Echinacea is famous for its supposed ability to fight the common cold and offer a natural immune boost. As such, it is a common ingredient in many immune-boosting supplements and teas. But, is echinacea really that effective in enhancing the immune function? And, more importantly, is it safe?
Here we’ll learn more about the benefits and potential pitfalls of this popular herbal medicinal and cover a few key considerations for using echinacea.
Echinacea and the Immune System
Echinacea (also called coneflower) is a flowering plant that is native to North America. It is best known for its use as a natural cold remedy and immune-boosting herb, especially in the traditional Native American medical system.
Echinacea[i] is revered as a natural immune tonic and cold-fighter. While some claim that it can boost the immune system, fight infections, heal skin, and protect against colds, thorough research has shed light on the potentials of echinacea.
Studies show that taking echinacea may help to reduce the chance of catching a cold. Most point to echinacea’s ability to enhance important immune modulators like interleukin IL-2 and IL-8, while also reducing inflammatory cytokines like IL-6 and tumor necrosis factor[ii]. This offers an overall supportive effect on the immune system and may help in prevention.
However, studies have failed to prove the famous claim that echinacea can shorten the length of an active cold or reduce the severity of its symptoms[iii].
The Safety of Echinacea
When taking herbal supplements and blends, safety is the main priority. Just as certain medications can have side effects and adverse effects, natural remedies can also have interactions and side effects to consider.
Echinacea is generally considered a mild, safe medicinal. But, due to reactivities, it is not an ideal choice for people with certain conditions. Reconsider taking echinacea or ask your doctor for more information if you suffer from the following:
- Ragweed allergies: Because both echinacea and ragweed are members of the Asteraceae family, those with a known ragweed allergy are more likely to experience a cross-reaction with echinacea[iv]. Those with allergies to flowers (in general) may experience a higher likelihood of an allergic reaction and are advised to avoid it.
- Asthma: Because echinacea has the potential to cause an adverse allergic reaction, it is not advised for those with a history of asthma or breathing difficulties[v].
- Autoimmune disease: Studies show that echinacea can help to increase certain immune functions in the body. While this is helpful for most people, it could cause adverse reactions in those with autoimmune conditions like lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. Autoimmune disease occurs when the body‘s immune system fights against itself. As echinacea increases this immune response, it may also increase the overactive immune symptoms. Similarly, echinacea can interfere with the immune-suppressant medications used to fight certain autoimmune conditions[vi].
- Digestive issues: The most common side effects of echinacea are digestive tract issues like stomach pain and nausea[vii]. Those who have a sensitive stomach or already suffer from a digestive disorder may have a higher likelihood of adverse effects when taking echinacea.
- Cancer: Echinacea is not recommended to those undergoing cancer treatments as some studies have found that it could reduce the effects of certain anti-cancer medications[viii].
- Pregnancy: Because little is known about how herbs affect pregnancy or breastmilk, echinacea is not recommended while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Boost Your Immune System Safely
Staying on top of immune health is one of the best ways to maintain your long-term health. While echinacea may be helpful for some, potential cross-reactions and side effects can cause issues for others. Check with your trusted health care provider to find the best immune solutions for you.
[ii] Dapas B, Dall’Acqua S, Bulla R, et al. Immunomodulation mediated by a herbal syrup containing a standardized Echinacea root extract: a pilot study in healthy human subjects on cytokine gene expression. Phytomedicine. Sep 25 2014;21(11):1406-1410.
[iii] Karsch-Völk, Marlies et al. “Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold .” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews vol. 2,2 CD000530. 20 Feb. 2014.
[iv] M.B. Fasano. Allergenic Cross-Reactivity between Echinacea and Ragweed . Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Vol. 119, Issue 1, S270
[v] Huntley AL, Thompson Coon J, Ernst E. The safety of herbal medicinal products derived from Echinacea species: a systematic review. Drug Saf. 2005;28(5):387-400.
[vi] Lee AN, Werth VP. Activation of Autoimmunity Following Use of Immunostimulatory Herbal Supplements . Arch Dermatol. 2004;140(6):723–727. doi:10.1001/archderm.140.6.723
[vii] Manayi A, Vazirian M, Saeidnia S. Echinacea purpurea: Pharmacology, phytochemistry and analysis methods. Pharmacogn Rev. 2015;9(17):63-72.