Echinacea for colds and flu

Runny nose, sneezing and coughing got you down? I recommend giving Echinacea a try to ward off these annoying cold symptoms. A member of the daisy family, Echinacea (pronounced ECK-in-AY shuh) has been one of the best-selling herbs in health food stores for several years. Also known as Purple Coneflower this plant, native to the central United States, is reported to have properties that boost immunity for battling upper respiratory infections. Just as likely to be seen in Wal-Mart as your local pharmacy, Echinacea is usually sold in extract form either as a tincture (dissolved in alcohol) or in capsules. This sought after herb is an important link in promoting well being in the cold and flu season and can possibly cut the time you suffer from the symptoms of the flu or colds.

History anyone?

Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., author of The Honest Herbal, talks of nine species of Echinacea that grow in the United States. Those used medicinally are E. angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea. North American Indians used Echinacea as a blood cleanser and for a variety of skin disorders such as boils and abscesses. Considered a valuable alternative to antibiotics, this herb has a very strong immune-activating ability. It is believed to activate white blood cells to fight off both bacterial and viral infections. Most famous for its use with treating snakebites, other indications include boosting the immune system, help with wound healing, inflammation reduction and fighting infections, colds and flu.

According to Tyler, Echinacea was first introduced to the world of medicine in about 1871 by a man from Nebraska, who apparently learned of the plant's medicinal properties from local Native Americans. In 1885, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Cincinnati introduced several Echinacea products marketed primarily as anti-infective agents. By 1920, this was the firm's most popular plant drug. Then in the 1930s, as the antibiotic revolution gained momentum, Echinacea fell out of use.

How safe is Echinacea?

Overall, Echinacea appears to have few side effects. Echinacea should not be used continuously. Instead the recommendation is to use the herb once symptoms of a cold begin to appear, and then only for a week or two. Germany's Commission E, which regulates herbal products, says Echinacea can be taken safely for up to eight weeks, after which time it appears to lose its effectiveness. People who are allergic to members of the aster family, including artichokes, chrysanthemums, daisies, marigolds, and sunflowers, shouldn't take the herb. Also, because it's a non-specific immune system stimulant, people with auto immune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis should avoid Echinacea.

What should I look for in purchasing Echinacea?

Purchasing Echinacea can be a lesson in patience. Most of the research done on the herb in Germany used a certain formulation called a tincture. A tincture is an alcohol-based liquid formula that can be diluted in water and taken as an herbal drink. Many of the tinctures sold in the U.S. aren't standardized, and alcohol-based formulas are not appropriate for everyone. Look for the word "standardized" on product labels to make sure you're getting what you intend. In the U.S., many products contain all three species of Echinacea. The general recommendation is to find a product that's derived from the roots of E. angustifolia and E. pallida and the above-ground parts of E. purpurea.

What should I know before I begin taking an herb like Echinacea?

Drugs known to suppress the immune system such as Cortico-steroids, including Decadron and Prednisone should not be taken with Echinacea. Use of Echinacea is also discouraged during pregnancy and for people with tuberculosis or autoimmune problems. When in doubt ask your physician.

How much should I take?

Dosages vary, but for adults, I recommend 450 mg of Echinacea daily (for no more than seven days in a row). Consider augmenting this with 50-100 mg of zinc three times a day with food (zinc is more effective when digestive enzymes interact with it). I also suggest taking 1000-2000 mg of vitamin C daily. An important note: Suddenly and completely stopping daily high doses of Vitamin C can weaken the immune system. It is important to gradually decrease your daily dosage. You don't have to let annoying cold symptoms get you down, head them off at the pass. Give Echinacea a try.

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