Echinacea has had a long history of documented use over the past 200 years. The Native Americans used it extensively and it was quickly picked up by the European settlers as a plant that could be used to heal just about everything. It is now among one of the most widely used and research herbal remedies in modern Western Herbalism and mainstream culture. Almost everyone has at least heard of Echinacea and many, many people have tried it in some form for its touted uses as a cold remedy, preventative and immune system stimulant among others. Some of these uses are accurate, some are overstated, and some are just plain marketing claims with no basis in tradition or research.
It seems relevant at this time, with seemingly everyone in the Northeast sick with some cold or flu, to further explore the uses of Echinacea that include the true, false and everything in between. This is no simple task being that Echinacea also seems to be quite controversial as there are several different species with questionable strengths, and still an ongoing debate, mostly among allopaths and scientists, whether it has any effect at all. There does not, however, seem to be any questions amongst herbalists that Echinacea does indeed work and is a powerful ally when used correctly at the proper strength and dosage for the appropriate reasons.
Echinacea was one of the first medicine plants I ever tried. I had used it before I knew any inkling about herbalism in a commercial cold tea from the grocery store, in which it was just one of the ingredients. Although, I have since learned that the tea is not all that effective (a strong infusion or decoction would be more concentrated), my Echinacea tea drinking days were the first small steps toward a long time relationship with this amazing purple beauty. As I began to study herbal medicine I learned of its actions as a cold remedy and immune stimulant. I had not used it much myself at this point, but had a friend whose daughter was sick with strep throat. She told me how our local herbalist had instructed her to give her daughter a dropper of Echinacea tincture every hour until her sore throat was gone. It completed alleviated her sore throat and all symptoms of Strep.
I was a real “newbie” to herbal medicine at this time and had a fair amount of fear of trying new plants. I was taking baby steps toward overcoming the culturally ingrained notion that doctors new best and that plants were wild and unpredictable. Also, I knew almost nobody who used herbs in my family or friend circles. I took lots of trust and mixed it with a little faith and a strong call(I think it was actually a scream) from the green world. I began trying to grow Echinacea in my garden from seed with many unsuccessful attempts. I could get them to sprout, but once I transplanted them they would always die. I finally, was able to bring home some baby plants from where I worked in the gardens of a local herb company. We were just weeding them out as Echinacea seems to always reproduce once established, and they transplanted and grew splendidly.
It was always recommended to me to wait until the plants were three years old before I began to harvest them so, in the meantime, I was able to dig roots from the garden I worked in to bring home and make my own tincture. I was new at this too and at tasting wild plants. I had been culturally ingrained, as many of us have, not to taste or eat wild plants because they could be poisonous. At this point, I was breaking through and discarding some of these old beliefs and had begun to taste and try many of natures plant wonders. I brought home my bundle of roots and began making one of my first ever tinctures in my kitchen. I scrubbed and cleaned the roots and began chopping with my sharp meat cleaver. Now, I had tasted the tincture many times by then, but always diluted in water (not anymore), so had no idea what I was in for when I bravely decided to taste a little piece of the raw root. I’m glad there was no one else in the house at the time to see the look on my face, but when it happened I was really wishing someone was there to call an ambulance. I had never experienced a sensation like that! My whole mouth and throat began grow tingly and numb with that strong, diffusive totally stimulating taste that Echinacea is known for but I had never experienced, and I thought I was having some weird reaction to it just like my mother had warned me. I have heard it called a “zing” but it felt more like a ZING, ZING, ZANG to me!
Needless to say, I lived and, boy, did that event make a big impression on me which caused me to fall in deep love with this loud and lovely powerhouse of a medicine plant. It has since grown big and wild in my garden and I make yearly tincture of the root, leaf, flower and sometimes seeds. I transplant the new seedlings that pop up to different rows so that I can keep track of how old the plants are. After my first initial interactions with Echinacea I began using it for pretty much everything and it seemed to work for pretty much everything. I later learned through my herbal training that there was an old way of practicing medicine where a healer could form a relationship of mutuality and respect with only one plant and that plant would assist in the healing of any ailment. This plant became my true ally and still is to this day.
The History of Echinacea
Echinacea has been used throughout history and is one of our North American native plants. It’s rich history begins with the widespread use of it by the First Peoples, mostly the tribes of the plains and mid-west. The main documented species used was Angustafolia, although all nine species can be used. Purpurea became more widely used in modern times for reasons that are not clear except, perhaps, because it is easier to grow. It seems that these are commonly used species along with Echinacea pallid, and there also seems to be a good deal of controversy over which one works more effectively. I have always used Purpurea and it has never let me down.
Echinacea has a natural range in open woods and dry meadows with Angustafolia mainly in the Ozarks and Midwest, but stretching North to Michigan and Illinois, South to Louisiana and Purpurea growing in the East from Pennsylvania to Georgia.
It was used widely by the Plains Indians including Winnebago, Ponca, Pawnee, Omaha, Dakota and Fox. They used it for many ailments, but its claim to fame has always been as an antidote for snake bite. Other uses vary from toothaches to coughs and sore throats. It is documented to have been used by Sun Dance participants to stimulate salivation and prevent thirst during their ceremonial fasts. Other uses include as a treatment for sepsis, colds, tonsillitis and gastro-intestinal upset.
It was adapted by the European settlers and used for all sorts of conditions by them. Echinacea began its ascent to mainstream popularity in the late 1800’s when Dr. H. Meyer, a German lay physician, began incorporating Echinacea into his formula for snake bite. He called it snake oil and claimed to have treated hundreds and hundreds of rattlesnake bites with it. He was so sure of the effectiveness of his treatment that he went as far as to inject himself with rattlesnake venom and then dose himself with his Echinacea formula once the inflammation had spread significantly. He fell into a deep sleep and woke up completely cured. This brought the attention of the Eclectic physicians who began to use it as a primary medicine, so much so that it was written about by Eclectic physicians in their materia medica the “Kings American Dispensatory”(1952).
Dr. John King, the original author of the dispensatory, reported:
“success in obstinate naso-pharyngeal catarrh; in rheumatism (one case being of the articular variety); in cholera morbus and cholera infantum; in chronic ulcers of the leg (one case of which was complicated with an eczematous eruption of years' standing); also in painful chronic hemorrhoids, vaginal leucorrhoea with ulceration of the os uteri, poisoning from poison ivy, and stings of wasps and bees, with very extensive swelling. Dyspepsia, with pain and great distress, aggravated by partaking of food, and long resisting treatment, also yielded to it. Goss (Chicago Medical Times, 1888), who became interested in the drug, praised it as a remedy for mad dog bites, chronic catarrh, chronic ulcers, gonorrhoea, and syphilis. Dr. A. Parker, of Wilber, Neb., also reported success with it in an apparently hopeless case of septicaemia.” King’s American Dispensatory 19th edition
The Eclectic use of Echinacea led to some research in the United States, but much of the allopathic community saw the use of Echinacea as quackery and claimed it as such in running articles in the Journal of American Medicine. German physicians and researchers, however, disagreed and took on Echinacea as a subject of numerous studies that continue through today.
Current uses and Research
Echinacea is one of the most popular herbs of our time and has been exploited as such. It has been marketed to the world as a cold and flu remedy and is being highly misused. This is a very oversimplified understanding of Echinacea and its use in the treatment of colds and flus is for specific symptoms based on the stage of the illness. Below is some of the most current low down on Echinacea, much of which is based on Stephen Buhner’s work as compiled in his latest book “Herbal Antibiotics”
Echinacea spp.(purpurea, angustafolia, pallida)
Common Names: Purple Coneflower, Red Sunflower, Comb Flower, Black Sampson, Hedgehog, Snakeroot
Parts Used: mostly root, but the flowers, leaves and seeds are all effective
Properties and Actions: Sweet, cold, diffusive, stimulating, Analgesic, Anti-viral, Hyaluronidase inhibitor, Immune modulator, Anitbacterial, Immune stimulant, Anti-inflammatory, Sialagogue(increases saliva), Stimulates antibody production
Uses, preparations and dosage: the tincture is the most concentrated and most effective form of the herb, but German studies have mostly used the fresh juice of Purpurea leaf and flower and the root of E. pallid. Stephen Buhner strongly claims that Angustafolia is the strongest of the species based on its history of use by the Native Americans and Eclectics.
For Colds and Flu
For the treatment of colds or flu Echinacea is used at the first onset or indication that someone is becoming sick. The dose is 1 dropper every hour or two until symptoms subside. It is not useful as a preventative, and nor is it useful once a cold has set in. This has been the general consensus of most herbalists and indications written in herbal material medicas. Also, this has been my direct experience. I have found, however, that if I start using Echinacea initially and the illness still sets in, I may stop it for a couple of days and then start it again at the hourly dosage. This seems often to halt the illness or bring it to a swifter end.
According to Stephen Buhner:
““To be clear: The herb is very good, if you are using it properly for the right things. It is relatively useless for preventing colds. The overuse of the herb for that (especially combined with goldenseal…what a waste) is due entirely to marketing ploys by the larger herb companies. Echinacea can help at the onset of a cold of flu if used in large doses every half hour or hour exactly at the onset of the cold or flu.”
Other uses: Strep throat, tonsillitis, Canker sores, Bee stings, snake bites, histaminic reactions(allergies), scarlet fever, typhoid, diphtheria, fever, wounds, cervical dysplasia and other epithelial cell abnormalities, infected blood and wounds, generally infected mucus membranes, infections of the throat, tongue, mouth, lungs and stomach. It works best for strep and other mucus membrane infections when there is direct contact with the tissue so, if you have a sore throat it is best to take the Echinacea with just a small amount of water or take it straight if you can bear it.
I use Echinacea for the onset of colds when I first feel that little bit of pain or burning in my nose or throat. I use it for Strep throat sometimes by itself or sometimes along with Usnea. I also find it great as an anti-infective for any external wound or bug bite and I will either dilute it if it is someone else or one of my kids, or I will use right straight on myself. I have used for fevers and also at the tail end of a cold or flu to send the pathogens more quickly out the door. I have also had success with it in several cases of abnormal pap smears and cervical dysplasia, but always combined with other herbs and a complete protocol.
Echinacea’s traditional uses are now being proven by scientific research. One of its primary actions is that of an immune stimulant and modulator. Echinacea has been found to increase phagocytosis which means that it increases immune cells that surround and kill pathogens. Echinacea has been found to:
- Increases CD69 and CD25 immune cells in vitro
- Stimulated proliferation of PBMC’s and increased interleukin-2
- Significantly increased interferon-alpha production
- Increases interferon-gamma production
- Stimulate T cell production and proliferation
- Stimulates production of neutrophils, macrophages, and B cells
- 30% more effective than sodium alginate in the stimulation of antivenom antibodies
Echinacea is also a Hyaluronidase inhibitor. Hyaluronidase(HYL) is an enzyme found in animal tissue, snake and bee venom , insects and bacteria. HYL breaks down hyaluronic acid which is found in connective tissue, epithelial tissue, neural tissue and the extracellular matrix. Hyaluronic acid is a necessary for the maintanence of cartilage and synovial fluid and so is quite helpful for inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. It is also found in skin tissue and is necessary for cell movement and growth. Hyalauronidase also breaks down the extracellular matrix, weakening it and making it more susceptible to metastasis of cancer cells. Many bacteria and viruses also release HYL in order to weaken the cell membranes and tissue of their subjects and allow them to spread further through the body.
Echinacea is antiviral and antibacterial and has been found to:
- be active against HIV, and influenza H5N1, H7N7 and H1N1
- Inhibit receptor cell binding activity of the virus
- Inactivate Streptoccocus pyogenes, Propionbacterium acnes, and Legionella pneumophila(Legionnaires‘ disease) and competely eliminates the inflammatory process
- Less active against Stahpyloccocus and Myobacterium but reverses the inflammation they cause
This is just the tip of the iceberg as there are piles and piles of studies that indicate the usefulness of Echinacea and its constituents, but also with a rich history to back it up. The exploitive marketing of Echinacea has been unfortunate, but has led researchers and herbalists to further explore the truth and gifts of this great plant. One of the main aspects of Echinacea that I love is that it is easy to grow once established making it accessible to anyone with a little space to plant a garden in. It spreads readily and the seedlings can be shared with neighbors and friends building a web of connection and healing right in our own backyards.
Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
The King’s American Dispensatory: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL23308061M/King's_American_dispensatory
The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Serviceshttp://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_ecan2.pdf
Echinacea: From Native American Panacea to Modern Phytopharmaceutical by Christopher Hobbs 1998