Echinacea (popularly called “coneflower”) is an herb that has been used for hundreds of years and still remains to be a very popular supplement in present day. There are nine species of coneflower in the genus echinacea, all native to eastern and central North America, but three of them (e. purpurea, e. anguistifolia and e. pallida) are the ones primarily used for herbal supplements. The species are distinguished by the metabolites in the taproot, but other parts of the plant, especially the flower (including the spiny center, which gives the plant its popular name) also include active ingredients.
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Before the arrival of Europeans, many Native American tribes living east of the Rocky Mountains used echinacea for medicinal reasons. The Choctaw, Dakota, Comanche, Cheyenne and Blackfeet are documented to have used the plant as a cough remedy, to soothe sore throats and toothaches and to reduce the severity of colds. A branch of American medicine which gained prominence in the early 1830s, called the Eclectic school, adopted the use of Indian herbal remedies, including echinacea.
How Is Echinacea Made?
Green or dried parts of the plant were used in teas, while the juice of the main plant or root was used either as tinctures or in compresses. These were used to address colds and upper respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, to help close slow-healing wounds and to provide a general tonic to strengthen the immune system. Although echinacea was included in standard medical reference works as a useful herbal ingredient as late as the 1940s, the plant soon lost its position in mainstream medicine (as did the Eclectic school) about the same time that laboratory-developed antibiotics began to become widespread.
What Is Echinacea Good For?
However, echinacea is still one of the most commonly used herbs today, both in the United States and Europe (particularly Germany, where it has been extensively studied and used for nearly a century). The most common uses of echinacea are for the treatment of colds and other infections. Several studies have suggested that echinacea contains properties that may boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and have antioxidant effects.
Other studies have been contradictory and therefore the evidence of its effects remains inconclusive. Although its use remains under debate, a 2002 survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 40.3% of the participants stated that they had taken an echinacea supplement in the past year. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, continues to support research into the use of echinacea to address upper respiratory infections and its potential effects on the immune system.
Is Echinacea Safe?
A physician should be consulted before the use of echinacea supplements. It may cause gastrointestinal distress and can have adverse interactions with medications, including steroids or other immune suppressant drugs. It may also cause reactions in individuals with autoimmune conditions. The Mayo Clinic cautions against use by people who are allergic or hypersensitive to members of the asteraceae plant family, including ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold and daisy. Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, herbal and dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health professional. You should read product labels and discuss all therapies with a qualified healthcare provider before adding echinacea into your diet.