Echinacea, also known as the American coneflower, is a brightly colored medicinal plant named for the prickly spines in its large cone-shaped seed head. Based on those spines, its name is derived from the Greek word ekhînos, meaning hedgehog. Although used widely to treat all kinds of diseases and infections prior to the introduction of antibiotics in the U.S., this popular herb is now prized for its ability to shorten the duration of colds and flu.
Echinacea is available in many forms — capsules, dried, essential oil and tea, to name a few — and features prominently as an ingredient in both mainstream and natural cold remedies, cough drops and supplements. While best known as an immune system booster, echinacea provides at least nine other health benefits you may want to consider.
The History of Echinacea
As a perennial plant and member of the Asteraceae (daisy) family, echinacea is best known for its colorful pink and purple flowers and distinctive cone-shaped seed head. Mature coneflowers reach heights of 1 to 2 feet. While there are several others, only three species of echinacea are used as herbal remedies: 1
- Echinacea angustifolia — narrow-leaved coneflower
- Echinacea pallida — pale purple coneflower
- Echinacea purpurea — purple coneflower, also known as eastern purple coneflower
From growing wild on native prairies in eastern and central North America — where it thrives in moist to dry prairies and open woodlands — to being researched in German labs, echinacea has enjoyed a rich history: 2 , 3
- Prior to the arrival of early American settlers, Native Americans were known to have used echinacea for hundreds of years as a general "cure all," as well as to treat infections and wounds
- By the early 1800s, echinacea had become a popular herbal remedy for American settlers, at which time its use spread to Europe
- In the 1920s, after research was carried out on echinacea in Germany, its popularity spread even more
- Throughout history, echinacea has been used successfully to treat blood poisoning, diphtheria, malaria, scarlet fever, snakebites and syphilis, among other illnesses
- Due to the increasingly widespread use of antibiotics by the 1940s and '50s, echinacea's popularity in the U.S. began to decline, whereas research efforts on the herb in Germany continued to bolster its popularity throughout the 20th century
Interestingly, Native Americans 4 learned of the medicinal value of echinacea by observing elk — noticing the stately animals sought it out whenever they were wounded or sick. As such, echinacea earned the name "elk root." The Sioux used it as a remedy for colic, infections and snakebites. 5 Some tribes, like the Cheyenne and Kiowa, applied it to coughs and sore throats. The Pawnee were said to have used it on headaches, while the Lakota found echinacea to be an excellent painkiller.
10 Health Benefits of Echinacea
While somewhat displaced by antibiotics, echinacea remains a beneficial and powerful herb, especially given every part of the plant, from the flower petals to the roots, is packed with vital nutrients. According to Organic Facts, 6 the unique varieties of echinacea contain different active chemicals, including "a variety of phenolic compounds like cichoric acid, caftaric acid, echinacoside and various other polysaccharides and alkylamides."
Similarly, the Global Healing Center 7 attributes echinacea's health benefits to "its diverse makeup of nutrients, which includes polysaccharides, alkylamides, flavonoids, polyphenols, vitamin C, selenium and zinc." Below are 10 health benefits of echinacea: 8 , 9 , 10
Alleviates pain and physical discomfort — Long ago, Native Americans used echinacea to reduce physical aches and pains and, today, it remains an effective pain reliever. Research has validated this herb's potential for promoting comfort following surgery, with one study reducing the inflammation and chronic pain associated with knee osteoarthritis during a 30-day period by administering 25 milligrams (mg) of ginger and 5 mg of Echinacea angustifolia extract. 11
Boosts your immune system — According to numerous clinical trials, including one involving 473 participants 12 and another featuring 755 participants, 13 echinacea has been validated for having a positive effect on your immune system. As a seasonal wellness booster, echinacea has been shown to slash by half your chances of catching a cold, while shortening the duration of a cold by 1.4 days.
This may explain why echinacea — in the form of cough drops, cough formulas and teas — is widely popular during cold and flu season. By the way, in the smaller study mentioned above, the popular Echinaceaforce hot drink (with black elderberry) was shown to be as effective as Tamiflu for early treatment of the flu. 14
Encourages healthy skin — Due to its known antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, researchers have found echinacea to be useful in the treatment of acne. As noted in Phytotherapy Research, 15 a preparation of Echinacea purpurea was shown not only to inhibit the proliferation of Propionibacterium acnes, but also to help reverse bacteria-induced inflammation.
Another study found the herb helps hydrate your skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. 16 Finally, echinacea has been used for years to help heal eczema and psoriasis , and it also soothes sunburn.
Enhances your oral health — After being evaluated with other herbs like lavender and sage , echinacea has been found to neutralize the harmful organisms that cause bad breath. 17 In addition, studies have associated echinacea intake with a reduction in gingivitis, which seems to be reasonable, considering gingivitis is a bacterial infection. In that respect, echinacea supplementation may be an effective way to maintain good oral health.
Helps reduce anxiety — Using very high doses of echinacea reduced symptoms of mild anxiety in lab rats and later in adult subjects who consumed two 20-mg capsules of echinacea daily for one week. 18 This study followed previous research testing the anxiolytic potential of five different Echinacea preparations and comparing their effectiveness to the pharmaceutical tranquilizer chlordiazepoxide. 19
Similar to the drug, the study authors noted, "[The] anxiolytic effects [of echinacea] were consistently seen in three different tests of anxiety." Unlike chlordiazepoxide, however, echinacea did not suppress participant locomotor movement at higher doses.
Offers antiaging potential — While not yet validated in human studies, the results of animal studies suggest echinacea has tremendous antiaging potential due to its effects on your body's natural killer cells. In one study 20 involving healthy elderly mice receiving supplemental echinacea for 14 days, scientists noted dramatic changes. The research team stated:
Promotes wound healing — Echinacea's antibacterial properties, as well as its ability to strengthen your immune system, also promote wound healing. An Iranian study 21 involving rats injected with arsenic subcutaneously, which resulted in extensive necrosis of the skin, suggests Echinacea purpurea's value as an effective wound healing agent.
Echinacea's "anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, antibacterial and stimulatory effects on fibroblast proliferation can be considered as an appropriate stimulus for healing," said the study authors. The journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 22 highlights echinacea as one of a number of phytotherapeutic agents recognized worldwide for cutaneous wound healing.
Reduces inflammation — The active chemical constituents in echinacea have been shown to reduce inflammation and the associated pain, making this herb a general "cure all" for body and joint aches and pains. 23 Echinacea's anti-inflammatory properties extend to your skin, where echinacea-containing gels and salves can help soothe sunburn .
Furthermore, echinacea can help reduce irritation and mucus deposits associated with conditions like asthma and bronchitis . As noted by the authors of a 2015 study: 24
Stimulates healthy cell growth (and protects healthy cells) — Beyond stimulating your body's T cells, echinacea also increases your production of white blood cells, the front-line fighters that protect you from everyday germs and illnesses. Furthermore, compounds found in echinacea inhibit bacteria and viruses from penetrating your healthy cells, thereby reducing your chance of contracting an infection while actively taking an echinacea supplement.
Supports anticancer activities — While research involving humans has yet to validate echinacea's potential anticancer properties, its ability to affect your immune system enables it to influence your body's response to cancer. Although not considered to be an antioxidant, echinacea is able to help eliminate free radicals by stimulating your body's T cells, which play an active role in combating and preventing cancer.
How to Make Echinacea Tea
The Global Healing Center provides the following recipe for echinacea tea, which is believed to be an incredible home remedy for the flu. 25 Be sure to use only organic or wildcrafted echinacea that's pesticide free.
- Heat 8 to 16 ounces of filtered water over medium-high heat
- Add a mixture of freshly rinsed echinacea flowers, roots and leaves
- Cover with a lid, reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes
- Strain, and enjoy hot or cold
- Optional: add raw honey or stevia to sweeten
Making and Using Echinacea Essential Oil
While not an exact science, you can easily make echinacea essential oil at home using the ingredients and directions shown below: 26
- Petals and leaves from four or five organically grown coneflowers
- 3.5 ounces organic sunflower oil (or more depending on the amount of plant material used)
- A small glass jar with tight-fitting lid
- Gently rinse the petals and leaves with water and lay them out to dry on a clean cloth or paper towel for several days
- Once dry, place the petals and leaves in a small glass jar
- Pour the sunflower oil over the herbs, adding more oil if needed, to ensure the plant matter is covered completely; secure the lid
- Set the jar aside in a cool, dark area for four to six weeks to allow the echinacea to infuse the oil
- Remove the lid and strain away and discard the dried flower material
- Store the echinacea essential oil in a dropper bottle for ease of use
When using echinacea essential oil topically, always do a small skin test first on the underside of your forearm to check for any potential allergic reaction. If it is safe for you, you might consider using echinacea essential oil in one or more of the following ways:
- Antiseptic — Rub a few drops of the oil on minor scrapes and wounds to prevent infection and promote healing
- Bath — Place a few drops of echinacea essential oil in your bathwater, or if you do not have access to the oil, try using a couple of fresh echinacea tea bags instead
- Massage — Apply the oil to your chest and back to help treat colds, or use it on your head for a relaxing head massage
Echinacea Side Effects and Precautions
While echinacea is generally considered safe, you should exercise caution with respect to echinacea preparations if you are sensitive to pollen or have a known allergy to other members of the Asteraceae family such as daisies, marigolds or ragweed. If you experience any of the common side effects, including dizziness, dry mouth and mild nausea, avoid further contact with echinacea.
Because research is lacking to demonstrate its safety, you may want to avoid using echinacea during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, unless approved for use by your doctor.
Use of Echinacea and Other Herbal Supplements Continues to Grow
According to the American Botanical Council, 27 sales of herbal dietary supplements in the U.S. continue on an upswing. Sales of herbal supplements as a whole increased 7.7 percent in 2016, marking the 13th consecutive year of growth. In 2016, American consumers spent nearly $7.5 billion on herbal supplements.
While herbal remedies continue to be minimized or dismissed by conventional medicine, the mainstream media, federal and state governments and other critics, consumer sales consistently underscore their value and usefulness.
With respect to echinacea (specifically Echinacea spp.), sales of it also followed an upward trend from 2015 to 2016, maintaining a ranking within the top 40 herbal supplements sold in both the mainstream retail and natural distribution channels. Ranked as No. 3 in the mainstream retail market, echinacea sales topped $69 million, up 15.1 percent year over year. In the natural channel, where it slipped to No. 9, echinacea sales approached $8.4 million, up 6.3 percent from the previous year.
While herbal supplements, echinacea included, have value, it's important to note they are not intended to replace real food, nor is it wise to use supplements to justify a poor diet. In my experience, no amount of supplements can replace healthy food choices. That said, because there are times when supplements can be quite useful, it's important you know how to choose the best ones. Whether it's echinacea or another herbal remedy, for starters, make sure it meets the following criteria:
- Presented, as close as possible, in its natural, whole food form
- Verified by independent third-party labs to ensure its raw materials are free of contaminants and its dosing is correct
- Certified according to industry standards for quality assurance including ISO 9001, ISO 17025 and Good Manufacturing Processes
- Provided by a company with a long track record of providing high-quality products upheld by documented clinical results
- Processed without potentially harmful fillers and additives such as magnesium stearate, which has been shown to suppress your natural killer T cells, a key component of your immune system