If there is a superstar of herbal medicine, surely it must be Echinacea. It shows up all over the place, from the supplement aisle at Walmart to the lemon-ginger juice at Trader Joe's.
Still, every few years, the headlines shout the news that there is "no scientific proof" that Echinacea works for preventing colds or flus. As a result, I think a lot of people are confused- if it doesn't work, why is it still everywhere? Is it a marketing ploy?
I can speak to decades of personal experience with this wonderful plant... and I figured that the start of cold and flu season was the perfect time to put in my two cents on the subject.
First of all, there is nothing on earth that can be 100% guaranteed to prevent colds and flus. That's because our immune systems are complex, and strongly affected by factors such as stress, missed sleep, diet, etc. If you eat a lunch that doesn't agree with you, in a cafeteria full of sneezing and coughing people, on a day when you've been fighting with your ex, it's a lot more likely that you'll catch the cold that's going around. And sometimes the strain of cold or flu is just so darn potent that you end up getting it no matter what state your mind and body are in. Germs are good at what they do.
(We have a modern idea that being Superpeople who can simultaneously raise children, nurture marriages, climb to the top of the ladder at work, write a novel on the weekends, and work out five times a week also means that we can use our Superpowers to dominate all germs and viruses. What lovely wishful thinking.)
Focusing on building what herbalists refer to as "deep" immunity means focusing on stress management and stress reduction, getting good sleep, and eating whole foods. There are also herbs that build up the strength of the immune system over time, such as Astragalus and medicinal mushrooms. Acupuncture, Herbalism, Naturopathic Medicine, and other natural health modalities can be used to great effect for improving the functioning of the immune system, and if you are really getting sick a lot, you might want to look into these options.
Echinacea is not used for building deep immunity, but rather to "rally the troops" (aka the white blood cells) in a situation when you feel that you may have been exposed to a cold or flu and you want to immediately mount the strongest possible immune response. Getting a big immune response at the beginning (or best of all, shortly before) the cold or flu makes it way into your body is the strategy here- basically, the bigger and faster the immune response you can muster, the less likely it is that the Invading Nasty will gain the upper hand.
This means increasing awareness of potential exposure- hopefully without going to the extreme of Germaphobia (which, following my logic, would create an added layer of stress that could actually impair your immune system!). Crowded, badly ventilated places like planes, movie theaters, gyms, and classrooms are classic "petri dish" scenarios. Anytime someone is sneezing or coughing, that's a red flag Germ Moment for me.
Ideally, you could anticipate being in germ-heavy situations and actually take some Echinacea beforehand. I have used it for many years, and almost always have it on hand, so I have started doing this, and I swear it's the very best method. An ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure.
The other important skill to focus in cold and flu prevention is awareness of yourself. The signs that you have been exposed to something can be very subtle- personally, I find that before I know I have a cold or flu, I can get irritable and depressed for a day or two, almost like PMS. Slightly swollen lymph glamds can also tell you that something is going on in your body below the level of your usual awareness. This is the window of opportunity to take some Echinacea and any other favorite immune herbs or foods, drink some hot tea, get into bed, and sleep an extra few hours. (Sleep is probably the most effective tool any of us have, since our immune systems function at an optimal level when we are asleep.)
And to make a long, controversial story short, the scientific studies that have claimed that Echinacea is ineffectual have failed to take all of these complex factors into account, but especially the correct timing of the administration of the herb, and the appropriate dosage.
My favorite form of Echinacea is a tincture from a reputable herb company such as Herb Pharm, or a local herbalist. Not only is tincture easy to use, but it is standardized potency, made from the plant at the peak of its life cycle. All parts of the Echinacea plant can be used, but the root is the main focus. I do not find any of the Echinacea teas strong enough (not to mention that you'd have to steep them for hours to get the full medicinal effect, and we are talking about acting fast here), and I would never buy an Echinacea supplement from a regular drug store or grocery store. It could be made from plant that was sitting in a warehouse for five years, for starters. With medicine, you want to always buy your product from a company or a person that you trust.
It is very, very important that you don't skimp on dosage- I take 2-3 droppers full every hour or two if I am really fighting something off (it will be much less for children, and there are alcohol-free tinctures widely available for kids). If you do end up getting sick, continued use may shorten the duration of the illness, but in my experience the important time for Echinacea is right at the beginning. I do also use it at the tail end of an illness, however, to clear up lingering pockets of infection in hard-to-reach places, like my sinuses.
The other thing that I use Echinacea for is canker sores (the shallow sores inside the mouth, non-herpes). If I accidentally bite my lip or cheek (which is how most of my canker sores begin), I start taking Echinacea (putting it straight on the area) right away, for a few days, and this totally saves me from developing a painful sore. (If you get canker sores you know how awful they can be!)
As much as I love Echinacea, and rely on it for my own health, I know that it is not going to work for everyone- our bodies are all so different. You might find your "magic" immune booster is actually chicken soup, homeopathy, elderberry syrup, ginger tea, Osha root, a Chinese patent formula, garlic, or chanting a mantra. I encourage you to take this Autumn and Winter to experiment with what works best for you.
Here's to our good health!
Remember, as always, that you are reading a blog, not talking to a health professional. Echinacea is not advised for anyone with seriously compromised immune systems, immune deficency, or auto-immune disorders; and if you are pregnant you should always talk to your health care provider first.