Dear EarthTalk: What’s the story with Echinacea? Many herb teas contain it, and many people swear by it as a cold remedy. But I’ve also seen headlines saying that the herb has no medicinal value whatsoever. Can you set the record straight?
— Arlene Hixson, Portland, ME
Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower, has gained popularity in recent years as a nutritional supplement that proponents believe is helpful in staving off the common cold and shortening its duration. But given the variation between dosages and formulations—such herbs are not regulated as medical drugs by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and so makers have little incentive to standardize—it’s hard to get definitive answers as to Echinacea’s effectiveness.
Historically, Native Americans relied on the root of Echinacea to numb toothache pain and treat dyspepsia as well as snake, insect and spider bites. While some modern day folks rely on Echinacea just based on this anecdotal evidence, scientific studies have verified that the herb can be effective. To wit, a 2008 University of Connecticut review of 14 different clinical trials of Echinacea use found that taking the supplement reduced the chances of getting a cold by 31 percent, and helped people get over cold and flu symptoms a day and a half earlier than those who didn’t take it.
Researchers initially thought Echinacea’s effectiveness was due to its immune-boosting traits, but they now believe instead that the herb works more as an anti-inflammatory agent. A 2009 University of British Columbia study found that typical commercially available Echinacea preparations are effective in reducing the body’s production of inflammatory proteins in human bronchial cells. In layman’s terms, this means that Echinacea can help lessen the annoying symptoms of common colds, the flu and other respiratory ailments. Furthermore, the study found that Echinacea is just as effective in reducing bronchial inflammation whether it is consumed before or after a viral infection sets in, indicating that taking moderate doses on a regular basis during cold season can help prevent some bronchial irritation if and when cold symptoms begin.
Interestingly, though, a 2010 study of 719 participants in Wisconsin focusing on illness duration and severity found that the duration of the common cold could be shortened by taking a pill of some sort, whether Echinacea or a placebo with no active ingredients. But this study merely underscored the importance of psychological factors in fighting illness and did not say that Echinacea isn’t effective.
Given the lack of FDA oversight of herbs, different formulations may contain vastly different amounts of Echinacea. A 2004 evaluation of 19 different Echinacea brands by the non-profit Consumers Union and published in Consumer Reports found that the amount of Echinacea actually present in supplements varied considerably from brand to brand—and even in some cases from bottle to bottle of the same brand. The magazine recommended a few brands as “best picks,” including Spring Valley, Origin and Sundown, all which featured high concentrations of Echinacea and reliable dosage amounts from pill to pill.
Before taking the Echinacea plunge, beware that the herb can cause allergic reactions in some people and may interact negatively with some common medications. Researchers warn that anyone with autoimmune disease or a handful of other illnesses should not take Echinacea without first consulting with their doctor.