All the Benefits of Echinacea: A Popular Natural Remedy
Why is echinacea still one of America’s most widely-used natural remedies? Because studies show that it can have profound effects on the immune system. But that’s not all.
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the same family as chamomile and daisies. Also known as “purple coneflower,” the herb grows naturally in prairies and open wooded areas across North America.
In total, there are nine species of echinacea, but only three are used medicinally for human consumption:
- E. purpurea
- E. angustifolia
- E. pallida
Although they all belong to the same subfamily, each one has different quantities of active compounds. E. purpurea, for example, is best for supporting the immune system, while E. angustifolia seems to be more effective at supporting mental health.
How Does It Work?
Echinacea’s therapeutic compounds are spread throughout different parts of the plant. The roots, for example, have the highest concentrations of essential oils, while the upper parts of the plant (stem, leaves, and flowers) tend to contain more polysaccharides, which are known to affect the immune system.
Most echinacea extracts are made from the upper part of the plant. However, for E. angustifolia and E. pallida extracts, typically only the roots are used.
The main active compounds in echinacea plants include:
- Essential oils
- Vitamin C
- Caffeic acid
- Phenolic acids
The alkamides and polysaccharides in echinacea may have specific effects on white blood cells.
According to a study published in the journal International Immunopharmacology, alkamides may improve white blood cell activity in the lungs by acting on cannabinoid receptors and producing TNF-alpha and nitrous oxide (NO).
History of Echinacea
Echinacea plants were widely used by the North American Plains Indians for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of colonial settlers.
Tribes used it in many herbal remedies to treat bacterial infections, blood poisoning, headaches, pain, and cold symptoms. External application was used to treat wounds, burns, and insect bites, while the roots were chewed to treat toothaches and throat infections.
Up until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1950s, echinacea extract was used throughout the modern world as a treatment for the common cold and flu, although there is little clinical evidence to support this benefit.
A List of Health Benefits Associated with Echinacea
One of the biggest myths in the world of naturopathic medicine is that echinacea is a cure for the common cold, but this actually isn’t true. Although there is strong evidence to suggest that echinacea can boost the immune system in various ways, there is little-to-no evidence to indicate that it is an effective cold remedy.
However, echinacea can support white blood cell function, fight inflammation, and treat infections.
Here are nine of the top health benefits of echinacea:
1. Support White Blood Cells and Strengthen Immunity
Although much about echinacea’s effects on the body are not yet fully understood, it clearly supports the function of white blood cells. The herb supports white blood cells in two primary ways:
- Affects macrophages (a type of white blood cell)
- Activates dendritic cells (another type of white blood cell)
Macrophages are white blood cells that destroy forgeign substances and dead cells in the blood.
Once activated, they release inflammatory cytokines and recruit other white blood cells to eliminate infections.
By increasing macrophage activity, echinacea can boost natural killer cells in a way that minimizes irritation from inflammation.
Dendritic cells are white blood cells that help the body recognize foreign molecules. Echinacea may optimize dendritic function and increase the release of immune molecules like IL-1beta and TNF-alpha.
Plus, it also increases antioxidants and supports cell structure.
In a 2007 rodent study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, mice were treated with echinacea extract for seven days before being immunized with the red blood cells of sheep.
Researchers found that echinacea effectively increased immune cell populations.
According to the study’s authors, “These findings demonstrate that echinacea is a wide-spectrum immunomodulator that modulates both innate and adaptive immune responses.”
In a similar rodent trial, echinacea significantly increased total white blood cell counts within the first two weeks of administration.
2. Fight Infection
Echinacea can fight viral, bacterial, and fungal infections.
In a 2014 study published in the journal Phytomedicine, researchers found that the alkamides in echinacea can treat fungal infections by destroying fungal cell walls.
Other infections that echinacea may be able to treat include:
- Vaginal yeast infections
- Urinary tract infections
- Gum disease
Here’s what the research has to say about echinacea’s ability to fight infections:
- In a meta-analysis of 14 clinical trials, researchers concluded that echinacea may cut the chance of catching a cold in half.
- On a similar note, a 2009 laboratory study concluded that echinacea can alleviate respiratory disorders by inhibiting viral growth and cytokine production.
- Similarly, a 2015 meta-analysis concluded that echinacea may reduce the risk of recurrent upper respiratory tract infections through its antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects.
- A 2010 study published in Phytomedicine found that echinacea may exert antibacterial properties against C. difficile, S pyogenes, H. influenzae, and P. acne.
- In a separate 2010 study, researchers determined that echinacea can kill parasites in human cells.
3. Reduce Inflammation
Echinacea may also reduce certain types of inflammation. For example, a 2009 laboratory study in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that echinacea consumption can alleviate inflammation caused by a viral infection.
According to a 2002 study, echinacea extracts can reduce inflammation in rats through oral and topical use.
Human studies have also been promising. In a small pilot study, a three-day echinacea treatment effectively reduced inflammation in six patients exhibiting cold and flu symptoms.
4. Support Mental Health
Echinacea may reduce anxiety and depression.
In a 2013 study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, researchers tested the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) potential of Echinacea angustifolia extract on rats and humans.
The herb effectively decreased anxiety-related behaviors in rats at doses ranging from 1000 to 3000 mg/kg of body weight.
At the same time, healthy adults with mild anxiety were given 20-40 mg of echinacea extract once-a-day for a week. The higher dose of 40 mg effectively reduced anxiety after just three days of treatment. The lower 20 mg dose, however, did not have any significant effects on anxiety.
According to a 2015 report, echinacea may achieve its anti-anxiety effects by acting on cannabinoid receptors in the body.
This same study concluded that echinacea extract may exert antidepressant effects in rats by stimulating L-DOPA (the amino acid precursor to dopamine).
5. Heal the Skin
Echinacea purpurea cream may protect the skin from oxidative stress and reduce signs of aging by hydrating the skin and reducing wrinkles.
Here’s what the research has to say about echinacea and skin health:
- In a 2010 human study, echinacea cream was tested on 10 healthy volunteers aged 25-40 years. After one month of daily treatment, wrinkles decreased between 9.47% and 14.92%.
- Another study found that echinacea can inhibit the breakdown of hyaluronic acid (an important part of skin cells). When hyaluronic acid breaks down, it causes the tissue to loosen and become inflamed.
- According to a study published in the journal Planta Medica, echinacea can protect collagen from free radical damage caused by UVA/UVB radiation. In other words, echinacea may help protect your skin from the sun.
- In a 2011 study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, echinacea reversed inflammation induced by the bacteria P. acnes.
- According to a 2017 study, echinacea may treat atopic eczema. In the study, 49 patients were treated with topical echinacea for three months. Echinacea significantly reduced redness and swelling by interacting with cannabinoid receptors in the skin.
6. May Relieve Asthma
Echinacea’s effects on the immune system may also relieve asthma.
Recent studies indicate that echinacea preparations can reverse the secretions of asthma-related cytokines in bronchial cells.
In a 2015 animal study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers treated guinea pigs suffering from ovalbumin-induced allergic asthma with an oral echinacea complex for 14 days.
Echinacea proved to be equally effective at reducing symptoms as the corticosteroid medication budesonide.
According to the study’s authors, “Pharmacodynamic studies have confirmed significant bronchodilatory and anti-inflammatory effects of echinacea complex that was similar to effects of classic synthetic drugs. These results provide a scientific basis for the application of this herb in traditional medicine as a supplementary treatment of allergic disorders of the airways, such as asthma.”
7. May Reduce Pain
Many Native American tribes, including the Lakota, used echinacea as a pain remedy.
It appears to be most effective at reducing pain associated with intestinal issues, herpes, measles, headaches, toothaches, tonsillitis, and sore throats.
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that echinacea extract may influence the perception of pain by inhibiting the TRPV1 receptor: a receptor that’s the prime target of many over-the-counter analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs.
E. purpurea extracts seem to have the strongest anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects, with E. angustifolia having somewhat less.
Side Effects of Echinacea
Although rare, high doses of echinacea may lead to side effects like:
- Stomach aches
Side effects are more common among people who have seasonal allergies.
Patients with autoimmune diseases may also be more likely to experience side effects.
Due to their pharmacological similarities, if you’re allergic to chamomile, you may also be allergic to echinacea.
Because of echinacea’s effects on the immune system, it’s best to consult a medical professional before taking echinacea if you have a history of systemic diseases like multiple sclerosis, AIDS, or tuberculosis.
However, for the vast majority of individuals, echinacea products can be a safe and effective way to stimulate the immune system and enhance your health.
Echinacea is commercially available in several forms, including alcohol tinctures, water-based liquid extracts, teas, tablets, and capsules.
Always inspect your dietary supplements thoroughly, as many do not disclose which type of echinacea they use.
For the most part, herbal supplements made from E. purpurea are typically your best bet for potential health and wellness benefits.