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Dispelling Myths About Echinacea

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Hundreds of clinical trials support the safe use of echinacea in preventing and treating colds and influenza-like infections, as an anti-inflammatory, and to support the immune system. Yet myths continue to abound about its therapeutic benefits..

Hundreds of clinical trials support the safe use of echinacea in preventing and treating colds and influenza-like infections, as an anti-inflammatory, and to support the immune system. Yet myths continue to abound about its therapeutic benefits.

Myth: Echinacea could increase the inflammatory process in asthmatics.
Fact: On the contrary, a clinical study published in the Australian Medical Observer in 1997 confirmed that the normal oral use of echinacea in fact benefits asthmatics by reducing the frequency of respiratory viral infections, a well-known exacerbating factor in asthma.

Myth: Echinacea could be toxic to the liver due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
Fact: The Bauer and Wagner study published in Economic and Medicinal Plant Research in 1991 showed that echinacea contains only trace amounts (0.006 percent in dried plant material) of saturated alkaloids. They are non-toxic and pose no risk of liver damage.

Myth: In principle, echinacea is contraindicated in progressive conditions such as tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, HIV, and other autoimmune disease.
Fact: No clinical studies document adverse effects from echinacea in any of these conditions. Many theories exist about autoimmune disease and increasing evidence, including a study published in Modern Phytotherapist in 1995, which suggests an inappropriate response to infectious micro-organisms may be the cause. If so, echinacea may be beneficial by decreasing the chronic presence of these micro-organisms.

Myth: Echinacea stops working after five days.
Fact: A German clinical study published in Phytotherapy in 1989 administered echinacea for five days, during which time an increase in phagocyte activity was observed. When echinacea was stopped a residual stimulating effect lasted about two days as phagocytosis returned to normal.

Myth: Echinacea makes no significant difference in duration, fever, peak symptoms, or severity in upper respiratory tract infections.
Fact: A randomized controlled trial to determine the effectiveness and safety of E. purpurea in treating upper-respiratory tract infections in children was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003. According to Mark Blumenthal, director of the American Botanical Council, the children using echinacea did indeed experience considerably fewer second and third upper respiratory tract infections than the placebo group during the four-month trial.

Myth: Echinacea increases risk of birth defects.
Fact: A controlled study on the safety of echinacea during pregnancy published in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2000 demonstrated that its use was not associated with an increased risk of birth defects. In addition, echinacea was effective in improving the upper-respiratory tract symptoms of 81 percent of the 206 pregnant women in the study.

While misconceptions have unintentionally diminished echinacea's value and application in modern healthcare, ongoing research substantiates the medicinal benefits of this popular herb. Further research will also help us fully understand its role as an immunomodulator and determine its potential as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapy.

A Long Tradition

First Nations first used Echinacea for the treatment of snakebite, respiratory and skin infections, ulcerations, minor wounds, and inflammatory conditions. Based on this tribal use, the Eclectics, a group of prominent American physicians in the late 19th century, began using the root of E. angustifolia for a wide range of chronic and acute conditions. By 1921 it was the most popular treatment prescribed for diphtheria, typhus, bacterial infections, septic wounds, dysentery, and scarlet fever.

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