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Nutrient - Echinacea - Herbal Focus

By Corin Evans DipION FdSc MBANT

Many of us are familiar with the herb echinacea, especially around this time of year, when the seasons change into autumn and then winter, and we fall prey to the dreaded cold and flu viruses that seem to lurk around every corner; but how much do any of us actually know about this popular herb?

Grown natively in America, but now cultivated in Britain, Echinacea purpurea was prized by the native Indians for treating infections and wounds, as well as a general ‘cure all’. In fact, it was they who first introduced this pretty purple member of the daisy family, also known as the purple coneflower, to European shores more than 400 years ago. According to some historical sources, Mohawk and Cherokee Indians discovered echinacea after observing that rattlesnakes provoked to bite themselves would make a complete recovery after immediately seeking out and sucking the plant.

Whether you believe this tale or not, there is a wealth of evidence from research to suggest echinacea can be a valuable herb in our modern age. According to studies, constituents found in echinacea increase the amount of circulating white blood cells, whose job it is to engulf and then destroy pathogens such as viruses. It is the polysaccharides within the plant that are thought to activate macrophages, which upregulates the body’s own defence systems. Rather than acting to destroy invading pathogens directly, it seems that echinacea stimulates immune response, enhancing the body’s own innate system for dealing with foreign intruders. One mechanism by which echinacea appears to exert its effects may be its ability to inhibit an enzyme that is triggered by the invading pathogen to destroy the integrity of the cell barrier. Instead of becoming ‘leaky’, the barrier then remains more intact and, therefore, the cell is stronger in its defence against the invader.

So, what does this all mean to you and I when we catch that unwanted virus? And how can we draw on this knowledge in using this valuable herb?

Research suggests that echinacea is most effective when started at the very first signs of a cold, so it would seem the ideal way to get maximum benefit for the relief of cold and flu symptoms is by doing just this and then continuing use for a further ten days. Sometimes, people like to take echinacea to protect them from coming down with a virus. However, there is evidence to suggest that long-term use of echinacea (eight weeks at a time) could suppress immunity. Therefore, it is best left for use during a viral infection. 

In terms of its effectiveness, studies show that echinacea not only reduces the duration, but it also the severity of symptoms in those suffering from colds, influenza and upper respiratory tract infections. Now I don’t know about you, but I think that is certainly something worth cheering about!    

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