First and foremost, what exactly is Echinacea? It is a genus of herbs endemic to eastern and central North America. They have large flowers which bloom from early to late summer. Some Echinacea species are used in herbal medicine while others are cultivated in gardens because of their beautiful flowers. The species used for medicinal purposes (leaves, flower and root are all beneficial for health) were first used by the Great Plains Indian tribes. Later, this plant was discovered by other people and became an “official” medicine in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.
Echinacea was at first used for snakebite, anthrax, and for relief of pain. Later, when it became more popular in America and Europe, a Swiss herbal supplement maker convinced the public that Native American tribes use Echinacea to prevent the common cold (which was only partially true). The truth was that some Native American tribes used it treat some of the symptoms that could be caused by the common cold such as sore throats, coughs, headaches and as an analgesic (painkiller).
Today, Echinacea is sold in capsules and as an extract in drugstores and health stores. Many people take it on a regular basis to treat minor health problems.
Modern studies show that some chemicals found in Echinacea are antimicrobial while others stimulate the immune system. That’s why this plant is effective in at least reducing the symptoms of the common cold (studies generally show that Echinacea can’t prevent the common cold, it can only reduce the duration of the illness and severity of the symptoms).
What about other benefits of Echinacea? Since it has antimicrobial properties, it’s used to treat various infections such as upper respiratory tract infections and urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast infections, athlete’s foot, genital herpes, septicemia, gum disease and ear infections. Applying it topically to the skin helps heal wounds insect bites, sunburn, psoriasis, eczema and other similar skin problems. It also reduces the risk of getting your wounds infected and reduces pain.
Even though Echinacea is an herb and most herbs are known for having side effects, it is very safe. There’s a very low risk of side effects and even if they appear, they are mild and reversible. However, it doesn’t mean that everyone can take Echinacea! It interacts with some drugs so please talk with your doctor first before taking if you take any drugs on a regular basis.
How to Boost Your Immune System?
How to improve the immunity besides taking Echinacea when you’re feeling ill? Here are a few tips which will definitely help you avoid getting the common cold or the flu.
1. Eat healthy
Food that you eat can either boost your immunity or reduce your body’s ability to fight infections. Focus on whole foods which means eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains (in moderation). If you can stomach dairy, it’s also great for your immune system because of calcium it contains.
Keep in mind that if you’re obese, your immune system is weaker. Reduce your calorie intake, become more active (more on that in a second) and you’ll surely get rid of unnecessary body fat. Your body will thank you for it and you’ll also feel better about yourself.
2. Be an active person
Regularly engaging in physical activity is necessary to keep your body healthy and your immune system ready to fight diseases. Physical activity causes your body to send antibodies and white blood cells through the body at a quicker rate. Moreover, exercise causes your body to release endorphins which reduce stress which has a very strong impact on your overall immune system.
3. Take supplements which improve the immune system
If you’re over 60, pregnant or if you regularly engage in strenuous physical activity, you need more vitamins and minerals than an average person. Deficiency of some vitamins and minerals may weaken your immune system and increase the risk of getting the flu or the common cold. You can take supplements such as Echinacea or B Complex to avoid common deficiencies.
4. Wear warm clothes
Remember what your mother said? When temperatures are low, always wear a cap, gloves and a scarf. Wear warm clothes to keep your body warm and reduce the risk of your body’s core temperature dropping too low (which will probably result in health problems).
5. Visit a sauna from time to time
Sauna is a great place to improve your immune system. Raising your body temperature stimulates the immune response and the number of white blood cells that fight infections increases. Moreover, sauna reduces anxiety and tension which can also improve.
Last but not least, remember that your immune system is directly associated with your overall feeling of well-being. If you’re happy and vibrant, it will be strong. If you’re depressed and tired, it will be very weak.
Is it safe? Can everyone take it? In this article I want to write more about side effects and potential interactions with Echinacea.
Let’s start with side effects and the safety in general. You have to know that most herbs are known for causing numerous side effects. That’s not the case with Echinacea – there’s a very low risk of side effects and even if you do experience them (which is very rare), they’ll be mild and reversible (meaning things like nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, itch, numbness of the tongue and rash).
There are also some rare allergic reactions to Echinacea including asthma, shortness of breath, and one case of anaphylaxis. Please keep in mind that in some very rare cases (if you buy it from a questionable producer) Echinacea capsules may be contaminated with lead, selenium or arsenic which may cause other side effects.
Some people also associate muscle and joint pain with Echinacea. However, these symptoms are probably caused by the cold or the flu for which you’re taking and not itself. And what about potential interactions with it? Because of Echinacea benefits related to the immune system, some scientists believe that taking it decreases the effectiveness of immunosuppressive drugs. However, no studies have been conducted yet and this warning is based on theoretical considerations.
Echinacea interacts with caffeine (it decreases the rate of how quickly the body breaks down caffeine). This means that taking it along with caffeine may cause too much caffeine in the bloodstream. This may result in some caffeine-related side effects such as fast heartbeat and headache. It may also interact with some drugs that are changed and broken down by the body or the liver. If you take any drugs on a regular basis, please talk with your doctor first before taking (especially if you suffer from serious health problems).
There are no studies which investigate if it’s safe to take Echinacea if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid taking it unless your doctor allows you to take it. Echinacea (used up to 10 days, not on a daily basis) is probably safe for small children although it’s always a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider first.
In general, remember that it is an herb with medicinal properties. This means that it can both cause side effects and interact with other drugs and herbs.