Echinacea is making a strong comeback.
Many people are familiar with the herb Echinacea, a flowering plant in the daisy family. Its name comes from the Greek word ekhinos, meaning “hedgehog,” because of the flower’s spiky disk florets. The two common species for medicinal use are Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia.1
Perhaps the most popular use of Echinacea is in the form of herbal tea, which people drink as a tonic to ward off or lessen the effects of a cold or flu. Indeed, it has held a place in folk medicine for more than 400 years, and was well-known to the North American Plains Indians.
Its popularity in the U.S. declined with the advent of antibiotics in the early part of the 20th century; however, interest in Echinacea has returned in force as consumers look for more natural solutions to their healthcare concerns.
For a more detailed look at this renowned botanical medicine, we consulted with Kerry Bone, BSc (Hons), Dipl Phyto, a practicing medical herbalist, professor, and author of numerous papers and books on herbal therapies. He’s conducted and participated in several Echinacea studies and notes a considerable body of research that has been conducted on it over the past decade.
Specifically, in a recent Echinacea quality survey, Kerry’s group acquired samples from around the world in liquid, capsule, and tablet forms of the type sold over the counter and in practitioner settings. These were then sent for testing to an independent laboratory at Southern Cross University in Australia.
“We were particularly interested in key phytochemical markers, particularly alkylamides from the root of the plant, because we believe that they are important for the traditional purposes of Echinacea, which is support for the immune system,” Bone says.
Alkylamides target the cannabinoid receptors, and both cannabinoid receptors and natural endocannabinoids modulate the immune response.2
Signs of strength
When you’re looking for Echinacea, note which species are involved.
Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia both have good levels of active ingredients. “The angustifolia ones may be best at modulating the stress response, via the cannabinoid receptors,” Bone says.
If you want to gain the full spectrum of activity, Bone recommends looking for angustifolia. “The second thing is the part of the root. It’s the key part that contains the alkylamides. Third, look at the stated level of alkylamides. That level should be at least a few milligrams per dosage, or milliliter of liquid,” he says.
If there’s no stated level on the label, with liquid forms of Echinacea you can perform a taste check. Alkylamides create a tingling sensation on the tongue and in the mouth, due to the natural insecticide that protects the plant.
Parts of the plant
Bone notes that some companies use the seeds of the Echinacea plant, which have good levels of alkylamides. “In Europe, there is a preference for the aerial parts. Here, I’m guided by tradition—the Native Americans have a strong preference for the root of the plant.” As he points out, they would have used the leaves if they had a significant effect.
“Looking in general across the field,” Bone says, “when you talk about herbs as they are used in therapy, it’s not just identifying the botanical species, it’s the part of the plant that is significant.” For example, take the rhubarb plant: Eating the leaves could be fatal, but the stalk is pleasant tasting. “The living plant puts different chemicals in different parts.” In his view, the most powerful types of Echinacea are found in North America and in Canada.
As indicated above, Bone has conducted significant agricultural research on Echinacea. “It’s kind of paradoxical, but in a study I collaborated on over a decade ago, we found, oddly enough, that Echinacea grown closer to the equator has higher level of alkylamides.”
The herbs he uses are sourced from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. With respect to growing conditions for Echinacea, the key element is time in the ground: “With many plants, they may need to grow for several seasons,” Bone says. “Soil conditions, climatic conditions, latitude, and obviously any symbiosis with other organisms are factors to consider.”
Some organisms, like bilberry, have never been grown as cultivated plants and are only found in the wild. Yet blueberries are grown on farms “But fundamentally, what we’re doing is setting a minimum level of alkylamides, and if a sample doesn’t have that, we don’t buy it,” Bone says.
He also might get some plants wild-harvested from the U.S., but he prefers to contact growers who cultivate them so as not to deplete resources in the wild. If a plant goes on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) endangered list, at the first level trade is prohibited. At the second level, trade is permitted if monitored. “Once a plant is at level two, we shift over to cultivated sources. Angustifolia is not on any CITES list,” Bone says.
Mechanism of action
In Bone’s view, Echinacea works best for early detection and activation. A daily regimen of light use is protective, but if you think you’re coming down with a cold or flu, then taking more is warranted. “On a daily basis, I recommend taking a form sourced from the root of mixed species purpurea, 2.5 to 5 grams a day. You can go up to 12 grams a day.” But large doses may need to be taken over several days.
With regard to form, either as a liquid tincture or powdered capsule or tablet, Bone likes to interchange the two. “It depends on the patient and compliance. If you take the liquid you get additional benefits in the mouth, gums, and teeth. Otherwise the tablet or capsule is equivalent.”
Bone’s team validated in a clinical trial that Echinacea works to fend off opportunistic viruses with air travelers. “We’re interested in its effects on cannabinoid receptors,” he says.
Another area he’s continuing to explore is whether there is a mechanism in the body for protecting from stress such as heat and shock proteins. “These are released by cells to protect them. Echinacea may have a protective cellular mechanism in this way,” he says.
Protocols for use
Those not familiar with Bone’s approach toward Echinacea supplements may be surprised. “There’s still a belief that it cannot be used long-term. But I’d say it can be used long-term and you can only get the full benefit from taking it long-term,” he says. “We now have an understanding from various studies—and my textbooks on the principles of phytotherapy—of the traditional method of how Echinacea is used.” Bone supports the scientific rationale for using Echinacea as a preventive medicine, and thousands of doctors have adopted this strategy.
“The research suggests Echinacea works on the innate immune system and the natural killer cell (NK) response,” Bone says. NK cells are a type of cytotoxic lymphocyte critical to the innate immune system. “If you’re stimulating the nervous system to defend against threats, the effective agent needs to be in the system.”
Another point is that you can’t “rev up” the immune system, or wear it down if you take Echinacea too long. “All you’re doing is creating an immune system alertness and keeping it alert,” Bone says. When taking Echinacea as a disease preventive and as a tonic, Bone finds that many new patients comment to him that when they take Echinacea, they get a sense of well-being. “Now that we understand cannabinoids and the immune system better, it makes sense that Echinacea has an adaptogenic effect, as it falls in the class of herbal adaptogens.”
1 Barnes J, Anderson LA, Gibbons S, Phillipson JD. Echinacea species (Echinacea angustifolia (DC.) Hell., Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt., Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench): a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005;57(8): 929-54.
2 Raduner S, Majewska A, Chen JZ, et al. Alkylamides from Echinacea are a new class of cannabinomimetics. Cannabinoid type 2 receptor-dependent and -independent immunomodulatory effects. J Biol Chem. 2006;281(20):14192-206.