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What Exactly IS Echinacea?

Echinacea is a best selling herb in America. It’s most commonly known for the treatment of colds and the flu. But what is it? Although Echinacea is a popular herb, I have found that many of my clients don’t know where this wonderful herb comes from.

Echinacea purpurea (also E. angustifolia), known as Purple Coneflower, is a common perennial garden flower in the daisy family. The name Echinacea comes from the Greek word for “sea urchin” due to it’s spiny central cone. It is native to the prairies of eastern and central North America and the stem, leaves and seeds were used medicinally by the Native Americans for the treatment of snake bites and infections, and used in a smoke as a treatment for headaches. Traditionally, Echinacea has been used to treat infections, ranging from syphilis to malaria. It was also utilized for the treatment of rheumatism, boils, dizziness, tumors, eczema, and many other conditions. I include Echinacea as a key ingredient in many of my preparations specifically for the treatment of colds and the flu, and for boosting the immune system.

Echinacea is readily available in capsule-form, as a tincture, extract, or blended into a healthful and tasty tea. Most scientific studies support that Echinacea can shorten the duration of a cold. Anecdotal evidence shows that it can be used to not only reduce the length of an infection, but can help prevent illness if taken at the onset. Studies have also shown that when used topically, Echinacea can help kill bacteria and prevent infection in wounds.

How does it work? It’s not that simple. Scientists haven’t been able to narrow down just one compound responsible for Echinacea’s wonderful medicinal properties. This is most likely because it is a synthesis of chemicals and compounds working together to support our immune function. But a few specific things that researchers have discovered suggest are that Echinacea’s polysaccharide and phytosterol constituents activate the white blood cells, increasing the body’s natural immune response. It keeps the tissue healthy by attacking the enzyme hyaluronidase. It promotes nonspecific T-cell activation, which provides resistance to bacteria and viruses.

Not to risk boring my readers with biochemistry, a more pertinent concern is the simple question: Is it safe? Yes. Most studies show that Echinacea is a safe herb. However, a study by the German Commission says that it should not be used by people with autoimmune conditions. In my experience, this is sound advice.

There is also some debate about whether Echinacea should be used consistently, occasionally, or only at the onset of an infection. Many people take daily doses of Echinacea for supporting their immune system, most with no negative effects. Best advice is to take Echinacea for about ten days at a time, from the onset of an illness until well.

These facts and opinions are those of a certified Master Herbalist, Natural Health Consultant, and Reiki Master Teacher, but are for educational purposes, are not intended to treat or diagnose, or to replace consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner.

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