Active substances in Echinacea
Echinacea has a complex mix of active substances, some of which are said to be antimicrobial, while others are believed to possibly have an effect on the human immune system.
All species of this herbal remedy have compounds called phenols. Many plants contain phenols, active substances which control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors, and protect the plant from infections and UV radiation damage. Phenols have high antioxidant properties, which are good for human health.
Echinacea also contains alkylamides or alkamides, (not in E. pallida), which have an effect on the immune system.
Echinacea also contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives.
How effective is Echinacea?
Several health claims and accusations of no health benefits have been made about Echinacea. The lay reader, as well as many health care professionals generally do not know how many studies there have been, which were scientifically carried out, and which claims are worth considering.
A number of studies were carried out in the mid 1990s, including randomized trials. However, they were nearly all sponsored by Echinacea manufacturers and marketers and were not considered by the scientific community as being of good quality. Most of them reported on the benefits of the herbal remedy.
Does Echinacea have any effect on catching colds or reducing symptoms of a cold?
Studies have produced conflicting results:
Yes - scientists from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy reviewed over a dozen studies on the effects of Echinacea on people's risk of catching a cold.
They concluded that Echinacea can reduce a person's chances of catching a cold by approximately 58%.
They also found that the popular herbal remedy reduces the length of time a cold lasts by 1.4 days. They published their findings in The Lancet Infections Diseases (July 2007 edition).
No - researchers from the Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health reported in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine (December 2010 issue) that Echinacea has no significant impact on the common cold and only reduces the duration of symptoms by half a day at the most.
No - scientists reported in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) (October 2005 issue) that ginseng reduces the frequency of colds but Echinacea does not.
Echinacea angustifolia was used extensively by the North American Plains Indians for general medical purposes.
In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Echinacea was used for treating infection with anthrax, snakebites and also as a pain reliever.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Echinacea became extremely popular in Europe and North America as a herbal medication.
Echinacea was first used as a treatment for the common cold when a Swiss supplement maker mistakenly understood that it could prevent colds, and was used for such purposes by Native American tribes in South Dakota.
Echinacea was not commonly used for the treatment or prevention of colds by Native American Indians. Some, like the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, used it for sore throats and coughs, while the Pawnee said it was effective for headaches. The Lakotah said it was an excellent painkiller.
Native Americans say that humans learnt to use Echinacea by watching elk seeking out the herb and eating them whenever they were wounded or sick. They named it the "elk root".
Uses of Echinacea
Echinacea is widely used all over the world today for a wide range of illnesses, infections and conditions. Below is a list - apart from some studies quoted earlier on in this article, most of the benefits claimed have been anecdotal; this means that in the majority of cases, the benefits have not been proven scientifically to be effective or ineffective.
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