The Great Echinacea Debate

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that contrary to popular belief, taking echinacea, the immune-boosting herb, may not help fight colds after all. But is the study completely accurate?

Green Med Info (GMI), a non-profit online health database, found that Google News aggregator has more than 500 hits from mainstream media outlets about the recent study, which claims the herb echinacea “doesn’t cure colds,” “should be skipped,” “won’t help,” and “isn’t very effective.”

In response, GMI collected more than 70 studies in favor of this amazing herb both for fighting the common cold and for many other uses.

I took a look at the findings that are getting all the hype. The research from the American College of Physicians found echinacea tablets supplemented to subjects with a cold failed to reduce the severity of cold symptoms and only shortened the duration of the cough by seven to 20 hours. This is a “statistically insignificant result,” according to the researchers. The ultimate conclusion of the researchers is that in most cases, popping echinacea is not worthwhile.

But according to Joy Lindquist, wellness coordinator of Long Island College Hospital’s cancer center, vitamin C and echinacea need to be taken at the first sign of a cold in order to work. “The reason they don’t work in some people is that they are run down,” she told the New York Daily Mail. “If you have a poor diet and aren’t taking care of yourself and getting enough rest, don’t expect it to work.”

Her view is consistent with what other herbal practitioners have said in the past. The problem with these studies lies in the methodology, since the echinacea is given to the subjects after the cold is already in full swing. It works by building up your immune system and works to help prevent colds. Says one herbal practitioner “They say that it takes a flu shot two weeks before it works. I do not know why they cannot give the same amount of time to echinacea. It would be like if I caught the flu and then went to the doctor and he gave me a flu shot, I could say the flu shot didn’t work.”

There are many studies that have found echinacea to be effective against colds. The aforementioned GMI has 14 articles showing its effectiveness against colds, 11 showing the same for upper respiratory infections, 18 against lowered immune function, five against Rhinovirus (the virus that causes the common cold) and more than a dozen showing its effectiveness against unrelated disorders (including leukemia).

The key is to use the herb properly. Instead of waiting until your cold has taken hold and symptoms are full blown, start taking it at the first sign of one. This doesn’t mean you need to take echinacea all day, every day. It just means you need to be attentive to the signs and use it accordingly. For me, I know that if I don’t get enough sleep or go through a high-stress period, I’m at risk of getting a cold. If I start to feel a slight soreness in my throat or am feeling really run down, it’s time to break out the echinacea.

So take media reports that don’t provide the proper context on these studies with a grain of salt. Many previously released studies have found the herb to be effective; so far only this study has found otherwise. The media tend to be a bit trigger-happy on reporting studies that point to natural remedies being ineffective. They seem to delight in cutting down anything suggesting something other than pharmaceuticals might be useful in a protocol against disease. Just know that a wider context is needed in order to get to the truth of a supplement’s effectiveness.

Author by Doug DiPasquale.

Quick Review of Our Editor:

In this article, you noted that “Many previously released studies have found the herb to be effective; so far only this study has found otherwise.” This is incorrect as dozens of studies have reported Echinacea to be effective in preventing colds as well as cold length/severity, but dozens of studies have also found the herb to be ineffective in preventing colds as well as cold length and severity. To complicate matters more, there have been several meta-analyses (studies that analyze many previously reported studies) that report conflicting results, either the herb prevents colds or it doesn’t.

There was even a study where 339 healthy patients were treated with placebo or echinacea either before or after being given a cold virus and there was not a significant effect of echinacea on any cold symptom, severity, % of people that caught colds, etc. This trial was a blinded, multicenter, placebo controlled, randomized study. Of course there are other studies that show the effectiveness of the herb. If I look to support either side of the argument, Echinacea is effective or ineffective in preventing or treating the common cold, it is easy to find abundant evidence. The complexity may lie in how the patients are treated/trial conducted, what type of cold virus infection they have or what type/dose/active ingredients are present in Echinacea. Taking a non-biased view, I would have to say the evidence is inconclusive. The herb, in limited quantities, does not appear to be dangerous (outside of allergic responses and maybe immunity issues), so if you feel it is helping you, it may be helping you and who cares if it’s a placebo or drug effect!

I don’t believe the lack of clarity on Echinacea should dissuade the use or research of natural product therapeutics. Many drugs in use today, and approved by the FDA, are plant derived. Two highly noted drugs include Taxol (treatment for cancer, isolated from the Pacific Yew tree) and Aspirin (precursor to purified drug was found in willow bark, which was chewed as a therapy for pain).

On the other hand, I also believe these studies need to look at the quality of the echinacea being taken. Many supplements contain a minimum of 20% of the true ingredients listed on the label. Unless the manufacturer has started with the best raw ingredients and researched and produced the exact combination for proper absorption, then you are not getting what you are paying for. Oh, and let’s not forget the manufacturing process, which if done incorrectly can damage the ingredients. And equally important – do the tablets or capsules actually dissolve in your body? If not, then they are not getting into your bloodstream at all.
Look for quality guarantees (100% of what is on the label should be in the bottle) and pharmaceutical grade, in-house manufacturing to ensure purity and potency of any supplement you take.