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Echinacea: The Flower with Power

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A properly functioning immune system is vital; without a good defence system we could not survive

A properly functioning immune system is vital; without a good defence system we could not survive. As the immune system is weakened by our modern way of life and by aging, it's good to know that the herbal remedy echinacea can play an important role in keeping us healthy.

We owe First Nations people a debt of gratitude for introducing North American settlers to the wonders of this plant, or "purple coneflower," as it was called on the Great Plains. There are two different species of echinacea regarded as sacred: E. purpurea and E. angustifolia. The latter of the two has a deep, penetrating tap-root, while purpurea's root is shallower. From a medicinal point of view, both are of equal value.

The Sioux traditionally used the fresh root of this herb as a remedy for snakebites (blood poisoning), infectious conditions and on skin wounds to stop the bleeding. They also applied the root directly to the mouth for toothaches and sore throats. A tea made from the roots was used to induce perspiration and to fight enteric fever (typhoid) and urinary tract infections.

Famous Swiss doctor Alfred Vogel was first introduced to echinacea by Black Eagle, a tribal chief of South Dakota. Dr. Vogel immediately recognized its medicinal power and started cultivating echinacea back in Switzerland. He visited the natives in Texas and Mexico on several occasions and always went back to Switzerland with new knowledge of this plant's healing properties.

Word of echinacea spread throughout Europe, where it is still today one of the most sought-after and prescribed medicinal plants. Herbalists consider echinacea one of the best blood purifiers and an effective natural antiviral and antibiotic. Hundreds of articles have been written about echinacea and published in scientific journals since the early 1900s.

Most of the research during the past 30 years has focused on echinacea's immune-stimulating properties. Researchers have worked to isolate the active ingredients, including two polysaccharide components, inulin and echinasin, which have the ability to reinforce the body's own defence mechanisms and make the herb especially effective in fighting not only viral infections but some cancerous conditions as well.

Every summer for the past four years, in correlation with Natural Factors' Echinacea Harvest Festival, Canadian and European scientists have gathered in Kelowna, BC, to exchange information on the latest research findings. The setting couldn't be more appropriate. The blooming fields of echinacea acres and acres of purple coneflowers is a beautiful sight to behold.

Last year at the festival, Dr. Richard Barton, professor of biochemistry at the University of British Columbia, reported on the successful isolation of the active compounds, alkylamides, cichoric acid and others, which had previously been discovered by Dr. Rudi Bauer of the University of Graz in Germany. A convincing slide show was held to show how echinacea actually prevents the formation of an enzyme that destroys the natural barrier between healthy tissue and unwanted pathogenic organisms. This is how echinacea helps the body maintain its line of defence against unwanted invaders, especially viruses.

Echinacea is a tremendous aid in increasing the body's resistance to micro-organisms and all infections viral, fungal and bacterial. It also strengthens the lymphatic system, assists with enlarged lymph nodes and can help those who suffer constant attacks of cold and catarrh (mucus in the nose and throat). Applied externally as a cream, echinacea can be used on wounds, minor infections and inflammatory skin conditions, for skin regeneration and skin infections, as well as for psoriasis and eczema. Topically, it also helps combat candida, an annoying and persistent fungal infection, as well as herpes.

Echinacea remedies come in many different forms, including tinctures, honey-based syrups, capsules, tablets and lozenges. Herbal teas are convenient, while echinacea juice remains the purest form of herbal medicine because it has usually been freshly pressed. Freshness of the herb is important in the preparation of any herbal medicine, says Dr. Barton. That's why the largest extraction plant for echinacea in the world is located right next to where the plants are grown in the sunny Okanagan.

In practical terms, echinacea has become the herbal remedy of choice in fighting colds, coughs, sore throat, flu and other upper respiratory conditions. At the first sign of a cold, it is recommended to take echinacea in fairly large doses that is, double as per label instructions or 180 drops of tincture five to six times daily. This has been shown to minimize the intensity and duration of cold symptoms.

Even large doses of echinacea have been proven safe for use by most people. Though no side-effects are known, as with all other medicinal herbs, echinacea should not be used continuously for longer than eight weeks because the body can sometimes become used to its effects. After a pause of three to four weeks, the course may be continued as required.

Ask your nutritional advisor at your health food store or your natural health-care provider for advice on which form would be most effective for your needs. It's good to have a few echinacea items in your medicine chest at all times. You never know when you might need them.

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