Echinacea is native to North America and has nine flowering species. These herbaceous, perennial plants grow up to a height of 2 meters and bear purple flowers. Although these are ornamental plants, they play an important part in herbal remedies (1). For medicinal purposes, Echinacea purpurea is believed to be the most potent of all the species (3).
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Echinacea down the ages
Echinacea has been traditionally used by Native Americans, as their main herbal remedy. Till early 20th century, this plant was an important constituent of modern American medicine. Even Europeans used it extensively in the 1930s. (2)
Medicinal properties of Echinacea
Echinacea’s rhizome, which is nothing but an underground root, was used by Native Americans to prepare herbal medicines. However, depending upon the species, any part of the plant, above or below the ground, can be used in the preparation of such medicines. This is because the plant contains many chemical components responsible for health benefits. These chemical compounds are called phenols.
Phenols, such as, cichoric and caftaric acids are present in E. purpurea, while echinacoside is found in E. angustifolia and E. pallida. The importance of these phenols is they serve as markers to help evaluate the quantity of Echinacea, while making herbal products. Other important constituents of these plants are alkamides and polysaccharides. (2)
Echinacea has been found beneficial in boosting the immune system. It stimulates the overall activity of the cells responsible for combating infection. Other benefits of this plant are given as under (2):
a. Echinacea reduces or shortens the duration of cold symptoms, as per the research conducted by University of Maryland.
b. It alleviates coughs, flu and other upper respiratory tract conditions.
c. It cures sore throat and enlarged lymph glands.
d. It’s helpful in combating herpes, Candida and athlete’s foot.
e. It assists in clearing urinary tract infections.
f. It helps in healing wounds, in skin regeneration and in clearing skin infections.
g. It has also proved beneficial against psoriasis, eczema and inflammatory skin conditions.
h. It also helps in cancer treatment.
i. It increases the number and activity of immune system cells by promoting T-cell activation. (3)
j. It reduces inflammation in arthritis and inflammatory skin conditions. (3)
k. It’s a mild antibiotic and is an effective anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal. (3)
The plant parts, both above and below the ground, are crushed and its juice extracted and used as such. It can even be used, either fresh or dried, for making herbal teas. Extracts of the plant can also be used in preparations for external use (3).
Echinacea products should not be taken by children without consulting the physician. Even persons with progressive systemic and auto-immune disorders, such as connective tissue disorders, tuberculosis, collagenosis, leicosis and related diseases should not take this herbal medicine. It should also not be used by AIDS patients (3).
Echinacea also doesn’t go well with certain hepatotoxic drugs, like anabolic steroids, amiodarone, methotrexate or ketoconazole (3).
Echinacea produces side effects in certain people. Some people experience allergic reactions, including rashes, increased asthma and anaphylaxis. Allergic reactions were more apparent in people naturally allergic to plants of the daisy family, like ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold and daisy. Gastrointestinal problems have also occurred in clinical trials. Asthmatic persons or persons with atopy, a genetic tendency toward allergic reactions, are more likely to have an allergic reaction to Echinacea.
Echinacea is an effective herbal remedy, but if you’re using it, it’s important to inform your physician. This will help him or her in prescribing medicine that doesn’t have adverse reaction with Echinacea.