Is Echinacea Really Helpful for My Immune System?
In past issues we have talked about foods and services like turmeric, resveratrol and chiropractic that have been shown to improve your immune system. Echinacea has a very long history especially with Native Americans and with natural physicians in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, before antibiotics, Echinacea was the most widely used herb in medicine. There are plenty of myths, much fiction, and even downright nonsense about the herb Echinacea on the internet. The truth is that Echinacea may be one of the most important herbs in your diet for creating a healthy immune system. Let’s look at some facts and fiction:
Isn’t It True that Echinacea Is Not Safe to Take Over Long Periods of Time? Hasn’t It Been Shown to Lose Effectiveness?
No, it’s NOT true. Echinacea is not only safe over long periods of time, but research indicates that it has its most powerful effects on the immune system when taken regularly over long periods of time.
Research has found that the active constituents of Echinacea are found in the greatest concentration not in the flower, the leaves or the stem, but in the roots of the plant. The active constituents are called alkylamides.1 Many of the commercial products available have been tested to find that they are either the wrong part of the plant, the wrong plant altogether, or that the extraction method used produced a product with no active constituent.
There is a fairy tale that circulates the internet that Echinacea loses its effectiveness over time. The fable is based on the erroneous interpretation of a German study graph that showed that the number of active immune cells in blood dropped from day 6 to day 10 after beginning to take Echinacea. If arm-chair scientists could have read the German language they would have seen that the immune cell count started to drop on day 6 because the subjects stopped taking the Echinacea on day 5.
How Does Echinacea Affect Our Immune System?
In healthy young-adult mice, an extract of E. purpurea root (equivalent to a human dose) stimulated Natural Killer cell (NK) production by bone marrow in the first seven days, which resulted in significantly higher levels (around 25 percent more) of NK cells in the spleen by two weeks. In addition, the “helper” or accessory cells for NK cells, the monocytes, were also around 25 percent more numerous in both the bone marrow and spleens of mice consuming echinacea.
Natural Killer cells generally decline in number and function with age, and this is thought to be one factor behind the increase of various cancers and infections with age. Experiments conducted in healthy, elderly mice found that two weeks of oral doses of echinacea returned NK cell numbers in bone marrow and spleen to the levels of young adults and also resurrected the function of these cells.2 Echinacea may be our best natural protection against cancer.
What Surprising Discovery Was Also Made With Echinacea?
As we discussed last week, one of the persistent controversies about echinacea is whether it is safe to be taken consistently for long periods of time. According to researchers, the answer, at least in mice, is definitely YES. Mice were fed E. purpurea root from seven weeks of age to 13 months.3 Long-term use of echinacea root not only NOT detrimental, but distinctly beneficial. By 13 months of age, 46% of the control mice fed the standard chow were still alive, compared to a whopping 74% percent of those mice consuming Echinacea root. Echinacea, through either its effect on immunity or through some other mechanism, appears to prolong lifespan. Are you taking Echinacea daily?
1. Matthias A, Addison RS, Penman KG, et al. Echinacea alkamide disposition and pharmacokinetics in humans after tablet ingestion. Life Sciences, 2005;77:2018-2029.
2. Currier NL, Miller SC. Natural killer cells from aging mice treated with extracts from Echinacea purpurea are quantitatively and functionally rejuvenated. Exp Gerontol, 2000;35(5):627-639.
3. Brousseau M, Miller SC. Enhancement of natural killer cells and increased survival of aging mice fed daily echinacea root extract from youth. Biogerontology, 2005;6(3):157-163.