Echinacea and your immune system
Echinacea, the purple coneflower, is the best known and researched herb for stimulating the immune system. This native American herb has an impressive record of laboratory and clinical research.
Echinacea increases the 'non-specific' activity of the immune system. In other words, unlike a vaccine which is active only against a specific disease, echinacea stimulates the overall activity of the cells responsible for fighting all kinds of infection. Unlike antibiotics, which are directly lethal to bacteria, echinacea makes our own immune cells more efficient in attacking bacteria and viruses
Hundreds of scientific studies have documented the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical applications of echinacea. The most consistently proven effect of echinacea is in stimulating phagocytosis - encouraging white blood cells and lymphocytes to attack invading organisms. Specifically, echinacea increases the number and activity of immune system cells. It increases the amount of T-cells and macrophages in the bloodstream. It also increases the amount of Interferon, Interleukin, Immunoglobulin and other important natural immune chemicals present in your blood.
In her preliminary study, Percival gave 10 healthy, college-age men an echinacea supplement for 4 days, taking measurements of immunity on day 1 and day 4. In just 4 days, she found a stimulation of the immune system in the form of a threefold increase in the ability of white blood cells to kill bacteria.
Echinacea and white blood cells
Studies show (1-4) that one of the key manners in which echinacea enhances immune function is by enhancing the ability of macrophages to engulf and destroy foreign matter. By enhancing the activity of these 'garbage collectors' of the body, in essence the blood is purified. The specific components of echinacea responsible for this effect are the polysaccharides, alkylamides, and cichoric acid. While each of these components is effective alone, the greatest degree of enhancement noted in research by Dr. Tapan Basu at the University of Alberta when the 3 active components are used in combination in an echinacea supplement (5). This synergy, where 1+1+1=6 is very powerful and found often in nature.
Other studies have shown echinacea's action on another type of white blood cell known as natural killer cells.(6,7) Natural killer (NK) cells got their name because they can destroy cells which have become cancerous or infected with viruses. Typically NK cell numbers or activity will be reduced in individuals suffering from either chronic viral illness (such as chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic hepatitis) or cancer. Also, a decline in NK cell activity or number is also a common feature of aging. A recent study revealed that echinacea has the capacity to increase NK cell numbers, in aging mice, reflecting increased new NK cell production in the bone marrow, leading to an increase in the absolute numbers of NK cells in the spleen, their primary destination.(6) These findings indicate that echinacea may be proven to help boost NK cells in aging humans as well. In addition, other studies have shown enhanced NK activity and function.(7)
However, it must be said that not all of the evidence has been conclusive with regard to echinacea. What's complicating the picture is that testing has involved different types of extracts, either from different species or from different parts of the plants in the studies. If they use roots, they get a different chemical structure than if you use the upper parts of the plant.
There are 3 species of echinacea - E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and E. pallida. Supplements are made from the above-ground herb (or aerial) portion and/or root portions of echinacea depending upon the species used. Like many other herbal remedies, it is not clearly understood which of echinacea's many chemical components are responsible for its beneficial effects. However, the various species of echinacea have been characterized as possessing certain marker compounds of the chemical class called 'phenols'. These compounds can be used as markers to evaluate the quality of echinacea in a product.
Do not use echinacea on a continuous basis
One important note: Echinacea should not be used on an indefinite, continuous basis. With long-term use, echinacea appears to lose its effectiveness. The maximum period of continuous use should be 8 weeks. Then take 1 week off.
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Echinacea has an excellent safety record and is well tolerated by most people. Echinacea use is usually without side effect. However, allergic reactions have been reported in people who are allergic to other members of plants in the daisy family (daisy, marigolds, ragweed, etc.). I would recommend taking a low initial dosage of echinacea to ensure you are not allergic to it, and gradually increasing the dosage.
There is much controversy regarding the use of echinacea with AIDS and HIV, and until more is known, rchinacea is not recommended in progressive systemic and auto-immune disorders such as AIDS, HIV, tuberculosis, connective tissue disorders, leicosis and lupus.
(1) Rininger JA, Kickner S, Chigurupati P, et al.: Immunopharmacological
activity of Echinacea preparations following simulated digestion on murine
macrophages and human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Leukoc Biol
(6) Perry NB, van Klink JW, Burgess EJ, Parmenter GA: Alkamide levels
in Echinacea purpurea: effects of processing, drying and storage. Planta
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