Having multiple sclerosis often prompts patients to search for additional alternative treatments that help ease symptoms, especially during relapses. This is because traditional medicine focuses more on extending the period of remission between flare ups as well as slowing the advancement of the disease more than on curing symptoms. While there are medications and therapies that assist in medical treatment of symptoms, they don’t always reduce the severity enough for the patient to get through a normal day.
One herbal supplement that has been suggested in the past to help relieve symptoms of MS, based on its ability to work with certain ailments individually, is echinacea. With long proof of medical use dating back to Native American cultures, this herb is touted to cure a number of singular issues and diseases, leading people to believe that it can help with a number of common symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Does a close look at echinacea hold the promise of benefit to people looking to treat multiple sclerosis?
What is echinacea?
Echinacea is a flowering herb, and there are ten different species of this plant. It is native to eastern North America (typically east of the Rocky Mountains) but is grown throughout the United States now. It grows in prairies and open wooded areas and is considered to have a number of health benefits. The part of the plant used for supplementation and medication is the root stalk.
Some of the first recorded uses of echinacea were by the Plains Indians, who used it for a number of issues, such as:
- For an antiseptic
- As an analgesic (to numb)
- For toothaches
- For snake or insect bites, especially if poisonous
- To ease sore throats
- To treat wounds
- For contagious disease like measles and mumps
There is also evidence of use by other tribes, including the Choctaw, Cheyenne, Sioux, Pawnee, and Dakota tribes. Settlers in America took on this practice of use and have had it as an herbal remedy and supplement since, eventually spreading this to Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years, with the improvement to science and medicine, there have been a number of research efforts, though large, long term clinical trials have not yet been completed.
Why echinacea could help multiple sclerosis?
When it comes to echinacea, the firm belief in its ability to cure multiple ailments makes it a well-rounded herb. However, it’s important to remember that there is not a lot of scientific evidence to show the definitive success of echinacea in many of these remedies. At the same time, there are several symptoms of MS that echinacea is believed to help due to its professed properties.
- Infection risk – Getting an infection can exacerbate symptoms of MS and even bring on a relapse. Echinacea is known for treating and preventing the common cold and is even believed to help treat flu and other infections. Therefore, it is believed that it can reduce the risk of infection in MS patients.
- Fatigue – Some people have had success in treating chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) with echinacea. Because chronic fatigue is one of the major common symptoms of multiple sclerosis, some feel that echinacea could help manage energy levels for MS patients.
- Dizziness – Though evidence is inconclusive, some people report reduced dizziness with echinacea supplementation. This could be useful for MS patients, since dizziness is a common symptom and can appear even outside of relapses.
- Migraines – Migraines occur more frequently in patients with multiple sclerosis than the average population, so the idea that echinacea may be a way to relieve the severe head pain offers hope for those suffering from the disease.
- Pain – General pain is second only to mobility issues in terms of widely reported symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and many people are not interested in opioids to reduce that pain. Any supplement or herbal relief effort that helps improve pain levels is ideal for a patient with MS, so the hope of echinacea as a natural pain reliever makes it a popular choice.
Side effects and warnings
While echinacea is deemed safe for most users, patients with multiple sclerosis are cautioned about adding it to a treatment regimen and should speak with their physician prior to taking it. There are some properties of the herb that could have the opposite of the intended effect on these patients.
Some of the basic side effects, while mild, include symptoms already suffered by MS patients, such as dizziness, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea, headache, feeling disoriented, muscle and joint aches, and potential inflammation. However, the greatest concern is that echinacea is a known immune booster.
Under normal circumstances, this would be welcome. However, since multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, it can pose a problem. Many patients with MS take immunosuppressants to “turn down” their immune systems so that the attacks on the central nervous system (CNS) aren’t as severe or as frequent. Echinacea as an immune booster would “turn up” the immune system, which can help negate chances of infection but also cause harsher and more common flare ups of symptoms. This could actually lead to greater damage to the CNS, which may or may not lead to disability in the patient.
Research in either direction is inconclusive, but it’s important to work with a physician to determine if the potential benefits outweigh the risks of this particular supplement.
Echinacea is an excellent choice for most when it comes to a general herbal remedy for so many different ailments. And there is some evidence that it may be helpful to those with multiple sclerosis by treating a number of the symptoms involved in the disease. However, it can also speed up the body’s immune response that causes symptoms and damage to the CNS, so it’s essential to determine whether or not a particular patient stands to gain enough benefit from its use to take the risk. A physician with knowledge of that patient’s medical history and the progression or pattern of their multiple sclerosis can help make that determination.