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Does Echinacea work?

24 October 2017

One study says it works, another one says it doesn’t. We weigh up the evidence for Echinacea.

Echinacea Purpurea
There are active substances in the root of Echinacea and in the upper part.

We’re all looking for a miracle cure – be it blueberries to prevent cancer, chia seeds to lose weight, or Echinacea to prevent a cold – but the truth is, there’s no such thing as a miracle cure.

There are, however, certain foods or substances within them that have proven to be beneficial for a specific health outcome – in the case of Echinacea, the oft-touted benefit is that it will help you prevent developing a cold and, once you have a cold, it will reduce the severity of symptoms and length of time you suffer with it. And if you look for studies to support that idea, you’ll find them.

Trouble is, if you look for studies showing that it has no effect, you’ll also find those. So what’s the truth? Let’s look at the evidence. 

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It’s better than nothing

One study, published in The Cochrane Library, reviewed 24 existing studies from 1998, 2006 and 2008, and found that overall, while some preparations of Echinacea were ‘better than nothing’ others had no effect at all. 

It depends on the plant

The Cochrane Library review, above, also found that results varied quite widely between the different types of preparations and also the type of Echinacea.

There are nine species of the Echinacea plant, and of those only three are thought to have health benefits – Echinacea pallid, Echinacea purpurpea and Echinacea angustifolia.

Don’t assume that the Echinacea used in whatever product you buy is necessarily the right kind either – one study from the University of Connecticut showed that low doses of a type of Echinacea not often used in consumer products did produce cold relief in study participants, which raises the question of whether all the products you see on the chemist shelf contain extracts from the most useful types of plants.  

It depends on what you call ‘works’

If the doctor prescribes statins for you to help ward off high cholesterol levels, you expect them to work – if you’re taking statins but your cholesterol levels are too high, you’d be concerned. Statins are supposed to ‘work’ to lower cholesterol, something that is relatively straightforward to measure. It’s far more difficult to measure the efficacy of Echinacea.

According to scientific methods, with something like Echinacea, it has to be tested against a placebo. So while one group of study participants is given something that has no effect on health (not knowing whether it is placebo or not) the other group is given the Echinacea supplement. To assess its effects, study participants will be asked questions, and in some cases, may possibly also have symptoms diagnosed and assessed too.

With viruses such as the cold, however, it’s very difficult to assess the effect on humans simply because there are so many variables involved – genetics, natural immunity, diet, exposure, hygiene and your body’s own unique response to a virus.

With viruses such as the cold, however, it’s very difficult to assess the effect on humans simply because there are so many variables involved – genetics, natural immunity, diet, exposure, hygiene and your body’s own unique response to a virus.

Also, in tests of Echinacea, patients with the same genetic make-up, natural immunity and so on aren’t all exposed to the same cold virus in an otherwise sterile laboratory setting – which is what would be needed to assess its effects thoroughly. So while one individual may report feeling as though their symptoms improved, another may not, but this could all come down to one person being more positive in outlook than the other!

[Scientists] have found Echinacea to include beneficial polysaccharides, glycoproteins, oils, and flavonoids.

One thing that scientists can assess objectively is what active ingredients are in Echinacea. They have found Echinacea to include beneficial polysaccharides, glycoproteins, oils, and flavonoids.

Polysaccharides are known to have a beneficial effect on the immune system, glycoproteins are also essential to for white blood cell function in the body, and flavonoids function rather like vitamins, improving overall health and immune function. Which of these is most important, or which combination of these works to produce the best effect via Echinacea is not known but they are known to be beneficial to health overall, in particular the immune system.  

It depends on how Echinacea is processed

There are active substances in the root of Echinacea but also in the upper part – how this is harvested and processed can obviously have an effect on the end product. The roots have high levels of volatile oils, while there are more polysaccharides in the upper part. Just as olive oil and the way it’s extracted has dramatic effects on how healthy it is and how it tastes, so the process with Echinacea may also produce differences.

Similarly, different companies each use their own method of extraction and manufacture to produce the extract. So even when a clinical test is done to high scientific standards, the results will be dependent on which extract is used. 

Echinacea could be good for other health issues

Native Americans used Echinacea to heal infections and wounds and it may also be useful for ear infections and even urinary tract infections. There’s also anecdotal evidence that it helps in treating yeast infections, human papilloma virus, anxiety and a long list of other illnesses and disorders.

To date, however, there are no large scale clinical studies that show these benefits. That doesn’t mean it won’t be useful, just that it hasn’t been proven to be beneficial using scientific methods.  

Is there anything to be concerned about with Echinacea?

Echinacea seems to be very safe if taken (eaten via supplement form, in tablets or liquid) in the short-term (six months or less). Some users have reported side effects such as nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhoea, dry mouth, dizziness – but responses like these are unusual.

If, however, you have allergies for certain plants such as ragweed, daisies or marigolds, you might find that you are also allergic to Echinacea. In addition, the MHRA advises against giving Echinacea to children under 12, due to the risk of severe allergic reaction in this age group. If you want to find out more about this advice, visit the NHS’ ‘Behind-the-headlines’ site to read their analysis. 

Finally, be aware that if you have an immune disorder, you should talk to your GP first to make sure Echinacea won’t interfere with any medication you are already taking or make your condition worse. 

Echinacea: the upshot

Taking Echinacea won’t harm you, unless you have an allergy to it, but it’s no miracle cure either. If you’re keen to do whatever possible to reduce your risk of a cold this winter, it’s worth buying an Echinacea supplement made by a brand you trust.

It’s certainly worth trying for a few weeks before the cold and flu season begins – as long as you don’t experience any negative side effects, keep it up throughout winter and try to take note of how many colds you get, how long symptoms last and how severe. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.