The three main varieties used medicinally are Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida, and these plants have been used for centuries to stimulate immunity.1 They were traditionally used to treat a range of conditions from anthrax infections to snake bites and general pain relief, such as toothaches and headaches.
More recently, though, Echinacea is used to treat immune-related conditions, like coughs, colds, flu, and sometimes urinary tract infections.2 Here, we take a look at how Echinacea can help to support immunity.
How does it work?
Components of the Echinacea root, leaves and flowers all contain immune-stimulating and modulating compounds that help to support the complex workings of the immune system.3 Some of these are able to activate and increase the number of immune cells in the body, including T cells that fight invading pathogens like bacteria and viruses.4
Other compounds include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant polyphenols, which are known to limit the effects of damaging free radicals (rogue molecules which cause oxidative stress in the body) that are linked to many chronic diseases.5
The plant also contains alkamides, bio-active compounds which are believed to have anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system. It is also suggested Echinacea may 'de-activate' bacteria linked to symptoms of upper respiratory infections associated with the common cold, sore throat, cough and inflammation.6 Its antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects all control symptoms of coughs, colds and 'flu.7
Timing is everything
Typically, Echinacea is available in capsule, pill, liquid tincture and tea forms. It's usually recommended that you take it the first moment you get symptoms of a viral infection (say, a cold), and continue taking it until 48 hours after symptoms disappear. Some experts suggest you shouldn't take it for any longer than eight weeks, as it's thought taking it for longer can overstimulate the immune system, resulting in immunosuppression (leaving you potentially at greater risk of infection) but this is controversial.
You should avoid taking Echinacea if you've got progressive illnesses like tuberculosis and leukaemia, or an autoimmune condition like lupus, type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis, or if you are taking immune-suppressant drugs (like corticosteroids).8 The reasoning is that if these conditions are linked to overactivity or imbalances in the immune system, it makes no sense to stimulate them further.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) also recommends that Echinacea is not given to a child under 12 years of age, as they are more at risk of allergic reactions.9, 10
Although rare, the most common reported side effects are stomach upsets and allergic reactions like skin rashes.11 Those with a history of asthma, rhinitis and allergy to the daisy family (including ragweed, chrysanthemums and marigolds) are also more at risk.12
Is Echinacea right for you?
For most people taking Echinacea for cold and 'flu relief, it is safe for short term use. If you've tried it in the past and found it effective, then it's fine to continue using it — but it can be helpful to support your immune system in other ways, too. A healthy balanced diet rich in key immune-supporting vitamins and minerals is your first line of defence. Include plenty of vitamin C-rich vegetables and fruits like blueberries, kiwis, oranges, peppers and green leafy vegetables.
Aim to eat oily fish containing immune-enhancing vitamin D a couple of times a week, and get daily sources in the form of milk, butter and eggs. It also helps to include vitamin B6-rich foods like poultry and wholegrains, sources of beta-carotene like sweet potato, carrots, mango and tomato products, and vitamin E-rich nuts, seeds, avocadoes and plant oils.
If you feel your diet doesn't quite cut it, consider taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. You should also make sure you get enough sleep and pursue light exercise.13
If you'd like to learn more about how to keep your immune system healthy, head over to our Immunity Advice Centre.