What research tells us about Echinacea
This is the time of year when many people reach out for their Echinacea to help cope with the cold and flu viruses buzzing around us. So, it is perhaps appropriate that we have a quick look at what research tells us about Echinacea.
Strengthening the immune system
Perhaps the most common use of Echinacea is to strengthen the immune system and in this way, the body is more likely to resist infections such as colds and flu. So a recently published paper will be comfort to Echinacea users; it confirms that the herb does indeed improve the way the immune system works. In particular, it had a greater effect in those who were under stress due to worry or exams – those needing help most.
In 2007, the Lancet Infectious Diseases published research which found that Echinacea can more than halve the risk of catching the common cold. This conclusion was drawn by researchers from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut, who looked at 14 different studies on Echinacea. Overall, Echinacea was shown to decrease the chance of developing a cold by 58% and reduce the duration of colds by a day-and-a-half in people who were infected.
Be choosy when using Echinacea
The authors of the Lancet paper noted that more work was needed on the quality of the Echinacea products used. It is clear that some products found on the high street may not be of the right quality – and this goes some way to explain why some Echinacea trials show disappointing results.
Other researchers are also of the same opinion – Goel and colleagues noted that less positive trials involving Echinacea were probably due to “the wide disparity in different preparations, lack of standardization of products on the basis of active components and undefined dosing procedures.”
Some years ago, an investigation into the quality of Echinacea preparations available in the US found that products differed widely in active substances, with 10% of those taken from health stores containing no measurable Echinacea. As many products in the UK come from America, it is likely that the situation could be the same here.
Treating the symptoms when you do get the cold
Some people believe that Echinacea is only useful for preventing colds and that it is less useful if you do get them. Research shows us that this is not true.
Apart from its action on the immune system, Echinacea has been found in the laboratory to have direct anti-viral effects on many of the organisms causing colds and flu, including the swine flu and bird flu viruses!
One of the great pioneers of herbal medicine, the Swiss naturopath Alfred Vogel, said that the best way to use Echinacea was in the form of a tincture (drops) and to hold this in your mouth for 30 to 45 seconds before swallowing. We can now understand that using Echinacea in this way takes advantage of this anti-viral effect by zapping the cold viruses lurking at the back of your throat.
Many trials have shown that using Echinacea can reduce the symptoms of colds, helping speed up recovery. For example, Goel found that by using Echinacea as soon as a cold starts, 95% of people will be free of symptoms at 7 days compared to 63% taking placebo (dummy) medication.  Experts reviewing research information from 16 studies have confirmed that Echinacea can indeed reduce the duration and severity of symptoms of colds – but only if you use the right one.