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The native American herb echinacea has been a favorite for fighting winter respiratory infections for hundreds of years. Used in teas, tinctures, and capsules, this prairie plant has true believers and fierce defenders. What about science?

A staple of herbal medicine for colds and flu fails another test

The answer depends on whether you are talking about Echinacea purpurea or Echinacea angustifolia, and whether you are talking about a pill, powder, alcohol-based tincture, alcohol-free tincture, juice or capsule, whether the product is made from roots or from leaves, whether you take it before infection or after, and what else may be in your stomach when the herb hits your digestive tract.

The most recent study appears in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study, 719 residents of Madison, Wisconsin aged 18 to 80 who already had the early symptoms of a cold were told to do nothing, given an inert pill that contained no echinacea, or given pills made from a preparation of echinacea root made by MediHerb, an Australian natural products company. Volunteers in the echinacea group took 10,200 mg of the herb the first 24 hours and 5,100 mg of the herb a day for the next four days. The results?

  • Users of the herb scored an average of 236 on the Wisconsin Upper Respiratory Symptom Survey, users of the placebo, 264, and participants who did not take anything, 286. Users of the herb had fewer colds symptoms, but the difference was not statistically significant.
  • Users of the herb had colds that lasted an average of 6.34 days, users of the placebo, 6.87 days, and volunteers who did not take anything, 7.03 days. Users of the herb had shorter duration of symptoms, but the difference was not statistically significant.
The scientists also measured production of an inflammatory chemical known as interleukin-8, or IL-8. In users of echinacea, the average concentration of IL-8 was 30 ng/L, in the placebo group, 58 ng/L, and in the take-nothing group, 70 ng/L. Echinacea users had lower levels of inflammatory chemicals, but the data analysis concluded the difference was not statistically significant.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Pleschka S, Stein M, Schoop R, Hudson JB. Anti-viral properties and mode of action of standardized Echinacea purpurea extract against highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (H5N1, H7N7) and swine-origin H1N1 (S-OIV). Virol J. 2009 Nov 13,6:197
  • Senchina DS, Wu L, Flinn GN, Konopka del N, McCoy JA, Widrlechner MP, Wurtele ES, Kohut ML.Year-and-a-half old, dried Echinacea roots retain cytokine-modulating capabilities in an in vitro human older adult model of influenza vaccination. Planta Med. 2006 Oct, 72(13):1207-15. Epub 2006 Oct 4
  • Photo courtesy of Steffen Ramsaier on Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of Steve Kocino on Flickr:

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