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Echinacea - popular, potent herbal

May 14th, 2009 · No Comments

Echinacea is America’s favorite herbal extract. The purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, is one of the most popular garden flowers — a common wildflower of the Great Plains and the southeastern United States. It is one of the leading medicinal plants of Native American peoples and is a prominent medicine used in Europe. Echinacea is especially popular during the cold and flu season and is being increasingly recommended by doctors, including pediatricians, to help in the battle against colds, flu and other infectiojus diseases.

Why is this Native American medicinal plant so popular and how can it help us improve health and longevity while lowering health-care costs?

The reason is that echinacea stimulates the human immune system from a resting state into a state of heightened activity in which it can much more effectively fight off colds and flu, and it may be useful against more serious infectious diseases as well.

During last year’s flu season, the CBS television network aired a program about echinacea in which pediatrician Jay Gordon, M.D., discussed his experience using echinacea against childrens’ colds. Following this report, the Los Angeles Times ran an article, one of many, about the popularity of echinacea.

Meanwhile, some segments of the medical community, along with the ever skeptical Food and Drug Administration, insist that echinacea is an unproven and unapproved medicine and should not be allowed on the market if it is used for the treatment or prevention of colds or any other disease.

Echinacea has never been reported to cause a single side effect, toxic reaction, overdose problem, or any other form of illness, despite its widespread use and popularity. This is by itself a good indicator of the safety of this herb, but such evidence is rarely accepted as valid by regulatory officials.

However, echinacea has also been fed and injected in rodents in numerous scientific studies, which is just the type of research that American science and regulatory officials seem to demand.

For documentation of efficacy, anecdotal evidence is even less compelling to the regulators and to most American scientists. But this plant and its extracts have been the subject of hundreds of scientific studies, including both lab studies and clinical research. Here is what those studies have determined.

In 1992, German researchers reported on a double-blind, placebo, controlled study involving 180 volunteers. This study, published in a respected German scientific journal, Zeitschrift fur Phytotherapie, found that four droppersful of echinacea extract produced “good to very good” results.

The compound used was a standard alcohol and water extract of Echinacea purpurea root, which was effective in relieving symptoms and reducing the duration of colds and flu. Patients in the study were both male and female, from 18 to 60 years old. While two droppersful per day of echinacea had some effect, four droppersful a day proved statistically significant in its effectiveness.

Much of the laboratory research on echinacea has been done by M. Stimpel, et al. at the University of Munich. Through both in vitro (in glassware) experiments and animal research, scientists have shown that echinacea increases the number and activity of immune system cells in the body. They in turn strongly activate macrophages, important immune system cells, which consume invading organisms and destroy abnormal cells, including tumor cells.

The most consistently proven effect of echinacea is in increasing phagocytosis, or the ingestion of invading organisms and abnormal cells, according to V.R. Bauer, et al. in Arzneimit’ telforschung.

Echinacea has also been shown to increase the body’s production of important chemical mediators of the immune system’s activity, including tumor necrosis factor, important in fighting cancer, and interleukins 1 and 6, important in fighting bacterial and viral diseases, reported the International Journal of Immunopharmacology.

One important laboratory study involving serious blood infections of mice with Candida albicans was reported in Onkohgie in 1987. The results of this experiment were quite dramatic. One hundred percent of the untreated animals died within a few days. One hundred percent of the animals tested with echinacea were completely cured within a few days.

The following excerpt is from an article by Chris Hobbs, one of the leading American experts on echinacea. His book, Echinaceat The Immune Herb, is a superb compilation of facts on the premier immunostimulant. HerbalGram No. 31 (Austin, Texas) includes his latest review of echinacea.

Here is a listing of the actions which have been demonstrated for echinacea, but note that much of the research was on injected echinacea juice, which is not recommended for home use.

1) Inhibits hyaluronidase, an enzyme which slows wound healing and allows bacteria to invade cells.

2) Stimulates the production of new tissue.

3) Acts as a weak antibiotic. Note, though, that the effect of echinacea in stimulating our immune response surpasses the use of antibiotics in some cases. In fact, one study showed that antibiotics suppressed the immune system, compared to echinacea.

4) Demonstrates antiinflammatory effects, another important component of wound-healing activity.

5) Stimulates the adrenals.

6) Increases activity of the “complement system,” another component of immune response.

7) Has interferon-like activity.

8) Enhances immune response nonspecifically; that is, increases the overall function of the immune system, rather than acting against specific disease organisms.

As an example, results of studies involving echinacea conclude:

1) Increases number and activity of phagocytes, the cells which ingest bacteria and other foreign bodies.

2) Increases bacteria-killing capacity (chemotaxis), prosperdin levels and tumor necrosis factor.

3) Restores some immune functions (i.e., phagocytosis) suppressed by antibiotics.

4) Stimulates bone marrow.

5) Strengthens cell-mediated immunity against recurrent Candida infection and herpes simplex.

6) Helps counteract immune suppression from cancer chemotherapy.

7) Possesses antiviral activity (esp. herpes and influenza).

With the impressive research results of echinacea and the widespread clinical use in Europe, as well as increasing use in the United States, you might ask, “What is the federal government doing to further research this remarkable plant?” The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing. In fact, there is currently no American research in progress on echinacea, and no encouragement of such research by the federal government, with the possible exception of the Office of Alternative Medicine, which, unfortunately, has only “homeopathic levels of funding,” according to its director.

The common cold and various forms of influenza are conditions which affect 100 percent of the American public. Many people may be tempted to say, “Well, it’s just a cold and research priorities should be focused on lifethreatening disease.” But respiratory disease is life threatening, especially for the elderly and sometimes for young children. It is, in fact, among our top five causes of death, because the elderly, with compromised immune function and reduced ability to recuperate, often find a simple cold or flu quickly progressing to life-threatening respiratory infections.

With the potential for actual progress in preventing and treating the most common infectious diseases, our government’s funding agencies simply take no action.

Americans suffer every winter from colds and flu, and American business suffers substantial loss of employee productivity because of these simple conditions, yet it is simply not viewed as important by the federal government for one very simple reason. Echinacea is not patentable and, therefore, will not support the multi-billion-dollar drug industry, because it is insufficiently profitable.

The only thing an herb like echinacea could do for the American public is prevent suffering, save billions of dollars and save lives of the elderly. Personally, I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories, and find it hard to believe that our public health agencies would actually orient their research priorities to the whims of the pharmaceutical industry.

But what are we to make of the FDA’s recent proclamations? The FDA has made it quite clear that its intention is to protect the profits of the drag industry. Its Task Force on Dietary Supplements made this extremely clear when it said it was concerned “that the existence of dietary supplements not serve as a disincentive to the development of new drugs.”

This is a curious statement indeed by the agency charged with the protection of public health.

The future of echinacea is nonetheless bright because, regardless of what the government chooses to do or not do to with the herb, more and more people are discovering its usefulness.

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