Echinacea: It’s Most Effective Use is Not for Colds
Echinacea is a Native American prairie flower that almost everyone has heard of thanks to some mixed aclaim from mainstream media. Echinops, the Greek origin of the name Echinacea means “hedgehog”, referring to its bristly flower head. Sometimes referred to as purple coneflower, this medicinal herb has earned a place in perennial flower gardens and can be found in large sweeps of color in urban parks. Fortunately for us Vermonters, it is hardy enough to weather our winters. Purple coneflower referrs to Echinacea purpurea and is the species that is most commonly available in garden centers and herb shops. This is because it seeds readily and grows wonderfully. When it comes to medicinal uses, however, it is not the most effective echinacea species to use.
The medicinal powerhouse is Echinacea angustifolia, meaning “narrow leaved”. It is much harder to germinate this seed but once you establish it in the garden, it is also a hardy perennial that will thrive. You can buy live E. purpurea plants from Perennial Pleasures or Zack Woods Herb Farm. You can purchase potted plants and seeds for several varieties of echinacea, including E. angustifolia, from Strictly Medicinal Seeds (formerly Horizon Herbs) online.
Like St. Johnswort, echinacea is one of the first herbs in America to be praised by mainstream media. Also like St. Johnswort, the attention it received resulted in numerous studies and mixed feelings, mostly because of a misunderstanding of how to use this amazing and precious herb. Echinacea became pidgeon holed as a cure for the common cold and flu. While it can be used for this function and for a long time was a favorite among herbalists for this very use, it turns out that there are much better uses for echinacea and much more effective herbs for the common cold and flu (andrographis, lomatium, and elderberry to name a few).
Native Americans used echinacea extensively and shared that knowledge with early American physicians. Echinacea was primarily used for venomous bites and stings and for acute infections.
According to famous herbalist and author, Michael Tierra, “The singular niche where echinacea shines is in the treatment of bacterial infections. In fact, most of the time echinacea can be used as an alternative to antibiotics.”
Antibiotics are the reason that we have a medical monopoly in this country. They were the first truly effective remedy originating from the faction of physicians who created the American Medical Association. While antibiotics are a wonder drug, there are serious drawbacks to their overuse. One is resistance – bacteria are clever critters and figure out novel ways to outwit antibiotics and then share that resistance with other strains of bacteria. We might well enter a post antibiotic age sooner rather than later and it is to all of our benefit to avoid that for as long as possible by turning to other remedies first and reserving antibiotics for serious infections.
Antibiotics also decimate gut flora. Modern research indicates that a healthy microbiome is necessary for proper digestion, mental health, and immune health. Echinacea does not kill friendly bacteria and it contains inulin, which feed healthy gut flora.
Michael Tierra says that echinacea can be used topically for MRSA infections and other acute infections. He says, “I have seldom seen a purulent infection that echinacea would not cure in three days, so the notion that herbs are always slower to heal, at least in terms of echinacea, is not accurate.”
But can you use echinacea to prevent a cold or flu? Absolutely, if you use it properly. Ideally you would use Echinacea angustifolia root tincture or the juice of the above ground parts of Echinacea purpurea (flowers, leaves, stalks). You would take echinacea at the very first sign of a cold or flu – when you get that first hint that you might get sick. You would take 1 dropperful (or 30 drops) of tincture every hour until your symptoms resolve. Echinacea is a lymphatic, which means that it is helpful whenever you have swollen lymph notes. It also boosts immune function. As an antiviral and an antibacterial, it needs direct contact with the infected tissues, so is particularly useful for flus/sore throats as the tincture or juice can coat the tissues on their way down.
Regardless of whether or not echinacea is effective for colds and flus, I never used it again once I discovered elderberry and pungent herbs. I find elderberry or a spicy soup with cayenne, garlic, ginger, and onion to be equally effective for warding off colds/flus and both spectacularly tasty, especially when compared to echinacea. Echinacea is most successfully used as a tincture if only for compliance issues (it has a strange unpleasant taste and produces a tingly sensation in the mouth).
If you are pregnant, nursing, using pharmaceuticals, or have kidney or liver disease please consult a health practitioner or herbalist before incorporating new herbs into your diet.
Originally published in the April 2017 issue of the North Star Monthly.
Check out this audio class (with bonus video) on Echinacea: