Echinacea (herb)

Echinacea (herb)

"Echinacea stimulates the white blood cells that help fight infections in the body. Research has shown that echinacea enhances the activity of a particular type of white blood cells-macrophages. A particular glycoprotein in echinacea was found to significantly increase the killing effect of macrophages on tumor cells. A number of studies have found that echinacea boosts the body's ability to fight Listeria, a bacterium that causes a deadly form of food poisoning, and Candida yeast." Echinacea is actually a family of herbs.


Weighing the evidence for a popular herb

Normally, a supplement that is claimed to heal or prevent a multitude of medical conditions is a supplement not worth considering. There's no greater red flag for quackery than the assertion that one "health" product can treat a host of ailments. But in an ironic twist, totally dismissing the herb echinacea--which has been called a treatment for everything from colds to arthritis to cancer-might be throwing out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

Granted, assertions that echinacea is effective for treating a wide range of serious illnesses are overblown. "Too few studies have been conducted with humans for any conclusions to be reached about echinacea's usefulness in battling diseases such as cancer," says Varro Tyler, PhD, one of the foremost respected herb researchers and author of Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals (Pharmaceutical Products Press, New York, 1994).

But for certain garden-variety ailments, the evidence is much stronger. Consider that in Germany, the German Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, an FDA equivalent, has officially approved echinacea preparations for use in treating colds, flu, and infections of the upper respiratory tract.

Studies have shown that echinacea apparently fights head colds and related ailments by increasing the number of immune cells in the blood. It also enhances cells' ability to destroy harmful bacteria, inhibits the production of viruses, and activates blood chemicals that control the duration and intensity of immune responses.

There are hitches, however. One is that a number of the studies demonstrating echinacea's effectiveness in treating colds have involved administering the herb by injection, which is allowed in Germany but not in the U.S. In this country, echinacea is available only in capsule, liquid, and tea form, and the effects of the herb taken orally can be quite different from the effects of shooting it directly into the bloodstream.

How Much to Take? When to Take It?

Along with the question of what form of echinacea to swallow come the issues of what doses to take and how often to take them. Everyday, for instance, or only at the onset of a respiratory infection? To make matters more complicated, recommended doses are not uniform among various brands or types of echinacea preparations, whereas the market is much more regulated in Germany.

For example, while 3 echinacea capsule products we looked at suggest on their labels to take at least 3 capsules a day, the consistency ends there. YourLife softgels contain 75 milligrams of echinacea each; Nature Made softgels, 180 milligrams; and GNC's Herbal Plus Echinacea Root capsules, 250 milligrams. As for echinacea tea bags made by Alvita, directions state to let the tea bag steep for 3 minutes in 6 ounces of boiling water, but there is no mention of how much echinacea that procedure yields.

There's also the issue of which species of echinacea to take. Of the 9 that exist, only 2--purpurea and angustifolia--have been used extensively in scientific studies. Further muddying comes from the fact that unlike in Germany, no government body or organization bears the responsibility for certifying that herbs are correctly labeled. That's much less of a problem with echinacea than it was in the early 1990s, but nonetheless, the American Botanical Council's Steven Foster states that further studies are still needed to develop standards of identity; determine correct form and amount of dosage; and identify differences in various preparations.

Echinacea, incidentally, often does not come cheap. In one Boston-area store we checked, a 1.7-ounce bottle of EchinaGuard liquid costs $13; 24 Alvita tea bags, $8.

Note: Because echinacea can affect the immune system, people with autoimmune diseases such as arthritis should not take it. The herb could potentially stimulate adverse effects. Pregnant women and those with diabetes or multiple sclerosis should also abstain from taking echinacea, as should anyone allergic to the Asteraceae, or daisy, family of plants.

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