Echinacea has been gaining attention for a few decades in the fields of dietetics and phytotherapy and it has reached an important position among the most efficient natural remedies, which is a field where competition is huge.
Its use in traditional medicine must be dated at the beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays, we can find a wide range of products in the market that are made with the whole echinacea plant: root, flowers, stem, leaves, and seeds.
But, what is Echinacea?
It belongs to a beautiful herbaceous species, similar to a daisy but with a bigger flower, and with little thorns in its rough stem.
Moreover, its floral disks can be seen, which have a tubular aspect and are normally provided with thorns at the end, and narrow tabs of a purple tone. Their name comes Greek ‘ekhinos’ which means hedgehog, probably due to the similar appearance of this animals and the spiny flowers and fruit of this plant.
It belongs to the Asteraceae family, when we use the word echinacea we are actually referring to a wide catalog of twenty-three species, of which thirteen are not suitable for human consumption. Among the ten that are left, three are the most demanded: Pallida, Angustifolia and Purpurea.
Where does it come from?
Apparently, its origins are on the east of North America where its consumption by the native people spread during the 18th century. Although there is evidence that it was already used by the Sioux in the 16thcentury in the form of wraps, as a mouthwash, and to make tea, in order to preserve their health from harsh winters.
At the same time, it is known that they relied heavily on echinacea in order to treat infected wounds and as an antidote against the bite of some snakes. It still grows there, especially in plain lands, sand and limestone hills, and prairies, where it proliferates spontaneously.
How Echinacea is cultivated and how does it reproduced
Although a mild climate is more appropriate for its optimal development, Echinacea has an extraordinary resistance to extreme temperatures, since it is capable of surviving persistent frosts and also the torrid summers of a continental climate. However, it requires abundant sunlight, which is the reason why northern climates are hostile due to their persistent mist and frequent rainy days.
When it comes to the characteristics of the soil, echinacea is more demanding than it is with the climate, since it will only prosper in a clayey and porous soil with a good capacity to retain water. In fact, a compact or loamy soil is quite inappropriate in order to cultivate echinacea, since it is more difficult for the plant to grow its roots.
When it comes to its water needs, even though it can survive droughts, it is necessary to maintain a certain constant level of humidity so that it can grow properly. However, it is important not to exceed the amount of water because otherwise the roots will rot.
In order to plant the seeds for its cultivation, they must be superficially deposited in a soil that has been previously treated with turf, ensuring that there is a proper drainage. These seeds must remain protected under a thin layer of dirt, without being fully buried.
It is important to maintain a minimum distance of 30cm between each seed, as well as 45cm between each furrow.
Germination will occur within 15-20 days, as long as there is a 25 °C temperature on average. Once this phase is achieved, we will have to wait at least a month and a half to ensure the viability of a transplant. However, this is not the only method to grow echinacea. More specifically, there is a very interesting one that consists on dividing the root, whose ideal time is autumn, and which must be made with plants of 3 and 5 years of age. The roots are cut in pieces of 12 centimeters and from each one, a new plant will grow.
Echinacea, an excellent immune-enhancer
It is possibly the vegetable species that has more medicinal properties in order to enhance the immune system.
In fact, several scientific essays prove the relevance of its clear promoting effect of the production of lymphocytes T (the fraction of white cells that is involved in the neutralization of invading agents) and of interferon (a protein of non-specific action that reacts before viral antigens).
But its role in the immune system does not end there, which is without any doubt its greatest virtue. It is also a immune-modulator, which means that it regulates the response system by sending stimulus to the action of macrophages. These are a giant cells that are capable to getting inside foreign bodies in order to destroy them. Echinacea also reinforces the tropism of the defensive cells in order to move to the source of infection.
These properties are due to the richness of the root of the plant. It is made of three substances: echinacea, caffeic acid, and cichoric acid, which are powerful stimulants of the production of white cells in the bone marrow, among other virtues:
- Caffeic acid, whose presence is widely spread in the vegetable kingdom, is a key ingredient for the synthesis of lignin (a glazing substance of many cells which is responsible for the consistency of wood), which is a powerful antioxidant that protects from cancer.
- Cichoric acid shares with caffeic acid the ability to prevent oxidative stress, but it also seems to reduce the accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins whose role in the development of Alzheimer is very important.
Recent research points to a solid possibility of the existence of a mechanism used by echinacea that would justify the reason of its immune efficiency. It is mainly due to its ability to counter the action of the hyaluronidase enzyme, which is responsible for the loss of the firmness of hyaluronic acid, a substance that acts as a cementing material that fills the spaces between the cells. By avoiding this phenomenon, Echinacea would contribute to preserve the natural immune barrier of the tissues, which is hyaluronic acid.
To conclude these facts about Echinacea’s ability to stimulate the immune system, we can make a correlation between those processes where Echinacea can act as a co-treatment, due to the fact that they are mostly diseases associated to the immune weakness of the organism. Among them, we want to highlight:
- Vaginal candidiasis
- Cystitis and urethritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Stye (infection of a hair follicle in the eyelashes)
- Sexually transmitted diseases (AIDS, syphilis and gonorrhea).
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hay fever, and sinusitis.
Recognized benefits of Echinacea
The benefits of echinacea are more that supported by the maximum sanitary authority, the World Health Organization, as well as other reputed organizations such as ESCOP (European Scientific Cooperative On Phytotherapy) or the Commission E from Germany. They have classified echinacea as a natural first-choice antibiotic for the treatment of infectious processes, especially those that are related to the respiratory tract, the urinary tract, and the skin.
The scientific evidence for such a consideration is provided by the echinacoside, a natural antibiotic whose range of germs that it treats can be compared to that of penicillin and other a broad-spectrum antibiotics.
When it comes to therapeutic active ingredients, the composition of echinacea would not be complete without the presence of arabinogalactan, which is a complex carbohydrate who has been identified as a factor in the destruction of cancerous cells in recent research.
The most common and popular use of echinacea is to combat the symptoms of a common cold, mainly fever, the production of mucus and coughing. It acts as an expectorant, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory agent which accelerates the process of recovery.
Its great anti-inflammatory power makes it an excellent element for the treatment of sport and traumatic injuries in general, preferably for tendinitis and bursitis (inflammation of the bursa).
As an expectorant, it helps to combat two serious diseases, malaria and diphtheria, and it is recommended to those who suffer from the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the chronic fatigue syndrome. Finally, it is worth mentioning the fact that it has been attributed some success as a defenses enforcer in the case of patients that are undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Contraindications and side effects of Echinacea
Even though it is a natural remedy, the advice of a conventional doctor, a naturist or a homeopath should be taken into account before beginning its consumption.
The European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products points to the few situations in which echinacea may produce any negative effects:
- On children under twelve years of age: it can cause allergic reactions in the form of urticaria and rashes for milder cases, and a generalized immune case, glottis edema or asthma for the most severe.
- Those who are allergic to plants related to echinacea, or to the family of daisies, are prone to experiment allergic reactions to echinacea, as well as those who suffer from chronic asthma or a hereditary predisposition to hypersensitivity.
- Nausea and other gastric problems are among the side effects that are most recurrent after the intake of echinacea. Because of this, if we feel any of these symptoms we should stop its consumption and consult it with our doctor.
- Stiffness of the tongue and dryness of the mouth accompanied by a strange taste.
- Its consumption is not recommended for patients of hepatic deficiency, as well as for women during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
- Precautions must be taken if it is simultaneously consumed with coffee, medicines that are eliminated through the bile, or immune-suppressors (such as corticosteroids), since negative interactions may take place.
A good way to avoid side effects consists on not prolonging the treatment with echinacea for more than two months. Actually, it is recommended to take a break of one or two weeks before beginning again.
Some substances that combine efficiently with Echinacea
A substance that is extracted from the hives, it is very useful in order to prevent colds and to relieve them once they are settled. It is meant for respiratory infections due to its antibiotic and anti-flu action. It is a feature that is mainly due to the presence of flavonoids that support the defenses. It is also a good alternative to combat sinusitis, laryngitis, a sore throat, and aphonia.
It is known for its efficiency in recovery processes of allergies, edema , arthritis, cystitis, goat, hemorrhoids, or prostatitis, due to the anti-inflammatory action of its glycosides and terpenes. On the other hand, it contains alkaloids, epicatechins and chlorogenic acid, all substances that inhibit the development of tumors.
The use of cat’s claw introduces a very interesting synergy with echinacea in the reinforcement of the defenses and in the control of tissue inflammation.
It is another immune-stimulant plant, which increases the vigor of the white cells in order to stop the multiplication of microorganisms. A combination of echinacea and marshmallow creates a beneficial action of the healing of wounds, it combats the inflammation of the respiratory tract and infectious processes in general, specially that of the urinary tract, and the mouth cavity, as well as for skin conditions provoked by fungus or psoriasis.
It is the perfect combination to treat cystitis, since gayuba is a urinary antiseptic. However, it only acquires its maximum efficiency when the urine is much alkaline as possible, which is the reason why it is recommended to mix it with an alkalizing substance such as bicarbonate.
Ways to consume Echinacea
Since all the parts of the plant can be used to elaborate therapeutic preparations, it is possible to find formulations in the form of dry or fluid extracts, capsules, dyes, and infusions. Moreover, if we focus on its uses for the skin we find lotions, creams, and bandages.
Since it is a powerful wound-healer, the fresh echinacea juice or the tincture can be applied on the skin in order to obtain remarkable healing effects in the case of wounds, ulcers, burns, hemorrhoids, insect sting, boils, abscess, acne, psoriasis, and herpes.
Now we are going to provide a table with the approximate steps of treatment with echinacea for different situations:
- Flu, cold, soar throat, or bronchitis: take one gram of echinacea supplement daily in five servings.
- Sinusitis: 800 mg a day distributed in five servings.
- Infections of the urinary tract such as cystitis and urethritis, 800mg a day distributed in four servings.
- Ear infections and sties: two cups of infusion and one spoon of dry plant for cup of water, or 600mg a day as a supplement, distributed in three servings.
- During the recovery from diseases or surgery, for the chronic fatigue syndrome, or for spring asthenia, take 600mg a day distributed in three different servings, which will increase the defenses of the organism.
- For situations of “lazy stomach” and dry mouth: stimulating the appetite increases the secretion of saliva, which favors the digestion process. It can work with two cups with a infusion and a spoonful of the plant per cup of water or through three servings of 600mg of supplement a day.
- Tendinitis and bursitis, the treatment is the same to the previous case.
Its liquid consumption produces a tingling sensation in the mouth that is completely harmless, rather it is an evidence of the quality of the product.
When it comes to tinctures, the recommended intake oscillates between 30 and 60 drops three times a day if it is in liquid forms, which equals 0.5 and 1 gram in solid form. Those people whose body weight is higher than 75kg must increase the dose in one serving per additional 25kg.
Nevertheless, this amounts, as well as the duration of the treatments, must be taken with reservations, since they will always vary according to the authorized opinion of a professional. And at the same time, even if the consumption of the dry plan is not discouraged, it is preferable, due to a higher safety, to use supplements with a normalized formulation.