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A beautiful purple flower from the Aster family, Echinacea has been used medicinally for centuries. | STOCK

Echinacea: Keeping Immune Systems Strong for Centuries


As cold and flu season approaches, the most popular herb on everyone’s mind seems to be Echinacea. It is the herb we gravitate to at the first sign of a cold, during a cold, and when we’re worried we might catch a cold. But do we really know why it is useful? With so many other effective immune enhancing herbal remedies out there, why such a pull towards this one?

A beautiful purple flower from the Aster family, Echinacea derives its name from the Greek word for hedgehog, echinos, due to its bristly cone-like center. Echinacea has been called Purple Coneflower, Black Sampson, Comb Flower and Missouri Snakeroot, and is native to the central and eastern United States. It has been used medicinally for centuries by the native tribes of the Great Plains for a variety of ailments. Every tribe had a different use, but the prominent uses were for sore throats, mild coughs, inflammation and wound healing.

Echinacea witnessed continued use as a home remedy throughout the late 1800s through the early 1900s, primarily as support for skin conditions, wounds, as a remedy for snake and bug bites, and as a blood cleanser. Around the late 1930s and with the advent of antibiotics, Echinacea disappeared from the scene here in America entirely. Fortunately, Germany kept its benefits alive through use and diligent testing (almost all research on Echinacea has been performed in Germany). With the recent rise of interest in herbal remedies in this country, Echinacea found its way home—literally.

So why do we reach for Echinacea to help us with the common cold? Echinacea possesses many constituents that produce great therapeutic effects within our body. These include polysaccharides, volatile oils, glycoproteins, alkamides and flavanoids. All of these compounds help support the body in different ways, but when it comes to the immune boosting benefits we need to ward off a cold, or reduce a cold’s severity, it is the polysaccharides that we have to thank.

Both the root and the above-ground portion of the Echinacea plant have medicinal uses, but it is the above-ground leaves and stems that contain the highest concentration of polysaccharides. Polysaccharides trigger the activity of the immune system, giving it the boost it needs to help fight that common cold. Yet there is more to this herb than simply support for a cold. Research has shown that its traditional use by Native Americans for sore throats, upper respiratory infections and wound healing all held merit.

The root, although low in immune boosting polysaccharides, contains volatile oils that help fight infections (specifically flu, urinary tract, ear, and yeast). Although more research needs to be conducted, it has shown promise as an aid to increasing white blood cell counts in those undergoing radiation, to improve exercise performance due to its ability to increase circulation, helpful for anxiety issues, and for cancer prevention.

The risk of Echinacea supplementation is relatively low. If you have allergies to the aster family, are on blood thinning medications, or suffer an autoimmune disorder, you need to take precautions. The real issue to your safety and supplementation is in the quality of supplement you purchase. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “A study performed by (an independent company that tests the purity of health, wellness, and nutritional products) found that of the 11 brands of Echinacea purchased for testing, only four contained what was stated on their labels. About 10 percent had no Echinacea at all; half were mislabeled to the species of Echinacea in the product.”

This is of concern since all herbal supplement companies in the U.S. are allowed to make claims without substantiation. It is important that the company from which you choose to purchase your supplement can back up its claims as to potency, content and purity. If not, you could be wasting your money on a product that at best, does nothing for you, and at worst, can be harmful.

To fight the common cold you want to look for the above-ground parts of the Echinacea purpurea form, as this has the highest concentration of those helpful polysaccharides. But a supplement using all parts (including the root) will still impart all the immune benefits and much more. Echinacea comes in the form of tincture, capsules, tablets, herbal teas and ointments.

A beautiful addition to any garden and a versatile medicinal herb in many ways, there is a reason you are reaching for this herb for support during cold and flu season. Echinacea has been a powerful medicine of our past and will keep our immune systems strong in our future.

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