. It is unclear what the active ingredients of Echinacea are exactly, but it contains many substances with potential medicinal effects. (3)
I found a relatively recent article discussing the effects of Echinacea on immunity, and more specifically on the components of physical barrier function (think skin, lining of the lungs), innate immunity (mechanisms that are in place against all invaders) and adaptive immunity (mechanisms that attack specific pathogens). The authors compiled multiple studies, and found mostly promising results. One study saw that Echinacea could help promote the maturation of cells that help find the bad guys for other cells to destroy. Also, Echinacea was seen to help prevent inflammation getting out of hand in the body. It was also able to reduce bacterial adhesion to the lining of the lungs, and restore cytokine levels (small molecules that have various effects on immunity). T-lymphocyte activation was also seen to be improved by Echinacea (but by a very specific fraction of the extract). (1)
Furthermore, studies done with the focus on common cold symptoms and incidence saw that Echinacea in combination with some other herbs reduced cough during a common cold. Also, on it’s own it was seen to reduce the total number of cold episodes, inhibit viral colds, and especially prevent enveloped virus infections (for example, coronavirus has an envelope). A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials indicated that Echinacea lowers the risk of getting sick again, and decreases the development of complications of respiratory tract infections, through antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects among others. (1)
This large article concluded that Echinacea can be helpful for the prevention and treatment of colds. The doses they suggest are 2400 mg/day for prevention and 4000 mg/day during acute stages of colds (over a four month time period). (1)
On the other hand, a different systematic review looked at the effects of Echinacea on prevention and treatment of common colds. Only a trend toward a possible positive effect was found, but how significant this is in reality remains questionable. (2) So once more, there are studies that find positive effects, and then there are studies that don’t, however even here the trend was toward positive.
How safe is Echinacea? Could taking Echinacea be harmful if I decide to take it just in case, since there may be significant benefits? A book investigating different herbs found that Echinacea extracts have been repeatedly found to be well tolerated and without major adverse events. The most common adverse events have been minor gastrointestinal upset and skin rashes. Allergic reactions including anaphylaxis have been rare. There are a few isolated instances of liver injury, but it is not certain whether the cases were due to a particular species or method of preparation, or contamination of the product. (3)
So, in all, it looks to me like Echinacea might have benefits to boosting immunity, and with a low risk of adverse reactions. Nevertheless, I think I would rely first on nutrient rich foods, exercise and proper rest to boost my immune function, rather than hoping that pills – even if natural – will do it for me. I personally take Echinacea sometimes, but it’s always to complement the other things I’m doing to keep myself healthy.
Do you have experience taking Echinacea? Has it helped? I’m interested in hearing your stories!
- Rondanelli et al. Self-Care for Common Colds: The Pivotal Role of Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Echinacea in Three Main Immune Interactive Clusters (Physical Barriers, Innate and Adaptive Immunity) Involved during an Episode of Common Colds—Practical Advice on Dosages and on the Time to Take These Nutrients/Botanicals in order to Prevent or Treat Common Colds. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5949172/
- Karsch-Völk. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Systematic review. 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24554461
- LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548440/