When it comes to treating colds and flu the name in everyone’s lips is now Echinacea. It was one of my youngest daughter’s favourite words when she was two so it’s really not that hard to say or even remember! And the great thing is that it now available in tincture form in almost every high street chemist, so if you’re looking for an alternative to the standard, suppressive cold and flu remedies you have not far to look.

Echinacea is one of the most popular herbal medicines of the last decade. In fact in 1997 $365 million was spent on Echinacea in the USA. An article written five years ago in the American Journal of Natural Medicine stated that more than 350 studies recorded the effective use of Echinacea for the prevention as well as the treatment of colds. In such studies it has clearly been shown to reduce the frequency, severity and duration of colds and the way that it fights off viruses such as the common cold and flu is by boosting the activity of the immune system. It stimulates the production and function of white blood cells including phagocytes, T cells and macrophages and thereby aids our defenses both to prevent infections as well as to fight off those we fall prey to.

Echinacea comes from North America and was one of the most important medicinal plants known to the Native Americans. They applied it externally to wounds, burns, insect bites, and swollen lymph glands and took it internally for headaches, stomach aches, coughs and colds, measles and even gonorrhoea. They would chew the root for its analgesic properties to relieve toothache and neck pain and commonly used it as an antidote to rattlesnake bites. We now know that Echinacea prevents the formation of an enzyme called hyaluronidase which is secreted by bacteria and also found in snake venom and which destroys the natural barrier between healthy tissues and disease carrying organisms. So the Americans obviously had good reason for using Echinacea in this way. The root was also used locally as an anaesthetic to deaden sensation and relieve pain. You can experience its anaesthetic effect yourself when taking a few drops of the tincture. You will feel a tingling then a numb sensation on your tongue. The Cheyenne chewed the root to stimulate the flow of saliva, which was particularly useful as a thirst quencher for those doing the sun dance. They also drank the tea to relieve rheumatism, arthritis, measles and mumps. The root was the part most commonly used, although tribes like the Commanche, Cheyenne and the Sioux used the juice and a paste of the macerated fresh aerial parts of the plant.

The white settlers in America learnt of the amazing immune-enhancing properties of Echinacea from the Native Americans. Much of its initial popularity among them was due to the efforts of a patent medicine salesman, H.C.F. Meyer from Nebraska, who in 1871 included a tincture of Echinacea angustifolia in his “Meyer’s Blood Purifier”. He touted this elixir as a marvelous cure for such diseases as syphilis, malaria, and typhoid as well as for gangrene, arthritis and rattlesnake bites and lesser evils such as bee stings, leg ulcers and chronic nasal congestion.  His efforts attracted the attention of doctors including one Dr. John King of the Eclectic school of medicine who convinced a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Lloyd Brothers of Cincinnati, of its amazing medicinal benefits. The firm subsequently introduced several Echinacea products intended primarily as anti-infective agents.  By 1920 Echinacea was the firm’s most popular remedy but with the advent of supha antibiotic drugs in the 1930s it popularity began to dwindle.  Its continued recognition as a valuable medicine has largely been due to European interest and research. In the late 1930s Dr Madaus in Germany was developing its homoeopathic use with extracts made from the root and the flowering plant. He imported seed from America requesting Echinacea angustifolia but what he received turned out to be Echinacea purpurea, so that most of the subsequent 350 research projects on Echinacea since 1940 have been carried out on E. purpurea, which is now used in at least 240 different medicinal products on the German market.

So scientific confirmation of the medicinal benefits of Echinacea have been developed on two fronts. From 1895 to 1930 many American doctors produced studies on the positive effects of E. angustifolia on a wide range of complaints, including boils and abscesses, blood poisoning, post partum infection, malaria, typhus and TB. German studies over the last 50 years using E. purpurea have proved it extremely valuable in septic conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, antibiotic resistance, whooping cough in children, flu, catarrh, chronic respiratory tract infection, gynaecological infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, urinary infections and skin problems including psoriasis and eczema. Modern research into both plants continues in Europe and the US, largely confirming the conclusions of earlier studies.

The chemical constituents found to be responsible for the positive effect of Echinacea on the immune system include phenolic acids, flavonoids, essential oils, polyacetylenes, alkylamides, polysaccharides and steroids.. Together these clearly have an effective antibiotic and anti-fungal effect, an interferon- like anti-viral action and  anti-allergic properties. This means that Echinacea can be taken at the first signs of  any acute infection whether it is a sore throat, cold, sinusitis, chest infection, tonsilitis, cystitis or gastro-enteritis. For best results _ to _ a teaspoon of the tincture needs to be taken in a little water every two hours. A cup of hot tea (made from simmering half a teaspoon of the root in a cupful of water for approximately 10 minutes) will stimulate the circulation, enhance sweating and thereby help to bring down any accompanying fever. Taken in the same dosage three times a day Echinacea is also excellent for treating other more chronic problems like glandular fever, candidiaisis, and post viral fatigue or ME. As a blood cleanser it will help to clear the skin of infections such as boils and abscesses and can be taken for allergies such as urticaria and eczema. Echinacea is quite safe for anyone to take, children and adults alike.  It is particularly useful for those whose immunity is low making them prone to one infection after another. Its valuable anti-inflammatory action makes it applicable in the treatment of inflammatory conditions like arthritis and gout as well as skin conditions and pelvic inflammatory disease. Externally you can use a little Echinacea tincture diluted in water or a decoction of the root as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic wash for skin problems, cuts and wounds,  varicose ulcers, and burns, as well as insect stings and bites. Half a teaspoon of tincture in a little water used two or three times a day would serve well as a gargle and mouthwash for sore throats and infected gums and as a douche for vaginal infections such as thrush. If you traveling abroad , visiting the sick, about to have surgery or you are particularly prone to infections, you can also take Echinacea preventatively, taking _ to _ a teaspoon of the tincture once or twice a day for up to eight weeks consecutively during the time when you feel your immune system to be most vulnerable There are no recognised side effects but it is always advisable to follow the recommended dosages.

Echinacea is a beautiful plant with dusky pink/purple daisy like flowers and is great value in the garden as it has a long flowering period from July to October. Once the petals fall the leave black spiky seed heads which gave rise to the name Echinacea which comes from the Greek word Echinos meaning hedgehog. The plant is also called coneflower after its cone shaped flower heads. It also has an interesting range of local
American names like snakeroot, black Sampson, scurvy root, Indian head, black Susan and hedgehog. E. purpurea, E. angustifolia are both available at many garden nurseries and specialist herb centres. You may also come across E. pallida which can be used interchangeably.