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A Few Words on Echinacea

Claims, Benefits: Cures colds, boosts immunity.

Bottom Line: Though the supplements are prescribed in Germany for colds and flu, studies on them have yielded conflicting results. The plant is a complicated mix of chemicals; some might actually stimulate the immune system or promote healing. But you don't know what you're getting in the bottle. Little is known about toxicity. To be safe, don't take it if you have lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, or multiple sclerosis, or are HIV-positive or pregnant.

Echinacea: a complicated mix

Will echinacea boost your immune system? Cure cancer? Prevent or cure the common cold? Promote wound healing? Sold at health-food stores and elsewhere, it comes in tinctures (dissolved in alcohol), capsules, pills, and teas. Whether you take this herb or not, you've almost certainly had it recommended to you: it has a devoted following. An ounce and a half of liquid can cost up to $15. Even the teas come at a premium price.

Nine kinds of echinacea grow in this country, the most common being echinacea purpurea. Known as purple coneflower, the plant is part of the sunflower/daisy family, and its extracts (and those from similar plants) have been used medicinally for centuries. Like all plants, it is a complicated mix of chemicals; some of these might actually stimulate the immune system or promote healing. It has been extensively studied, but with conflicting results. One study recently found that a commercially made supplement did seem to stimulate immune cells-but in a test tube. In some studies involving humans, echinacea seems to have no effect on colds or immunity; in others, it seems to help. In most studies that find echinacea to be an immune booster, however, the herbal extract was injected, which is not possible with the products on the market here. Studies of echinacea taken by mouth have had inconsistent results. The commercial preparations you can currently buy in this country have not been tested at all.

In addition, there's the problem of quality control: like all herbal products, echinacea is completely unregulated. What you're buying may not contain much, if any, echinacea. And nobody knows what a proper dosage might be. No one even knows what the active ingredient is, though 15 different compounds have been identified. No clinical trials have been done with any of these compounds. The herb has been around a very long time, and few adverse side effects have been reported. But anything, whether herb or drug, that is powerful enough to have benefits could also have side effects. Some researchers think it could have an adverse effect on T-4 cells, an important component of immunity.

Here's a list of people who should not try echinacea: those who know they're allergic to daisies, plus those with diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, and multiple sclerosis. Those who are HIV-positive, including those with AIDS, should not experiment with it, nor should pregnant or nursing women and small children.

Last word: Until the government sets labeling standards and requires herbal manufacturers to meet them, consumers will continue to be part of the current haphazard marketplace experiment. Since the manufacturers of echinacea can already claim almost any benefit in ads and promotional materials, why should they actually commission solid scientific studies? The pity of it all is that herbs might have real value as medicine if we understood them better, could buy them in standardized form, and knew how much of them to take.


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