What is Echinacea?

purple cone flower


Have you heard of echinacea? This flower blooms from June to August and has many medicinal benefits.  

What is Echinacea? 

Echinacea is a plant native to the plains of North America. It has a beautiful flower and is more commonly known as purple coneflower. There are many species of Echinacea and three that we use medicinally – Echinacea angustifolia (native to central North America), purpurea (southeastern North America) and pallida. Each of the species of Echinacea acts somewhat differently. However, the main actions of all three are their anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and fast-acting immunomodulating effects.   

The current interest in Echinacea is for its effect on the immune system, especially in helping people fight infections of the upper respiratory tract.  

In the past, it was used for snake and spider bites, boils and other skin complaints, syphilis and dysentery. It was first and still is used by many tribes in North America. The Choctaw, Crow, Sioux, and many others are well versed in the use of echinacea although each group used the plant in different ways. It was incorporated into mainstream medicine in the 1800s. It is now cultivated worldwide.  

Echinacea contains alkylamines, which have an anti-inflammatory effect, polysaccharides which are immune supporting, and a myriad of other beneficial constituents.  

Should you add it to your daily routine? 

While in some cases the use of echinacea long-term is recommended it is best used for a short duration after exposure to someone with an upper respiratory infection or when the early stages of an infection are felt.  

What does the evidence say about the safety and efficacy of echinacea? 

Echinacea is generally safe, especially in the short term, but always consult with a naturopathic doctor before use. 

There are some cases, such as in auto-immune conditions, when long-term use might aggravate the condition, but in the short term, that does not seem to be the case. If you are looking to strengthen the immune system in the long term, there are other herbs that work well for that. Saving echinacea for acute prevention and to shorten the duration of infection is where it seems to work the best.  

One study has shown that echinacea improves overall feelings of emotional well-being. 

What are the risks/side effects related to echinacea supplements? 

Echinacea may cause allergies in some, those who are sensitive to other plants in the same plant family – Asteracea may also be sensitive to Echinacea. It might also not be a good idea for those with immunosuppression or on immunosuppressive medications. Long-term use is not recommended in auto-immune conditions unless supervised by a clinician.  

If echinacea is safe, what are the dosage recommendations and best preparations methods (tea, tincture, supplements?) 

Not all Echinacea products are prepared the same. For maximum effectiveness make sure that you have a good quality product and that it is the root that is used. Multiple doses should be taken throughout the day for several days for immune support. 

If you are interested in a natural approach to health care, book an appointment today at one of our clinics in San Diego, California or Seattle, Washington.  

-This is not medical advice and should be used only as information, please see your naturopathic doctor, herbalist or other healthcare practitioner for guidance. 

By: Sunshine Weeks, ND, naturopathic doctor at Bastyr University Clinic in San Diego.