How to boost your immune system with herbs – Echinacea
Eight Herbs for the Immune System
Common Names: These days “echinacea” pretty much is the name, though “purple coneflower” is exceptionally common among gardeners who don’t know about the medicinal actions of plants.
Species Used: All nine members of the genus can be used; however, the most common are Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea. I don’t particularly think that purpurea is all that strong in comparison. I really haven’t found it all that effective, in spite of what everyone says, and I avoid it if possible. I would strongly suggest the use of angustifolia if you can get it. (There is some evidence that Echinacea pallida is more potent than angustifolia, but I haven’t worked with it personally.)
Root primarily, but the flower heads in seed are also potent. The Germans, however, use the juice of purpurea as their primary medicinal.
Properties of Echinacea
Stimulates antibody production
- purpureais everywhere. I strongly advise against using it, ever, unless you are juicing the fresh plant yourself—which you should if it is growing in the garden; there’s no need to kill the plant by digging it up.Angustifoliais harder to find; few herb shops carry it in tincture form. You can, however, find angustifoliatinctures here and there on the Internet. Try Sage Woman Herbs. Pacific Botanicals carries angustifolia root in bulk. Excellent quality. See Resources.
Preparation and Dosage
The most potent medicinal forms of the plant are tincture of the root and the fresh juice of the aerial plant.
Note: Echinacea extracts standardized for phenolic acid or echinocaside content have been found to be inactive as immunostimulants but do still retain their anti-inflammatory actions.
Juice the aerial parts of the plant, when in flower if possible. Take immediately or stabilize with 20–25 percent alcohol. Take 1–3 teaspoons per day, or up to 6x daily in acute episodes.
- angustifoliadry root, 1:5, 70 percent alcohol. (Or fresh flower heads ofpurpurea if you must, 1:2, 95 percent alcohol.)
Note: The tincture’s effectiveness is much reduced if taken in water (unless you are taking large doses for septicemia or collagen support) and I would strongly recommend against doing so, especially in the treatment of strep infections of the throat.
For strep throat/tonsillitis: Direct contact with the tissue at the back of the throat with a tincture of echinacea (30 drops each hour minimum) liberally mixed with saliva is certain in these kinds of conditions. Echinacea actively stimulates saliva and numbs the tissue it comes into contact with, making it perfect for this (or any sore, swollen throat infections). I have found this reliably effective, again if treatment is assertive and consistent. In a number of cases (including a doubting physician who was ill himself) the throat had been positively cultured for strep; healing generally occurs within 24 hours.
As a mouth/gum wash for sores and ulcers: The tincture, 30 drops, hold in mouth until saliva is well stimulated, swish it around to cover all surfaces well, hold for 30 seconds, swallow. Repeat 3x or 4x daily.
For onset of colds and flus: Not less than 1 dropperful (30 drops) of tincture each hour until symptoms cease. (Note: Echinacea is more effective for cold and flu onset in combination with licorice root and red root.)
For septicemia, typhoid, diphtheria, and so on: 1 tsp E. angustifolia root tincture in very little water every half hour until the situation normalizes. If the tincture is held in the mouth for a minute or so, it will enter the bloodstream quite rapidly. Better outcomes will be achieved this way. If taken 30 minutes after piperine, its movement into the bloodstream will be very rapid.
For collagen tissue protection and repair: ¼–1 tsp tincture, 3x daily for extended periods (weeks).
For external wounds: Because of its capacity to correct tissue abnormality, echinacea is perfect for this application. Its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and cell-normalizing actions all come into powerful play for any external wounds. In the case of infected wounds, take the tincture, frequently, diluted in a bit of water. In severe cases take ½–1 teaspoon of angustifolia root tincture each half hour to hour.
For venomous stings and bites: Mix the tincture with an equal amount of water and wash the affected area liberally every 30 minutes, and take 30 drops to 1 teaspoon of the tincture each half hour to hour depending on the type of bite/sting. For infected bites or stings, more; for venomous bites/stings, more; for simple bee or wasp stings, less. (You can also use a wash for this purpose: Boil 2 ounces ground flower heads or root in 8 ounces water for 15 minutes, let steep 1 hour, strain, and use to wash wounds and venomous bites and stings liberally, as often as needed.)
As a wound powder: Powder the dried root (or seed heads) as finely as possible and sprinkle liberally over new or infected wounds. Best in combination with other herbs such as goldenseal, usnea, oak, and wormwood.
Poultice: Mix powder with water until thick and place on affected area.
For abnormal Pap smear: Echinacea can easily correct even stage three dysplasia. Whenever echinacea is placed directly on cells that are displaying abnormal properties, the cells tend to return to normal relatively quickly as long as the treatment is assertive and consistent. I have seen no other herb that comes even close to echinacea’s reliability in this regard. Use as a suppository.
Side Effects and Contraindications
Rarely: Joint pain may occur with large doses taken for extended periods of time. Increased shoe size may occur from large doses for extended periods. Current collagenosis? Don’t take a lot for a long time.
Echinacea is not an immune tonic; it is an immune stimulant. Continued immune stimulation in instances of immune depletion to avoid necessary rest or more healthy lifestyle choices will always result in a more severe illness than if the original colds and flus were allowed to progress. Echinacea should not be used if you are getting sick a lot and are only using echinacea to stave off illness without using the time gained to heal the immune system itself through deep healing and recuperation.
None have been noted; however, echinacea decreases the action of the influx transporter OATP-B by 50 percent. It may decrease the absorption of OATP-B substrates. Phenobarbital, chloral hydrate, and meprobamate can inhibit the anti-inflammatory actions of echinacea.
Synergistic with astragalus and licorice in the stimulation of immune function.
Habitat and Appearance
The echinaceas are perennials, indigenous to eastern and central North America, usually in moist or dry prairies and open woodlands. E. purpurea is a major garden plant pretty much everyplace that has gardens. It is also a major agricultural crop everywhere on Earth, including China, so this member of the genus, even if no others, has colonized numerous countries around the globe.
The plants are unbranched, erect, with wide-bladed leaves and grow 3 to 5 feet tall. Writers often describe the plant leaves as hairy with a rough texture. To me the experience is more like touching Velcro; the plant doesn’t mess around. The stems are strong, the plants vigorous, intense. They are not oooooh love/mushy plants and have no resemblance to puppies or kittens.
All the species except purpurea have strong taproots, brown, vigorous, intense. Purpurea’s roots are some sort of strange, glumpy, fibrous sort of paleish-tannish thing. I never have been attracted to that species and besides I don’t think it is all that good medicinally so I am prejudiced; the rootish things it produces just look wimpy to me, sort of like a bag of earthworms curled around an irregular sort of tannish lump. But, you know, go ahead and use purpurea if you want.
Cultivation and Collection
The reason why so many people use purpurea for medicine rather than angustifolia (which I think much stronger) is that it is easier to grow. (Ah hah!) Throw the seeds in the ground in the fall and up they come in the spring. Like all the echinaceas they prefer a period of cold before germinating, but I have talked to people who just planted seeds in the spring and found them to be decent if not spectacular germinators. You can also separate thepurpurea root thingies into chunks and propagate them that way. From personal experience, and from everyone I have talked to, the other species of echinacea are decidedly cranky; you have to work at it to get them to grow.Angustifolia is a poor germinator until you figure out just what it likes; stratification is essential for the plant—however, soaking the seeds in ethephon for 10 minutes will help germination tremendously, much more than stratification.
At one time it was almost impossible to get anything other than purpurea to put in a garden, but that has changed—many people now have seedlings available of most of the echinacea species. Horizon Herbs (see Resources) has one of the best selections. The plants self-seed once established, so beginning with seedlings and tending them carefully until they take is a good route to go if you want this medicinal as a permanent member of your herb garden.
Fall-harvest the roots—after 3 years or so in the ground—after the leaves turn brown. Harvest the seed heads just after the seeds mature. I prefer my root tincture to be from dried roots rather than fresh, but then I useangustifolia and am in a minority in this; most people use the fresh purpurea roots. In any event, let the (angustifolia) roots dry whole, then store them in plastic bags in the dark in a cool location. They will last for years if properly stored. (Studies on years-old dried roots found them just as effective as the fresh roots in their actions.)
You can harvest the fresh plants for juicing anytime, the German approach, and that won’t kill the plant as taking the roots does. The plants are most potent if you take them in full flower, then run them through a juicer, and stabilize the juice with 20 percent alcohol by volume.
Echinacoside, echinacin, echinoline, echinacein, polyacetylenes, hydrocinnamic acid, betaine, alkylamides, caffeic acid glycosides, inulin, isobutyl amides, isobutylalkamines, sesquiterpene esters, and so on.
Traditional Uses of Echinacea
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
WESTERN BOTANIC PRACTICE
The various echinacea species were used for a very long time by the indigenous cultures of North America, who then passed on the knowledge to the nascent American medical movements (who really went with it). The native cultures used the plants, most often the roots, for wounds and sores; as a poultice for swellings; for septic wounds, sores in the mouth or gums, respiratory infections, sore throat, tonsillitis, enlarged glands, fevers, mumps and measles; as a wash for the pain of burns; for toothache and cavities; for snakebites and poisonous bites from insects and spiders; stomach cramps, GI tract distress, arthritis, rheumatism. They took large frequent doses.
The Eclectics were first alerted to the plant by its usefulness for snakebite treatment but went on to use it as one of their primary medicines. Generally, they used it much like the native cultures. They, however, felt the herb specific for septicemia, infected blood, severely infected wounds (with blood infection), generally infected mucous membrane systems of the throat, tongue, mouth, lungs, and stomach, tonsillitis, respiratory infections with foul smell, diphtheria, infected insect bites, and on and on and on. They used large frequent doses—every half hour to hour. The Eclectics only used angustifolia; they did not consider purpurea a legitimate substitute for it nor a very good herb in and of itself.
The use of Echinacea purpurea came about not only because of ease of growth but due to intense German interest in the plant; it is part of their standard-practice medicine. (They used purpurea because it was easy to grow and was already present in the country.) Most, if not all, of the German studies and use, however, have been with the expressed juice of the plant—which they often use parenterally (by injection) rather than taken by mouth; they don’t use the root of purpurea. Hello—they don’t use the root of purpurea. They do use the root of E. pallida as an ethanolic extract taken by mouth. Purpurea root came into vogue in the United States during the herbal renaissance of the late twentieth century because of the German use of the expressed juice of the aerial parts of the plant in flower (an invalid generalization to the root from the actions of the fresh juice) and because it was easily available in the eastern United States. It is native to the eastern United States and is widely grown there in gardens.
Time for a Rant
Like goldenseal, echinacea is a North American plant and, as such, most of the studies in the United States are still arguing about whether it works or not (just as with goldenseal). The Germans are under no such illusions; it is part of their standard-practice medicine. Most of the early research occurred in Germany; the rest of the world is just starting to catch up. Unfortunately a great deal of the research has devoted itself to deciding whether the herb works or not (generally not) and way too many of the studies look at the use of the herb as a preventive for colds—in adults and children. Very few of them have looked at the traditional uses and dosages of the herb and oriented their studies around that, so that they are discovering it useless for what they are testing it for. What a shock. Basically, they are giving capsules of purpurea in small doses a few times a day to help prevent colds—some good double-blind studies, too. (That’s where they poke out both of the researchers’ eyes and …)
If I had a nickel for every person who has told me they had a cold and had taken some echinacea—usuallypurpurea—(dropperful 3x daily) and didn’t notice any difference, I would be rich.
To be clear: The herb is very good, if you are using it properly for the right things. It is relatively useless for preventing colds. The overuse of the herb for that (especially combined with goldenseal—what a waste) is due entirely to marketing ploys by the larger herb companies. Echinacea can help at the onset of a cold or flu if used in large doses every half hour or hour exactly at the onset of the cold or flu. If the infection gets established, use lomatium, because echinacea just ain’t gonna cut it. I have also found that echinacea is much less effective as a flu and cold treatment for people past the middle age shift. It is, however, very good for younger people if used properly.
Nevertheless, I don’t consider that the main strength of the plant. In general, it is very good for exactly what the native peoples and Eclectics used it for: severe infections of the throat, infected wounds that stink, insect bites, snakebites, nastily infected mucous membranes especially if accompanied by foul smell, septicemia, wounds and sores, sores in the mouth and gums, and so on. If your condition is similar and you treat it aggressively, the plant can save your life.
The herb does enhance immune function, but most people think of it as an immune tonic. It isn’t. Rhodiola and ashwagandha are tonics but not echinacea. Echinacea is an immune stimulant.
I have found the herb to be excellent for raising immune function in active infections if taken internally in the right doses and to be very specific for correcting problems in the skin or mucous membranes if used topically—basically anyplace the herb can touch the affected part. But the doses have to be high and frequent or else forget it. And again, if you have any kind of circulating infection, especially if there is bacteria in the blood (septicemia), the herb is very potent if taken properly.
The herb also has some good specific actions on the mucous membranes and collagen tissues of the body, but you really have to know what you are doing to get good outcomes. And again, I just haven’t found purpurea to be as reliable as angustifolia for serious conditions. Some of the herbalists I know in Europe insist that they have, but I have personally tried really large doses of purpurea, for myself and others, and it just isn’t up to snuff. The native cultures almost always used angustifolia for serious conditions (so did the Eclectics); purpurea had a very small profile in indigenous medicine in the United States. I tend to think they were on to something, as I have, as they apparently did, found purpurea weak.
If I had a nickel for every person who has told me they had a cold and had taken some echinacea and didn’t notice any difference, I would be rich.
Does purpurea work at all? Well, yes, but we are talking pretty good doses of the fresh plant juice here (6 to 15 ml, i.e., 1 to 3 teaspoons daily) and using it in specific ways for specific conditions and still—for colds and influenza even the Germans consider it to be only supportive. Its real strength in their system is as a topical treatment for wounds and sores.
There are very few if any commercial products in the United States that use the fresh juice or suggest the right dosing strategies and amounts. The main thing is … angustifolia (and the others) are just better. Much better.
- purpureais used in Germany as asupportive therapy for colds, for chronic infections of the respiratory and lower urinary tract, or externally for poorly healing wounds and chronic ulceration. The tincture of E. pallidaroot is used as supportive therapy for influenza-like infections. Supportive, not primary.
Most of the usable studies on echinacea have used the fresh juice of Echinacea purpurea. Unless otherwise noted, that is what these studies are referring to. There have been hundreds of papers published on the plant; this is just a sampling.
But first … echinacea (all species) really has two primary actions: it stimulates the immune system and it is a very potent hyaluronidase inhibitor. Many of its most potent medicinal actions come from these two things.
Hyaluronidase (HYL) is an enzyme that breaks down hyaluronic acid (HA), a glycosaminoglycan that is widely distributed throughout connective, epithelial, and neural tissues. It is, as well, a major part of the extracellular matrix. Inhibition of hyaluronidase has a number of beneficial actions: 1) In inflammatory diseases such as various forms of arthritis, the use of a hyaluronidase inhibitor stops the normal (and abnormal) breakdown of cartilage (and synovial fluid), which increases the amount of cartilage (and fluid) in and around the joints, helping counteract, even reverse, the condition. Combined with the anti-inflammatory actions of the herb, this means that large doses can be highly useful for reversing various forms of arthritis and rheumatism. 2) Hyaluronic acid is a major component of the skin and is highly involved in skin repair. HA contributes to tissue dynamics, cell movement and proliferation, and the generation of new cellular tissues. HA is strongly present in new wounds and enhances cellular filtration. It is an essential element of granulation; that is, the new cellular tissue that slowly takes the place of the clotted blood (scab) that first forms over a wound. This tissue forms from the bottom of the wound upward. The more HA, the faster and better it forms. Hyaluronidase inhibition means that more HA is present in the skin/wound area and skin repair is significantly enhanced. 3) With many types of cancer, hyaluronidase plays a major role in metastasis. It degrades the extracellular matrix and allows cancer cells to escape the main tumor mass. HYL also degrades other cellular structures, allowing the cancer cells to penetrate them as well. It also plays a role in the formation of the new blood vessels that cancerous tumors need to survive. HYL inhibition, then, produces a particular kind of anticancer, or antitumor, action. 4) Some bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus spp., Clostridium spp., Enterococcus spp., Mycobacterium spp., etc.) create and release hyaluronidase in order to loosen the connective tissue matrix and facilitate their penetration into new areas of the body. Part of what echinacea does is to strengthen the structure of the mucous and skin membranes of the body by stopping their structural breakdown through HYL inhibition while at the same time counteracting the HYL release by bacteria. This stops the bacterial movement into the body. A number of viruses also use HYL to help them penetrate the body; this is especially true of cancer viruses. 5) Hyaluronidase is also found in some snake venoms. It increases the lethality of the venom, in part by allowing it to penetrate more easily into the body.
Echinacea is antiviral; it’s been found active against HIV and influenza H5N1, H7N7, and H1N1 (swine origin). However, in order to inactivate the influenza strains, it needs direct contact just prior to or right at the moment of infection. Echinacea inhibits receptor cell binding activity of the virus, interfering with its entry into the cells while at the same time strengthening the protective power of the mucous membranes through HYL inhibition.
Echinacea is antibacterial; it inactivates Streptococcus pyogenes, Haemophilus influenzae, Propionbacterium acnes, and Legionella pneumophila. It also completely reverses the inflammatory processes that are initiated by those organisms. Echinacea is less active against Staphylococcus aureus and Mycobacterium smegmatis but also completely reverses the inflamation that they cause. Again, direct contact is necessary.
Echinacea is also active against Leishmania major promastigotes and Leishmania enrietti. E. angustifolia is active against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Echinacea is also active against numerous species of Candida. In vitro research found that a hexane extract of echinacea inhibited Candida shehata, C. kefyr, C. albicans, C. steatulytica, and C. tropicalis. In other studies echinacea increased the proliferation of phagocytes in spleen and bone marrow and the migration of granulocytes to peripheral blood. These studies found that echinacea was specifically active against systemic candida in the blood. In fact, mice were then protected from lethal injections of the yeast directly into the blood. In mice whose levels of leukocytes in the peripheral blood had been reduced through injection of cyclophosphamide, echinacea initiated an influx of neutrophil granulocytes that protected the mice from candida infection.
In a study of recurrent candida vaginal yeast infections, half the women were treated with econazole nitrate (EN) alone, the other half were treated with EN and echinacea. Those using EN alone had a 60 percent recurrence rate, while those using EN and echinacea had only a 17 percent recurrence rate.
The alcoholic extract of E. pallida reverses stress-delayed wound healing in mice. E. purpurea enhances wound healing in vocal fold wounds in pigs. Echinacea (type not stated but probably purpurea) enhances fibrin formation in skin grafts, increases wound healing time, stimulates the formation of new connective tissue, and reduces leukocytic infiltration.
Angustifolia, purpurea, and pallida are all potent inhibitors of nitric oxide. Pallida is the strongest. Arginase activity is significantly increased by all three, but only pallida inhibits inducible nitric oxide synthase.
Most echinacea species strongly inhibit PGE production; sanguinea is strongest, followed by angustifolia andpallida.
Constituents of echinacea (echinacoside, etc.) protect collagen from free-radical-induced degradation.
Angustifolia is 10 times more potent a pain reliever than capsaicin. It acts by desensitizing the TRPV1 channel.
Echinacea reversed the system effects of gamma-irradiated mice: Red blood cell parameters, white blood cell parameters, and bone marrow cell parameters were all ameliorated. Echinacea (type not stated) was found to significantly abate leukemia and extend the life span of leukemic mice.
Echinacea increases the expression of CD69 and CD25 immune cells in vitro.
In vitro studies on the effects of seven species of echinacea on peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) found that tinctures from four (angustifolia, pallida, paradoxa, and tennesseensis) stimulated proliferation of PBMCs and increased interleukin-2 (IL-2). Two tinctures (sanguinea and simulata) stimulated proliferation only. E. purpurea stimulated IL-2 only. None of the extracts affected IL-4 or tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). However, if volunteers were first immunized against influenza and that blood tested, tinctures from four (pallida, paradoxa, sanguinea, and simulata) diminished influenza-specific IL-2. None affected influenza-specific IL-10 or interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). With blood drawn 6 months postvaccination, four tinctures (50 percent alcohol, angustifolia, purpurea, simulata, and tennesseensis) augmented IL-10 production and diminished IL-2, with no effect on IFN-gamma. Two (paradoxa and sanguinea) were similar though weaker. E. pallida suppressed all cytokines. The authors note that the various species have different immune-modulating actions.
Three echinacea species were tested for in vivo (mice) enhancement of innate and adaptive immune functions. All three (angustifolia, purpurea, and pallida) significantly increased antibody response, altered cytokine expression by splenic cells, significantly increased interferon-alpha production, and inhibited the release of TNF-alpha and IL-1 beta. Only two (angustifolia and pallida) strongly enhanced T cell proliferation, significantly stimulated IL-4 production, and decreased IL-10.
Alkamides from echinacea (type not stated) were found to potently inhibit inflammation in human blood and to exert modulatory effects on various cytokine expression (up-regulating IL-6 and inhibiting TNF-alpha, IL-1 beta, IL-12p70).
A butanol fraction from purpurea stems and leaves significantly up-regulated specific genes for IL-8, IL-1 beta, IL-18, and the chemokines CXCL2, CCL5, and CCL2 within 4 hours after treatment of immature dendritic cells.
In vivo studies on mice vaccinated with killed Salmonella typhimurium vaccine or an inactivated pertussis vaccine consisting of diphtheria/tetanus toxoids and inactivated virulence factors of Bordetella pertussis found that E. angustifolia and purpurea significantly increased antibody production and proliferation as well as IL-12 levels.
A rather large number of studies found that echinacea activates cellular immunity and stimulates phagocytosis of neutrophils in vitro, in vivo, and, in one case, after rinsing of the mouth cavity. In numerous studies echinacea increases interferon-gamma production, stimulates T helper cell production and proliferation, and strongly enhances CD4 and CD8 subsets.
Echinacea has a wide range of actions on the immune system and is both highly stimulatory and modulatory. It is an effective modulator of macrophage immune responses. It enhances antibody responses to infection. It is 30 percent more effective, for example, than sodium alginate in the stimulation of antivenom (snake) antibodies. It stimulates the production of neutrophils, macrophages, and T and B cells.