With the onset of seasonal ills and chills we start to look to our apothecary shelves for tinctures and teas that support our immune system and help to ward off seasonal viruses. One of the best known and most beloved additions to our seasonal arsenal is Echinacea. Read on to learn more about this powerful, useful herb.
Echinacea, a genus of flowering plants in the daisy family, has long been celebrated for its medicinal properties. It is one of the most popular seasonal herbal remedies, used the world over and widely available from supermarket shelves (I don’t recommend purchasing from supermarkets as quality, freshness and adulteration may be an issue) as well as from herbalists and health shops everywhere.
Historical and Traditional Uses
Echinacea's use as a medicinal herb dates back to pre-Columbian Native American medicine, where it was utilised in the treatment of a variety of ailments, including toothaches, sore throats, and snake bites. European settlers later adopted echinacea into their own healing practices.
Some traditional uses of echinacea include:
- Treating infections, such as colds and flu
- Reducing inflammation
- Enhancing wound healing
Today, echinacea is a popular supplement and ingredient in natural products, prized for its potential immune-boosting and skin health benefits. Its most commonly used applications include:
- Immune support: Echinacea is often taken at the onset of cold or flu symptoms to potentially reduce their severity and duration.
- Skin health: Due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, echinacea is incorporated into skincare products for its potential to soothe and protect the skin.
Chemical Constituents and Actions
Echinacea's medicinal potential stems from a unique blend of bioactive compounds, each offering a range of beneficial effects. The three primary classes of active components in Echinacea are alkylamides, caffeic acid derivatives, and flavonoids, which act synergistically to promote health and wellness.
The alkylamides in Echinacea have a significant impact on our immune system. They have been shown to interact with the endocannabinoid system, a complex cell-signalling system that plays a crucial role in regulating a wide range of functions and processes, including immune response. They bind to CB2 receptors, which are primarily located on cells of the immune system. This interaction may stimulate immune cells, enhancing their activity and potentially boosting the body's defences (Gertsch et al., 2008).
Flavonoids, another class of compounds found in Echinacea, possess anti-inflammatory properties. They inhibit enzymes like cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), which play a critical role in the inflammatory process. By inhibiting these enzymes, flavonoids can help reduce inflammation in the body, offering relief for conditions where inflammation plays a key role (Barnes et al., 2007).
Echinacea's caffeic acid derivatives, including chicoric acid and echinacoside, exhibit potent antioxidant effects. Antioxidants are crucial in protecting our cells from damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental and other pressures. The caffeic acid derivatives in Echinacea can neutralize these free radicals, reducing oxidative stress and potentially protecting against a variety of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and cancer (Suntar et al., 2018).
Overall, the combination of immune-stimulating, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties makes Echinacea a powerful tool in supporting overall health and wellness.
Precautions and Contraindications
As with any supplement or remedy, there are potential side effects and drug interactions to consider when using echinacea. Some possible side effects include:
- Allergic reactions: Individuals with allergies to plants in the daisy family may experience allergic reactions to echinacea.
- Gastrointestinal issues: Some people may experience stomach discomfort or diarrhea when taking echinacea.
Echinacea may interact with certain medications, such as immunosuppressants, and is not recommended for those with autoimmune disorders.
Growing and Harvesting Echinacea
For those interested in cultivating echinacea at home, it is a relatively low-maintenance plant and can be grown in a variety of climates. Tips for growing Echinacea:
- Soil: Plant echinacea in well-draining soil with a neutral pH. The plant can tolerate some clay, but sandy loam is preferred.
- Sunlight: Echinacea thrives in full sun, so choose a location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight per day.
- Watering: While echinacea is drought-tolerant once established, it requires regular watering during the first growing season. Water the plant deeply once or twice a week, allowing the soil to dry slightly between waterings.
When it comes to harvesting echinacea, both the roots and aerial parts can be used for medicinal purposes, although the roots are far more potent. The roots are typically harvested in the Autumn of the plant's second or third year, while the aerial parts, including flowers and leaves, can be collected during the blooming season each year.
DIY Echinacea Remedies
1. Echinacea tea: Simmer dried echinacea root in boiling water (covered) for 10-15 minutes. Strain and enjoy as a soothing beverage, particularly during cold and flu season.
2. Echinacea tincture: Combine dried echinacea root with a high-proof alcohol (such as vodka) in a glass jar, and let the mixture steep for 4-6 weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain and store the tincture in a dark glass bottle. Avoid using fresh plant matter unless you have access to higher proof alcohol (approx 70%) as the water content of fresh plants may dilute the ethanol in store- bought vodka below the threshold needed for optimum extraction and preservation.
Remember to consult with a healthcare provider before using any homemade remedies, particularly if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medications.
- Bauer, R. (2014). Echinacea: Biological Effects and Active Principles. In L. E. Craker & J. E. Simon (Eds.), Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants: Recent Advances in Botany, Horticulture, and Pharmacology (Vol. 1, pp. 140-157). Phoenix: Oryx Press.
- Karsch-Völk, M., Barrett, B., & Linde, K. (2015). Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2015(2), CD000530.
- Sharma, M., Schoop, R., & Suter, A. (2011). The potential use of Echinacea in acne: control of Propionibacterium acnes growth and inflammation. Phytotherapy Research, 25(4), 517-521.
- Sullivan, A. M., Laba, J. G., Moore, J. A., & Lee, T. D. (2018). Echinacea-induced cytosolic Ca2+ elevation in HEK293. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 18(1), 48.
- Woelkart, K., & Bauer, R. (2007). The role of alkamides as an active principle of Echinacea. Planta Medica, 73(7), 615-623.
Barnes, J., Anderson, L. A., & Gibbons, S. (2007). Echinacea species (Echinacea angustifolia (DC.) Hell., Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt.,Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench): a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 57(8), 929-954.
Gertsch, J., Schoop, R., Kuenzle, U., & Suter, A. (2004). Echinacea alkylamides modulate TNF-alpha gene expression via cannabinoid receptor CB2 and multiple signal transduction pathways. FEBS Letters, 577(3), 563-569.
Suntar, I., Khan, H., Patel, S., Celano, R., & Rastrelli, L. (2018). An Overview on Citrus aurantium L.: Its Functions as Food Ingredient and Therapeutic Agent. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018, 7864269.