What Is Echinacea?
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), also called purple coneflower, is a flowering plant in the sunflower family that is native to parts of eastern North America, and can now be found in much of the eastern, southeastern and midwestern United States as well as in the Canadian Province of Ontario. It is a very popular herb and is well known for its ability to support immune system health and as a natural remedy for the common cold or flu. The genus name is from the Greek echinos, meaning "hedgehog," an allusion to the spiny, brownish central disk.
Native Americans have used this medicinal herb for centuries to treat a variety of ailments including toothache, coughs, colds, sore throats, snakebite, and as a painkiller. Echinacea is still used by Native Americans across the Great Plains for a variety of treatments. Lewis and Clark also learned about this medicinal plant during their Expedition and in 1805 shipped the roots and seeds back to President Jefferson as one of their more important finds.
What Is Echinacea Used for?
Echinacea’s primary use is as a medicinal plant. The roots and aerial parts of Echinacea are both used for medicinal purposes. The aerial parts are most often used for herbal teas, while the roots hold the most powerful medicinal properties from the plant. Echinacea is primarily used for boosting immunity and helping to overcome the common cold or flu, but it has many other uses and health benefits.
What Are the Health Benefits of Echinacea?
Echinacea May Boost Immune System Health
The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. It is made up of special organs, cells and chemicals that fight infection (microbes). The main parts of the immune system are: white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and the bone marrow. These are the parts of your immune system that actively fight infection. The immune system keeps a record of every germ (microbe) it has ever defeated so it can recognize and destroy the microbe quickly if it enters the body again. In order to effectively arm your immune system, it is important that you support it daily with the food and nutrients that you consume.
One of the best-known uses of Echinacea is its ability to positively affect the immune system. Numerous studies have found that this plant may help your immune system combat infections and provides potential anti-viral benefits, which could help you recover faster from illness—which is one of the reasons why it is used so frequently to help with the common cold.
Research on Echinacea shows that it increases the number of white blood cells in the body, which fight infections. A review of 14 studies found that taking Echinacea may lower the risk of developing colds by more than 50% and shorten the duration of colds by one and a half days.
Echinacea May Help Fight Candida and Other Fungal Infections
Echinacea also contains compounds that fight fungal and bacterial infections. In one study on Echinacea observing its antifungal properties, it was shown that Echinacea targets and attacks the structure of the fungal cell wall. Fluorescence microscopy showed that yeast treated with Echinacea were significantly more prone to cell wall damage than non-treated cells. The study concluded that there was compelling evidence that the fungal cell wall is a target of Echinacea extracts and Echinacea may therefore be an effective herbal medicine in treating mycoses (fungal infections). If you are experiencing symptoms of Candida, consider supplementing with extract of Echinacea to eliminate fungal populations in the gastrointestinal tract. Remember that following a strict anti-candida diet is essential to any candida detox protocol being effective.
Research on Echinacea’s antifungal properties shows that it is the alkamides, active compounds within Echinacea that appear to exert the antifungal activity of disrupting the fungal cell wall/membrane complex.
Due to Echinacea’s unique ability to attack the structure of the fungal cell wall, we have included a potent Echinacea extract as one of the primary ingredients in our Candida Cleanse Tonic. Candida yeast, which is a single-celled fungus, is a target of Echinacea extracts, and the use of Echinacea can significantly help in clearing fungal yeast infections like Candida overgrowth.
Echinacea is High in Antioxidants
Echinacea plants are high in plant compounds that function as antioxidants. Some of these antioxidants are flavonoids, cichoric acid and rosmarinic acid.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. The uneven number allows them to easily react with other molecules. Free radicals can cause large chain chemical reactions in your body because they react so easily with other molecules. These reactions are called oxidation and can either be beneficial or harmful.
Essentially, oxidation is any chemical reaction that involves the moving of electrons. Specifically, it means the substance that gives away electrons is oxidized. Oxidation is a normal and necessary process that takes place in your body. However, oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. This can result in damaged cells and ultimately ill health.
Antioxidants can donate an electron to a free radical without making themselves unstable. This causes the free radical to stabilize and become less reactive. As oxidation is a process that is constantly occurring due to numerous chemical reactions in the body, antioxidants must also regularly work to keep free radicals in balance. When there is an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity it leads to oxidative stress.
Echinacea is naturally high in antioxidants. Studies show that the antioxidants in Echinacea appear to be higher in extracts from the fruit and flowers of the plants, compared to other parts, such as the leaves and root.
Additionally, Echinacea contains active compounds called alkamides, which can give Echinacea’s antioxidant activity an extra boost. Alkamides can renew worn-out antioxidants and help antioxidants better reach molecules that are prone to oxidative stress.
Echinacea May Lower Blood Sugar Levels
Studies on Echinacea show that it appears to have properties that can help lower blood sugar levels. In one study, an Echinacea extract was shown to suppress enzymes that digest carbohydrates. This would reduce the amount of sugar entering your blood if consumed.
TZDs are pharmaceutical drugs that help decrease insulin resistance and decrease blood sugar to normal levels by activating PPAR-gamma proteins inside cells. These proteins help regulate hormone activity and other substances in the body that affect metabolism.
Lab studies on Echinacea show that compounds in the plant have similar effects. Alkamide and fatty acid compounds from Echinacea flowers activate PPAR-gamma. When tested, these echinacea compounds improved insulin sensitivity, which increased glucose intake by cells.
Extracts of Echinacea roots also activated PPAR-gamma proteins and increased glucose uptake in cells. Scientists were able to isolate the compounds from the extract and found that the alkamides in the roots were the active compounds.
Echinacea shows promise in improving cell energy and lowering high blood sugar levels in people.
Echinacea May Reduce Feelings of Anxiety
In recent years, studies on Echinacea have shown that this plant has potential as an aid for anxiety. Research has discovered that Echinacea plants contain compounds that may reduce feelings of anxiety—including alkamides, rosmarinic acid and caffeic acid. In one study on mice, three out of five Echinacea samples helped to reduce anxiety. In addition, they did not make the mice less active, in contrast to higher doses of standard treatments.
One double blind, placebo controlled trial with a standardized Echinacea root extract showed that participants significantly improved their anxiety, and that the benefits lasted even after supplementation.
Participants were treated with 40 mg Echinacea or with placebo tablets twice daily for 7 days followed by a 3-week-long washout period. Participants were also administered the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). In the Echinacea group, state anxiety scores decreased by approximately 11 points by the end of the treatment period, whereas the decrease was around 3-points in the placebo group. The effect of the decreased anxiety maintained over the 3-week washout period. These findings suggest that particular Echinacea preparations have significant beneficial effects on anxiety in humans.
Echinacea May Help Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is an important healing function of the body. It helps your body fight foreign invaders and also has a role in repairing damage. Without inflammation, pathogens like bacteria could take over your body and kill you. Although acute, short-term inflammation is beneficial, it can become a major problem when it becomes chronic and inappropriately attacks your body's own tissues.
Chronic inflammation can be caused by a number of factors—exposure to toxins, pollutants, and chemicals in the air or in food, untreated illness or infection, consuming high amounts of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, consuming a lot of refined carbs, such as white bread, eating processed and packaged foods that contain trans fats, excessive intake of alcohol and processed meat, leading a sedentary or non-active lifestyle, and many others. There are also some cases of chronic inflammation that don’t have a clear underlying cause. When prolonged, chronic inflammation can negative impact on your tissues and organs. In fact, many health experts believe that chronic inflammation is one of the primary causes of disease.
Several studies have shown that Echinacea can help reduce excess inflammation. In one study on mice, Echinacea compounds helped reduce important inflammatory markers and memory-loss caused by inflammation. In another 30-day study, adults with osteoarthritis found that taking a supplement containing Echinacea extract significantly reduced inflammation, chronic pain and swelling. Interestingly, the participants in this study did not respond well to conventional non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) but found that the supplement containing Echinacea extract was beneficial to their osteoarthritis.
Echinacea Has Adaptogenic Properties
Echinacea is growing in popularity for its use as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are a select group of herbs that support the body’s natural ability to deal with stress. They are called adaptogens because these herbs aid our bodies in adapting and responding to, or recovering from, both short-term and long-term physical or mental stress.
Some also have other medicinal properties and are known boost immunity and overall well-being. Research shows that adaptogens can combat fatigue, enhance mental performance, ease depression and anxiety, and help you thrive rather than simply just maintaining. Adaptogens point to the fundamental connection of the mind and body, and how by supporting the health of our bodies, we can support our mental well-being as well.
Adaptogens work at a molecular level by regulating a stable balance in the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands—all of which are involved in the stress response. Essentially, they work by “hacking” the stress response in the body.
When we face a stressor, whether physical or mental, our bodies go through what is called general adaptation syndrome (GAS). GAS is a three-stage response: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Adaptogens help us stay in the resistance phase longer, via a stimulating effect that holds off the exhaustion. Instead of crashing in the midst of a stressful moment, task, or event, we attain equilibrium and can move through it. Research on Echinacea shows that it has adaptogenic properties that can help the body better adapt to stress.
Echinacea May Help Treat Skin Issues
Research on Echinacea shows that it may also help treat common skin concerns. In one test-tube study, scientists found that Echinacea’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties inhibited the growth of Propionibacterium, a common cause of acne.
One study on a cream containing Echinacea purpurea extract showed that the cream was able to improve eczema symptoms and help repair the skin’s thin, protective outer layer. An additional study in 10 healthy people aged 25–40, skin care products containing Echinacea extract were shown to reduce wrinkles and improve skin hydration.
What Are the Active Compounds in Echinacea?
The medicinal benefits of plants are mostly attributed to their active compounds. The active components of the Echinacea species include polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides and cichoric acid, a derivative of caffeic acid. While the polysaccharides and glycoproteins are often attributed to Echnacea’s immune-enhancing properties, it is the alkamides within Echinacea that appear to exert the antifungal activity of disrupting the fungal cell wall/membrane complex.
Is Echinacea Safe?
Echinacea has been used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant for centuries, and it is also a plant that has been researched extensively by modern scientists. Echinacea is safe for most people, however there are some safety concerns to consider.
Herbs effect everyone differently, and so it is always wise to consult your healthcare practitioner before taking a new herbal supplement, and to introduce the supplement at small doses to observe how your body reacts.
Some people have noted side effects to taking Echinacea, but these are most often due to taking higher than recommended doses. In some cases, Echinacea has been reported to cause fever, nausea, vomiting, bad taste in the mouth, stomach pain, diarrhea, sore throat, dry mouth, and headache.
When applying Echinacea to the skin, studies show that it is generally safe for most people. However, some people found that applying Echinacea to the skin caused redness, itchiness, or a rash.
Echinacea is a flower in the sunflower family, and may be an allergen for sensitive groups. It is most likely to cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed, mums, marigolds, or daisies. If you have allergies, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before taking Echinacea.
It is also recommended to avoid taking Echinacea supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as there is not enough safety information on Echinacea for these groups.
Studies on Echinacea show that it appears to be safe for children, although rashes due to an allergic reaction can occur. There is some concern that allergic reactions to Echinacea could be more severe in some children. For this reason, some regulatory organizations have recommended against giving Echinacea to children under 12 years of age.
Echinacea is a powerful immune-boosting herb. Therefore, it is also not recommended for those that suffer from auto-immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a skin disorder called pemphigus vulgaris, or other auto-immune disorders. Echinacea might have an effect on the immune system that could make these conditions worse.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), also called purple coneflower, is a flowering plant in the sunflower family that is native to parts of eastern North America. It is a very popular herb and is well known for its ability to support immune system health and as a natural remedy for the common cold or flu.
Native Americans have used this medicinal herb for centuries to treat a variety of ailments including toothache, coughs, colds, sore throats, snakebite, and as a painkiller. Echinacea is still used by Native Americans across the Great Plains for a variety of treatments.
Echinacea’s primary use is as a medicinal plant. The roots and aerial parts of Echinacea are both used for medicinal purposes. The aerial parts are most often used for herbal teas, while the roots hold the most powerful medicinal properties from the plant.
Studies on Echinacea show that it improves immune system function, fights fungal and bacterial infections, is naturally high in antioxidants, lowers blood sugar levels in the body, can help treat anxiety, reduces inflammation, and even shows promise in treating skin conditions.
The medicinal properties of Echinacea are attributed to the active compounds that it contains, which primarily include polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides and cichoric acid, a derivative of caffeic acid.
Echinacea is safe for most groups, though there are some safety concerns for some people—primarily people with certain allergies, young children, and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Used for centuries by Native Americans, and used extensively in modern times for its medicinal properties, Echinacea is a powerful plant that offers many health benefits. It has an ability to boost immunity unlike many other plants, and research on Echinacea is continually revealing new uses for this incredible herb.