What can echinacea do for your immune system?

The immune system is one of the most important parts of the body's defences against illnesses and infections. When it’s working properly it helps to keep you healthy, but when it’s out of whack there can be more serious consequences.

Keeping your immune system balanced is key to its effectiveness, especially as we head into the colder winter months. If you’re wondering what you can do to boost your immune function the natural way, why not consider echinacea?

What is echinacea? 

Echinacea is a wild herb, also known as American Cone Flower, Black Sampson and Samson root. It grows mostly in certain regions of North America and there are three varieties that are commonly used as herbal medicines – echinacea purpurea, echinacea angustifolia and echinacea pallida.

Most supplement forms of echinacea come from the fresh juice of the parts that grow above ground, or alternatively they can be extracted from the roots below. Echinacea is very popular as a traditional medicine because it’s so versatile – it can be taken as a supplement, in liquid extract form or brewed into teas using the fresh or dried versions of the herb.

For years, the Great Plains Indian tribes of North America used the herb as a remedy for all kinds of health complaints, and the settlers who came after them followed suit as well. Echinacea was commonly prescribed as a tonic during the 19th century and many still use it today for a variety of problems.

Uses and benefits

Many people use echinacea to fight off the common cold and flu, which are typically more prevalent during the winter season. They use it either as a preventive measure or to help alleviate symptoms once they have already begun.

Some also use echinacea to battle other infections, such as urinary tract infections, gum disease and vaginal yeast infections.

The argument for echinacea’s effects on immune function boils down to its ability to stimulate macrophages, a specific type of immune system cell that attacks invading organisms in the body. Some also believe that the herb can activate other chemicals in the body that decrease inflammation. Scientists are still carrying out studies to investigate these claims, but early results have indicated that there may be some benefits.

The chemicals and substances contained within the plant may give some clue as to its effectiveness against certain infections. Echinacea is made up of compounds called phenols, substances which are found in many plants.

Phenols help to regulate the activity of various enzymes and cell receptors and are also thought to be antioxidants, which protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Certain species of the plant also contain alkylamides or alkamides, which are thought to be beneficial for the immune system.

Are there any side effects or complications?

Taking echinacea in the short term is considered to be largely safe, but it should not be applied directly to the skin as it has the potential to cause irritation, rashes, itchiness and redness. Some people are also allergic to the herb, so it’s important to consider this before you take it yourself.

Research and studies

Over the years, many studies have focused on echinacea and its effectiveness. A 2010 study published in the International Immunopharmacology journal found echinacea purpurea extracts did have some potential for alleviating the symptoms of influenza A.

Further studies have highlighted the benefits for the immune system, linking echinacea extracts with an increase in white blood cells and stimulation of other immune cell activity. In yet another study, a team from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy found echinacea could reduce the risk of getting a cold by 58 per cent, and decrease the duration of an existing cold by 1.4 days on average.

However, as with any health concern it’s recommended to seek advice from a health professional.

Thompson’s One-A-Day Echinacea 4000 tablets and Ultra Echinacea Complex 3500+ liquid both support the body’s own natural immune system to bring prompt, effective relief from the symptoms of colds, flu and minor infections. They can also help relieve the symptoms of mild upper respiratory tract infections.

We’d Love Your Feedback

Do you use Echinacea to help in the battle against winter ills and chills?

If so do you prefer a liquid or tablet form?

Also, do you take Echinacea on a regular basis, or only when you feel you need it?