Medicinal herbs have a long history in fighting infections and have thus been associated with having beneficial effects on the immune system. Herbs such as Echinacea have become very popular herbal remedies for the treatment and prevention of the common cold and other similar conditions.
This article reviews some aspects of Echinacea's ability to aid in fighting of infections and in particular its benefit on aiding the immune system in combating skin infections.
The Role of Echinacea in Supporting The Immune System To Fight Skin Infections
The Skin and The Immune System
The skin of the body is one of the first lines of defence against pathogens, employing both mechanical and chemical barriers that block the initial attempts of microbes and foreign substances to penetrate the body and cause disease.
With many layers of closely packed, keratinised cells, the outer epithelial layer of the skin, the epidermis, provides a formidable physical barrier to the entrance of microbes. In addition, periodic shedding of epidermal cells helps remove microbes at the skin surface.
When the skin is intact, bacteria rarely penetrate the surface of healthy epidermis. However, when the epithelial surface is broken, by cuts, burns, wounds, and so on, an infection often develops. The bacteria most likely to cause such an infection are staphylococci, which normally inhabit the hair follicles and sweat glands of the skin. Furthermore, when the skin is moist, as in hot, humid climates, infections are quite common, especially fungus infections such as athlete's foot.
Certain chemicals also contribute to the high degree of resistance of the skin to microbial invasion. Oil glands (Sebaceous glands) of the skin secrete an oily substance called sebum that forms a protective film over the surface of the skin, known as the 'Acid Mantel'.
Sebum contains unsaturated fatty acids that inhibit the growth of certain pathogenic bacteria and fungi. The low pH of the skin, between pH 3 and 5, is caused in part by the secretion of fatty acids and lactic acid. The skin's acidity discourages the growth of many other micro-organisms.
Echinacea To Aid The Immune System In Fighting Infections
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, where almost all of the scientific research on this herb has been conducted.
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.
Clinical Trials Testing Echinacea purpurea
There is a large amount of research which has been done to test the effectiveness of Echinacea species on the immune system. It is important to remember that there are several species of Echinacea and that this article is only focused on Echinacea purpurea.
Studies show that Echinacea and its active components affect the phagocytic immune system, but not the specifically acquired immune system.
The Phagocytic immune system is a part of the immune system that comprises the lymphatic system (lymph nodes, lymph vessels and lymph fluid) the phagocytic immune system responds to inflammation due to microbes, physical agents or chemical agents that injure the skin. The lymph nodes are activated to produce special cells called phagocytes that engulf and clean up pathogens and dead cells. They are usually the first immune cells to arrive at a site of injury or infection.
Beneficial Effects of Echinacea purpurea in Fighting Skin Infections
From the above discussion and the research findings, it follows that using Echinacea as a key ingredient in herbal products to treat skin infections makes good sense. Echinacea's beneficial effect on the phagocytic immune system has been well demonstrated and thus it's effects on wound healing and treating of various skin infections is unquestionable.
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