Results of archeological digs indicate that Native Americans may have used echinacea for over 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general health therapy. Echinacea has also been used throughout history to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria.
Echinacea is one of several herbs that act as immunostimulants which are botanical medicines that help your body fight off illness by bolstering its natural defenses. Echinacea is the best-known of these herbs. The herb is named for the prickly scales in its large conical seed head, which resemble the spines of an angry hedgehog (echinos is Greek for hedgehog).
This North American plant kicks your immune system into high gear. Echinacea can help cut down the effects of a cold, influenza, or bacterial infection before it can spread in the body. It can also shorten the duration and lessen the symptoms of the infection, says Alison Lee, M.D., a pain-management specialist and medical director of an alternative medicine practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
When you take echinacea, your immune system responds immediately. It can't sit still. Echinacea speeds up the process of phagocytosis and increases the number of white blood cells (natural killer cells) hunting down foreign particles such as viruses and bacteria in your body.
Echinacea is one of several herbs that act as immunostimulants - botanical medicines that help your body fight off illness by bolstering its natural defenses.
Today, echinacea is primarily used to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold and flu and to alleviate the symptoms associated with them, such as sore throat (pharyngitis), cough, and fever. Many herbalists also recommend echinacea to help boost the activity of the immune system and to help the body fight infections.
The constituents of echinacea include essential oil, polysaccharides, polyacetylenes, betain, glycoside, sesquiterpenes and caryophylene. It also contains copper, iron, tannins, protein, fatty acids and vitamins A, C and E. The most important immune-stimulating components are the large polysaccharides, such as inulin, that increase the production of T-cells and increase other natural killer cell activity. Fat-soluble alkylamides and a caffeic acid glucoside called echinacoside also contribute to the herb's immune empowering effects.
It has been shown in animal and human studies to improve the migration of white blood cells to attack foreign micro-organisms and toxins in the bloodstream. Echinacea’s properties may offer benefit for nearly all infectious conditions. Studies show echinacea prevents the formation of an enzyme which destroys a natural barrier between healthy tissue and damaging organisms.
Echinacea is considered an effective, therapeutic agent in many infectious conditions including upper respiratory infections, the common cold and sinusitis. The herb is a mild antibiotic that is effective against staph and strep infections. Echinacea aids in the production of interferon, which increases antiviral activity against influenza (the flu) ?herpes (an inflammation of the skin and mouth). It may reduce the severity of symptoms such as runny nose and sore throat and reduce the duration of illness.
Steven Dentali, Ph.D., a natural products chemist with Dentali Associates in Troutdale, Oregon and a member of the advisory board of the American Botanical Council says that Echinacea works on another level of the immune system as well. It seems to prevent the action of an enzyme called hyaluronidase. When you're sick, this enzyme breaks down the walls of healthy cells, allowing the invaders to get inside.
By interfering with this enzyme, echinacea helps the body maintain its lines of defense in the deadly game of germ warfare, says Dr. Dentali. "There's still some debate over the actual mechanism. Maybe it inhibits the enzyme, or perhaps it supports the cell wall so it's a more formidable barrier and harder to penetrate. No one really knows," he says, "but the result is that it seems to slow down the spread of infection in the body."
The revved-up effect, however, is short-lived. Consequently, for best results, at the very onset of any symptoms (or before entering a crowded environment, such as airplane, stadium, etc) we recommend that once you start taking echincea, you continue to do so until after symptoms of your illness have subsided.
Two groups of researchers recently conducted a review of the scientific literature to determine whether echinacea is safe and effective in preventing or treating the common cold. Both groups of researchers identified 13 high-quality European studies including a variety of different echinacea preparations. Nine looked at the effectiveness of echinacea to treat the common cold and four examined whether echinacea helps prevent this familiar health problem.
Most studies found that echinacea (when taken at the first sign of a cold for 8 to 10 days) reduced cold symptoms or shortened their duration. For example, in a study of 95 people with early symptoms of cold and flu (such as runny nose, scratchy throat, and fever), those who drank 5 to 6 cups of echinacea tea every day for 5 days felt better sooner than those who drank tea without echinacea. Other studies have found that echinacea reduces cold symptoms by roughly 34 percent.
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