Echinacea – a boost for our immune system

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The echinacea flower looks like a rising sun or a tiny hedgehog. It therefore comes as no surprise that the name derives from the ancient Greek word «echinoidea» and means «sea urchin». Echinacea is used as a medicinal plant to strength­en the body’s immune system.

Echinacea as a medicinal plant

Until the beginning of the 20th century, echinacea, the coneflower, was only known in Europe as an ornamental plant. From then on, knowledge of the hidden properties of echinacea as a medicinal plant started to find accep­tance, albeit very gradually. Although there are different species of echinacea, it is mainly the purple coneflower that has gained footing in the medicinal world.

Where does echinacea come from?

Originating from America, echinacea was an important medicinal plant for the North American indigenous peoples. They used it in a variety of applications, including as a painkiller, for treating wounds and even for snakebites. In our latitudes, the coneflower – usually pink or purple – is used as an ornamental plant. It blooms between July and September.

What are the effects of echinacea?

Echinacea has a modulating effect on the immune system. In other words, the plant, or its active ingredients, can strengthen the body’s defences. The coneflower is also said to have anti-inflammatory properties. Although results from studies on the effectiveness of the plant and the products made from it are still rather unclear, many people swear by echinacea as a proven household remedy.

Its ingredients include essential oils as well as alkylamides (alkamides), which are believed to have immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties.

When is echinacea used?

As a rule, the whole plant is used for the manufacture of echinacea products. Due to its effect on the immune system, echinacea products are primarily used to prevent colds and flu-like infections. Echinacea can also be used externally: to treat poorly healing wounds, for example, as once practised by the indigenous peoples of North America.

Echinacea for a Covid infection

In laboratory tests, echinacea has been shown to fight viruses, fungi and bacteria. In 2020, laboratory studies even found a possible effect on Corona viruses. This led to a temporary hype around echinacea products. However, swissmedic, the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products, immediately issued the statement: «A corresponding effect in humans has not been proven».

In which form is echinacea administered?

Echinacea is commercially available in the form of drops (also eye drops), juices, globules or tablets. Ointments and tinctures for external use are also available, as well as teas made from the parts of the plant that grow above ground.

What are the side effects?

Although echinacea products are usually well tolerated, certain side-effects can still occur. These include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • hypersensitivity reactions (e.g. rashes)

The consumption of high doses can be toxic for the liver.

Who should avoid echinacea products?

People with an autoimmune disease, multiple sclerosis or certain rheumatic diseases are advised not to consume echinacea extracts. There is a risk that echinacea can trigger an attack of the underlying disease. People who are allergic to the daisy family – which also includes camomile – should also refrain from consuming echinacea.

As with all medicines, caution is advised for children and pregnant women. Anyone in doubt is advised to seek medical advice.

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