Echinacea, a well-studied immune system booster, has a long history of use for reducing the chance of catching a cold or the flu.

Long used by Native Americans, echinacea is a relative newcomer to Western herbal medicine. This beautiful member of the aster family grows wild in North America’s prairie regions and is easily cultivated in gardens. Echinacea purpurea is the most commonly grown variety and is the one most frequently used in clinical trials.

Echinacea first attracted attention in the 1880s as a remedy for blood poisoning and septic infections. It was listed as an official drug in the National Formulary of the US from 1916 to 1950. Numerous studies have established the herb as an immune modulator, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and wound healer.

Hard-Working Herb

Echinacea increases phagocyte production in bone marrow and stimulates macrophage and monocyte production and activity throughout the body. These immune system cells are responsible for destroying bacteria and viruses. Echinacea also helps to prevent pathogens from breaking down tissue barriers and supports the regeneration of damaged tissue.

Recent interest in echinacea has centred on its ability to prevent and reduce the effects of colds and influenza. A 2007 meta-analysis of clinical trials reported in The Lancet (July 2007) showed significant reductions in both the chances of catching the common cold (a 58 percent reduction) and the duration of a cold once caught (an average of 1.4 days’ reduction).

Immune Booster

To boost the immune system and reduce the chance of catching colds and flu, a minimum dose of 900 mg of dried root per day is recommended. Simmer 1 teaspoon (5 mL) of dried root in 1 cup (250 mL) of water for 10 minutes three times a day, or take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (2 to 5 mL) of tincture (1:5 ratio of dried herb to 45 percent alcohol extract) three times a day without food. If using a commercial product, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations as preparations vary in strength.

Echinacea is traditionally considered less effective when taken continuously. During cold season, use the herb for 10 to 14 days, and then break for three days.

While echinacea is a very safe herb, it may affect the way certain drugs are broken down by the liver. Seek medical advice if you experience an unusual side effect while taking it. Also, avoid this herb if you are trying to become pregnant, are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking immune-suppressing drugs. There is no evidence that echinacea negatively affects autoimmune conditions, but some natural medicine experts recommend that people with these conditions avoid using the herb. Consult your natural health professional to find out if this beautiful herb could be beneficial for you.

About the Author

Diane Kent, MNIMH, RH, is a medical herbalist and president of the Ontario Herbalists Association. She teaches, offers workshops, and operates a private practice in Toronto. dianeherbalist.ca