Taking the Right Echinacea at the Right Time? Find Out Here!
Updated: Feb 10
Echinacea is arguably one of the most popular herbal remedies when it comes to cold and flu season – and one that I see lots as a Naturopathic Doctor. It is available in varying potencies and forms from the top to bottom of health food and drug store shelves, and is used by many to help ward off seasonal sickness. Although this herb is relatively safe, knowing when and how to use it can be key to getting the results you want, as can selecting the right product! So before you start supplementing this season, think about some of these tips when doing your shopping.
Should Echinacea be used all the time, or just when sick?
There are lots of herbs that are thought to help with the common cold, but some are better used as prevention while others are used to treat the onset of symptoms. Echinacea has been studied and used for both, although the jury is still out on which is best. Research seems to be rather conflicted about whether Echinacea can shorten the duration of cold symptoms, and one possible explanation is that varying quality or components of the products used in different trials may effect these results. Traditional use of this herb supports it’s use only to treat active infection at the first sign of a cold, although after examining the research I do support the use Echinacea as one of the herbs that may be useful in prevention.
What form should I be taking and how do I know it is good quality?
There are 3 different species of Echinacea plants that can be grown: Echinacea purpurae, angustifolia and pallida – and not all are created equally. The active component that is thought to provide the immune supporting effects of this plant are called ‘alkylamides’ (pronounced al-kyl-a-mydes), and are found mainly in Echinacea angustifolia and purpurea. Furthermore, this active component is found mainly in the roots and rhizomes of these species. So when you are choosing an Echinacea product, make sure to identify which species are listed on the ingredient list and if possible which parts were used. Try to avoid products that use aerial parts of the plant, meaning the leaves or parts above ground to get the most bang for your buck. Certain professional line products may also be available through your Naturopathic Doctor that offer standardization to a specific amount of extracted alkylamides!
Capsule, tablet or … what?
You will find Echinacea in many different forms – capsule, tablet, tea or tincture, and choosing what is right for you can be difficult. One line of thought promotes the use of a tincture over a capsule or tea, as the alkylamides may degrade quicker when Echinacea is stored in a powdered form depending on the product quality. A professional line product with a standardized amount of alkylamides should circumvent this concern. In case you are wondering, a tincture is a liquid extract of a herb in an alcohol base. They are very concentrated and I always warn patients that they can taste rather nasty but do prove to be an effective way to dose many herbs for various uses. They tend to be much more potent than teas, and should be used carefully - especially if interaction with medication is a possibility.
Is Echinacea safe for everyone?
Although Echinacea is well tolerated both from a traditional standpoint and in clinical trials, certain risks may exist. Echinacea belongs to a plant category called the asteraceae family, which means that anyone who has a reaction to other plants in this family may react to Echinacea. These plants include ragweed, daisy, marigold and chrysanthemum, and those who have a known allergy may want to opt for a different immune support herb than Echinacea. Additional safety concerns may be present for individuals undergoing immunosuppressant therapy, as theoretical interactions may exist via a potential immuno-stimulatory property of Echinacea. This is however a theoretical concern that has not been well validated, but is something that I do consider when choosing the right herbal protocol for each individual patient.
Echinacea is just one of the immuno-supportive tools a naturopathic doctor can use to help support you through the winter and avoid colds and flus! Nutritional support and lifestyle changes can be key in prevention or treatment, and even acupuncture can be used acutely to help manage symptoms. If you find your Echinacea just isn’t cutting it this year, contact me to book a free 15 min consutation or to learn more about my practice as a Naturopathic Doctor in Hamilton, Ontario. In the meantime – stay healthy!
- Dr. Sarah Penney, ND, MSc