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Echinacea: uses, dosage & background

Siski Green / 02 June 2020

Echinacea has has been used to boost the immune system for centuries. Find out how taking echinacea tablets, drops or tea might help beat a cold.

Echinacea flower and tea
Echinacea is a general booster for the immune system and is taken to fight colds, flu and other infections

Echinacea is a beautiful flower that grows naturally in the wide prairies of North America and is commonly known as the purple coneflower. All of the echinacea plants (there are nine in total of which three are used medicinally) are native to North America.

What is echinacea good for?

Echinacea is mainly taken to stimulate the immune system. It’s also taken to lower blood sugar levels, to treat anxiety, and may also be anti-carcinogenic.

What’s the history of echinacea?

Native americans used echinacea for boosting the immune system and other purposes for centuries. Later, American immigrants also adopted the plant for medicinal use. With the advance of antibiotics, however, it was used less and less, although it has seen a resurgence in the last 20 years or so as people try to steer away from antibiotics.

What’s the best way to take echinacea?

Both the roots and upper parts of the plant are used to make medicinal echinacea, although the flowers and fruit seem to contain more antioxidants than the roots and leaves. There are so many different products containing echinacea that it may be difficult to find one that is likely to work. There are tablets, juice, tea and liquid extracts (tinctures). But according to current research, effective dosing would include 300-500mg of Echinacea purpurea three times a day; or liquid extract 2.5ml three times a day (up to 10ml per day).

The most important thing is to take echinacea as soon as you feel a cold or flu coming on. This seems to be the most effective method in staving off the cold or flu, or reducing its severity.

Does echinacea really work?

Echinacea has been found to contain antioxidants such as flavonoids, cichoric acid and rosmarinic acid, phenolic acids, as well as alkamides, which help boost antioxidant activity. It also contains caffeic acid which has a beneficial impact on the immune system.

A review of 14 studies published in the Lancet journal of Infectious Diseases concluded that taking echinacea lowers your risk of developing cold symptoms by around 50%, and also shortens the duration of colds by a day or more.

Research on whether echinacea helps lower blood sugar levels is ongoing and at the time of writing some studies had found a beneficial impact on insulin activity but only in a test-tube laboratory scenario. So until tests are done using humans it can’t be certain that you would see similar benefits by taking echinacea.

Mice studies published in Phytotherapy Research on whether echinacea helps relieve anxiety found that it did significantly reduce symptoms without inducing lethargy. Further research is needed, however, to ascertain whether the same effects would be produced in humans.

Finally, echinacea has shown promise in tackling cancer cells – in a laboratory setting. In one study, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, it was found to kill cancer cells from pancreatic and colorectal cancer. More research is needed to pinpoint the mechanism and whether it could be applied in human cancer patients.

Where can I get echinacea?

You can buy echinacea products such as drops, tablets and tea over the counter without a prescription at chemists, healthfood shops and online. Be aware that each product will contain different amounts of echinacea. In fact, according to research published in Archives of Internal Medicine, 10% of echinacea products contained none at all.

How long does echinacea take to work?

If you take echinacea at the very first signs of a cold or flu, it should begin working immediately, however you may not be aware of its effects as it will only reduce the period you suffer with symptoms and reduce symptoms. Without being able to compare to what your symptoms and duration of cold/flu would have been like without it, it’s impossible to know when exactly it started taking effect. So while you can be assured that it is ‘working’ as soon as you start taking it, that’s no guarantee that you’ll see beneficial effects immediately.

What are the side effects of taking echinacea?

There are almost no reported side effects when taking echinacea for short periods of time.

Are there any contraindications when taking echinacea?

Because of echinacea’s potential effect on blood sugar levels, it’s important you see your GP before taking it if you have diabetes. Similarly, as echinacea stimulates the immune system, doctors warn against taking echinacea supplements if you are taking medications for tubercolosis, multiple sclerosis, liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. See your GP if you are unsure.

Some people are allergic to echinacea, especially people with atopy (a general disposition towards allergies), and those who have allergies to daises, ragweed, and marigolds, for example. Symptoms of an allergy would include rash, itchy skin, hives, swelling, nausea, and/or shortness of breath.

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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.