Echinacea is perhaps the best known herb for acute immune support, and for good reason—it’s been used for hundreds of years for that purpose. But, like nearly every other herb out there, it has multiple constituents with different pharmacological actions, making it a diverse herb for a variety of other conditions as well. Many of these conditions, such as infection, asthma, inflammation, and pain are interrelated—making echinacea a good herb to address multiple facets of an ailment at once.
And also, it’s really pretty. 🙂
Echinacea As An Immune Stimulant
Echinacea is an immune stimulant, as well as an immune modulator. For this reason, it’s best to use it for acute conditions and not on an ongoing basis.
Echinacea’s immune support constituents include antioxidant flavonoids, polysaccharides, and essential oils, like most herbs. It has been shown to help prevent acute infection, and especially shines in preventing recurrent infections. (But again, if it’s used for recurrent infections, it may be having a “suppressive” effect—it’s best to use it short-term for this purpose, while investigating and treating the underlying susceptibility.)
This study also shows that echinacea worked as well as the prescription antiviral medication Oseltamivir to decrease severity and duration of influenza.
Echinacea as an Antimicrobial
Echinacea’s benefits for acute infection include not just immune system stimulation, but also direct antimicrobial action against bacteria and viruses, though not against fungi.
This study shows that echinacea reduces bacterial superinfections in those already struggling with a viral infection, and blocks cytokine storms. This study, too, shows that echinacea helps to inhibit inflammatory cytokines secondary to a viral infection.
Echinacea for Inflammation and Pain
On that note, echinacea has been studied directly for its anti-inflammatory effects. It was shown to modulate COX-2 expression, the same target compound inhibited by NSAIDs.
Echinacea for Asthma
Many acute infections involve the upper respiratory system, which can lead to respiratory compromise, particularly in those already predisposed to allergies and asthma. This study demonstrates that echinacea’s anti-inflammatory effects support bronchodilation as well, making it a potential supplementary treatment for respiratory problems such as asthma.
Echinacea for Skin Care
Echinacea has wound healing capabilities as well, particularly Echinacea pallida, which contains a higher amount of the constituent echinacoside than other more common species. It can be applied to a wound topically, or taken internally to enhance wound healing. It has even been traditionally used as a topical burn treatment.
The Upshot, and a Philosophical Note
Herbs can be used for their pharmacological actions against certain symptoms, just like drugs can—and sometimes symptom relief is necessary. In the case of acute infection or injury, it might be all that’s necessary: to just offer the immune system a boost in doing what it would do naturally anyway.
But if you’re using an herb like a drug, to suppress a chronic symptom, it’s important to make sure you’re also searching for and treating the underlying cause at the same time, at least to the extent that you can. If you struggle with inflammatory pain, for instance, or recurrent infections, suppressing the symptom without searching for the reason those symptoms are present is like waking up to a fire alarm, and then turning it off and going back to bed without finding the source of the smoke.
Symptoms are clues to the source of illness; they’re not the illness itself.