Echinacea is derived from the upper parts and roots of purple coneflowers. For centuries there has been interest in the immune effects of this natural supplement. In a meta-analysis published in Advances in Medicine, echinacea extract was found to decrease the risk of recurrent respiratory infections and complications, such as pneumonia, ear infection, and tonsillitis.
Experts hypothesize that echinacea harbors immune modulatory, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory effects that appear strongest in susceptible individuals. Notably, it seems that echinacea is most effective during bouts of acute illness. There are many varieties of echinacea, and this group of herbals has nine species, but only three are used in herbal supplements and for medicinal purposes— Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida.
Six clinical studies with a total of 2458 participants were included in the meta-analysis. Use of echinacea extracts was associated with reduced risk of recurrent respiratory infections (relative risk -RR 0.649, 95% confidence interval -CI 0.545–0.774; P-value < 0.0001). Ethanolic extracts from echinacea appeared to provide superior effects over pressed juices, and increased dosing during acute episodes further enhanced these effects.
Three independent studies found that in individuals with higher susceptibility, stress or a state of immunological weakness, echinacea halved the risk of recurrent respiratory infections (RR 0.501, 95% CI 0.380–0.661; P < 0.0001). Similar preventive effects were observed with virologically confirmed recurrent infections (RR 0.420, 95% CI 0.222–0.796; P = 0.005). Complications including pneumonia, otitis media/externa, and tonsillitis/pharyngitis were also less frequent with echinacea treatment (RR 0.503, 95% CI 0.384–0.658; P < 0.0001).
Conclusion to this meta-analysis of those six studies: Evidence indicates that echinacea potently lowers the risk of recurrent respiratory infections and complications thereof. Immune modulatory, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory effects might contribute to the observed clinical benefits, which appear strongest in susceptible individuals.
In addition to echinacea’s use for fighting off colds and coughs it has been used historically for the treatment of lowering blood glucose levels, reducing feeling of anxiety, use as an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant, used topically to address skin conditions, and as a potential anti-cancer treatment. Not all of these other uses have been well studied.
Most will dose:
- Dry powdered extract in a capsule: 300–500 mg of Echinacea purpurea, three times daily. For no longer than 6 weeks.
- Liquid standard extract tinctures: 2.5 ml, three times daily, or up to 10 ml daily for 6 weeks.
When you are feeling well and free of infections, taking echinacea for too long will over stimulates the immune system unnecessarily, depleting its capabilities. This results in immune system suppression, which leads to greater risk of illness. It is therefore recommended not to take echinacea for longer than eight weeks but keep it to six for best results. Echinacea products appear to be safe and well-tolerated for short-term use.
There have been cases where people experienced side effects, such as: Rashes, Itchy skin, Hives, Swelling, Stomach or Abdominal pain, Nausea & Shortness of breath (Dyspnea). However, these side effects are more common among people with allergies to other flowers, such as daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, ragweed and others.
Schapowal, A., Klein, P. & Johnston, S.L. Adv Ther (2015) 32: 187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12325-015-0194-4 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12325-015-0194-4