Echinacea - Just How Good Is It In Treating The Immune System

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There are several different species of Echinacea commonly used in herbal medicine, namely: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallid and Echinacea purpurea. The common name Echinacea is "Purple coneflower".

These species do have differing effects, however all are used in various preparations found at health food stores and other outlets.

The biggest problem with the use of Echinacea is that not all Echinacea products are equally effective. Powdered versions of Echinacea are mostly not as effective as the liquid herbal extract, and fresh plant extracts are more effective than liquids made from dried plant material.

Echinacea Can It Really Treat The Immune System?

The biggest problem with the use of Echinacea is that not all Echinacea products are equally effective. Powdered versions of Echinacea are mostly not as effective as the liquid herbal extract, and fresh plant extracts are more effective than liquids made from dried plant material.

In addition, Echinacea plants grown in some parts of the world are not as high in some of its constituents because of the nutrient levels of the ground in which the plants are grown and the altitude at which the Echinacea plants are grown.

Add to this the type of preparation the ground undergoes before the seeds are planted, the quality of the seed that are being planted and the processing of the plant after harvesting and you have one mixed bag. Is it any wonder that different researchers come up with differing results as to the efficacy of Echinacea?

Ok, so let's look at the ideal. Firstly, the ground in which the seeds are planted should be prepared in accordance to growing organically certified plants. That translates into major efforts by a company to prepare the ground, make sure there is no run-on from neighbouring properties, there is natural control of weeds and pests and no risk of contamination of the grown through fall-out pollution. That's a big ask anywhere in the world these days.

The next factor is the quality of seed that is planted into the soil. Is the seed stock from a reliable source? Are the seeds of good quality, and so on?

So you have high quality seeds in well prepared soil and the plants will receive certified organic status. Great, but what about the preparation of the herbal extract? Are the plants harvested and then dried, or are they processed as fresh plants? The difference in the case of Echinacea is quite considerable and fresh plant extracts will work much better than most dried versions (there are possibly 2 exceptions).

As an herbalist, I prefer to use the fresh plant extract manufactured by Bioforce AG. This company was founded by Dr. h.c. A. Vogel and has been making a product called Echinaforce for 50 years. It is totally organic, uses the fresh plant which is processed within 24 hours of harvesting and its products have been scrutinized by some of the worlds most reputable research laboratories in Germany, Switzerland and the US. The methodology that Bioforce AG uses to produce their herbal extracts is second to none and stands as an example to the rest of the herbal manufacturers.

Recently, the company financed a study, into the effect of Echinaforce on the immunce system. The results of the study were published by the research organization in their Newsletter.

This study by a team of researchers under the guidance of Dr. Jürg Gertsch from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zürich, Switzerland, succeeded in demonstrating the effect mechanism of echinacea on cells of the immune system, at the molecular biological level. This current research has roused interest in specialist circles, not least because a number of other research institutes are also working on the effect of Echinacea.

The evidence was provided with an in vitro experiment. To start with, cells from human blood were cultivated, which were then mixed in a test-tube with liquid extract from Echinacea purpurea. Gertsch: "Following that, an infection was simulated and then examined to determine what effect the fresh plant tincture and finally individual substances had on the genes in the immune cells. We saw that the cells produce special proteins that play an important role in the human immune system." The team also discovered that-for the main part-the amazing effect is produced primarily by one of the compounds that are released from the Echinacea plant, so-called alkamides. These substances are structurally similar to the endocannbinoides produced in our bodies.

In various steps and using computer models the team showed that specific surface structures of the immune system, (so-called receptors) recognise the alkamides contained in the Echinaforce. When these alkamides connect to the receptors, a host of signals are triggered in the cell, which finally releases the observed tumor-necrose-factor alpha modulation (TNF-a).
According to Gertsch, one aspect is of particular interest; the alkamides bind to the cannabinoide receptor, the CB2 expressed on the immune cells, and the CB1, which mainly affects the brain and central nervous system. Work is continuing, within the framework of a PhD thesis, to obtain a more precise characterisation of these interactions.

This sounds like an ad for Echinaforce, well maybe so, however, I firmly belief this product is one of the very best, if not the best available on the market today. The only other Echinacea product that comes anywhere near Vogel's is made by a US company called Nutrilite.

Even though many ingredients and elements of Echinacea have been isolated and identified, it is not possible to ascribe the effectiveness clearly to a fixed substance. Among the best known active constituents of Echinacea are:

  • cichoric acid
  • alkylamides
  • coffeeaciderative
  • polysaccharide
  • glycoproteins
  • flavonoids
  • essential oil

Historical Use Of Echinacea

One of the most popular herbs in America today is the Native American medicinal plant known as Echinacea. The herb is named for the prickly scales in its large conical seed head, which resemble the spines of an angry hedgehog (echinos is Greek for hedgehog).

Results of archaeological digs indicate that Native Americans may have used Echinacea for over 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general "cure-all." Echinacea has also been used throughout history 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, almost all of the scientific research on this herb has been conducted in this country.

Today, Echinacea is primarily used to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold and flu and to alleviate the symptoms associated with them, such as sore throat (pharyngitis), cough, and fever. Many herbalists also recommend Echinacea to help boost the activity of the immune system, treat skin disorders and to help the body fight infections.

Plant Description

Echinacea has tall stems, bears single flowers that are pink or purple, and has a central high cone that is usually purplish-brown in colour. The large cone is actually a seed head with sharp spines that resemble a stiff comb and has four-sided achenes.
It has a faint aromatic smell, with a sweetish taste, leaving a tingling sensation in the mouth not unlike Aconitum napellus, but without its lasting numbing effect.

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 also recommend Echinacea to treat urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast (Candida) infections, ear infections (also known as otitits media), athlete's foot, sinusitis, hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis), as well as slow-healing wounds.


The use of herbs is a time-honoured approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, contain active substances that can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical medicine.

The American Herbal Products Association gives Echinacea a class 1 safety rating, which indicates that it is safe when used appropriately (as instructed by the product label) and with the guidance of a healthcare professional. In Germany, use of Echinacea is restricted to no longer than eight weeks at a time. This is because after eight consecutive weeks, Echinacea losses its effectiveness and may even diminish immune function. Regular users of this herb, need "break" periods - namely, periods of time that they are not taking Echinacea in order for it to maintain its ability to enhance immune function and fight infection.

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