Qn of the Month: Echinacea – Fact or Fantasy?

echinaceaYou may have lately noticed more products on the shelves at the stores with Echinacea as an added ingredient, especially with the advent of this winter season. Also commonly known as ‘coneflower’, the Echinacea plant is native to the United States and the southern part of Canada. There are 9 known species of this plant, with the Echinacea purpurea species most frequently used. Traditionally, Echinacea has been used to treat colds, flus and infections, with the belief that it helps to boost the body’s immune system. But just how effective is Echinacea in aiding the body against colds, flus and infections?

Unfortunately, at this point, study results are still inconclusive regarding the effectiveness of the use of Echinacea in humans, in regards to whether it can really treat or prevent upper respiratory infections. A review published in 2015 analyzed the results from 24 previously published double blind studies. Some of these studies focused on prevention while others studied Echinacea’s effect in treating colds. The authors concluded that “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some Echinacea products: the results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.”

While the jury is still out on this matter, it is important to keep in mind a few points. First, there are different species of the Echinacea plant, so efficacy may depend on which specific species is tested in research and used within a product. Second, commercial products containing Echinacea may have different actual amounts of this plant product, due to different extraction and processing methods, as well as various factors such as whether the bulb or root of the plant is used versus the above ground parts of the plant. Lastly, some with a history of allergy such as asthma or atopy may experience allergic symptoms to Echinacea.

(Sources:

  1. Echinacea. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htm. Created June 2015. Updated April 2012. Accessed January 16, 2016.
  2. Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Feb 20;2:CD000530. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4068831/. Accessed January 16, 2016.)
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