Herb of the Week: Echinacea

The information provided below is for reference only. It is not to be used as a medical manual or as any guide to treatment. These are merely meant to be a way to learn about herbs and their uses in history and today. Seek medical advice before using any herbs as they are often dangerous when used without guidance.

When I begin researching an herb I typically start in two places: Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (by copy is from 1987) and the PDR for Herbal Medicines (Third Edition). So since I haven't actually referenced a written work since college, I'll point out what information I have gotten from which source the best I can)

This weeks herb is: Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Common names: purple cone flower, Sampson root, Kansas niggerhead, Black Sampson, Hedgehog, Red Sunflower, Rudbeckia

(from Rodale, pages 176-177 )

History: Echinacea was used as a remedy by Native Americans more than any other plant in the plain states region. It was used to treat snake bites, insect bites, burns, and was also used during traditional purification rites and rituals. By the 1920's it was the most popular drug plant but fell from popularity during the 1930's due to the advent of new drugs.

Today, it is still used to facilitate wound healing. The roots contain a substance called caffeic acid glycoside, which is the root of its healing properties. In folk medicine, Echinacea was used as a blood purifier, and was thought to treat or cure many ailments, including rheumatism, bee stings, snake bites, tumors, gangrene, eczema, and other wounds. It is still regarded as an immuno-stimulant and an effective antibiotic.

If growing your own, wait until after the plant has weathered a few frosts, then harvest the root, clean thoroughly and dry it.

PDF for Herbal Medicines (pages 267-274)

Effects: The herb has demonstrated antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, metabolic, immune system enhancement, infertility, wound healing, antineoplastic, and antiseptic properties, depending on the plant species. Preparations are commonly given in Europe for the prophylaxis or treatment of bacterial and viral infections and as an adjunct treatment to more severe infections. Extracts are commonly used to treat upper respiratory infections, influenza like infections, and is reported to significantly reduce the symptoms associated with the common cold. Extracts may lessen the severity and lead to an earlier resolution of the common cold when taken soon after exposure. It is also used as an adjuvant therapy for recurring infections of the urinary tract.

Unproven uses: Acute and chronic respiratory tract infections of viral or bacterial origin, increased susceptibility to infection due to temporarily lowered resistance, treatment of leukopenia following radio and cytostatic therapy, and in support of anti-infectious chemotherapy. Burns, swelling of the lymph nodes, and insect bites. Pain associated with headaches, stomach aches. Measles, coughs, and gonorrhea.

Precautions: It should not be administered in the presence of: tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, leukosis, collagenosis, AIDS or HIV infection, and other autoimmune diseases. Diabetes may worsen and administration should not be used in patients with tendencies to allergies. It is not to be used during pregnancy.

Short term fever reactions, nausea, and vomiting can occur. Hypersensitivity reactions with anaphylaxis have been reported. Dizziness, headache, skin irritation, or allergic reactions are possible. Rashes, itching, occasional swelling of the face, breathing difficulties, dizziness, and a drop in blood pressure have been observed after administrating Echinacea. Erythema, exanthema, and pruritus have been reported. High concentrations of Echinacea may have an adverse effect on fertility.

Drug Interactions: May interfere with drugs with immunosuppressant effects, it should be avoided during therapy with these drugs. It may interfere with the cancer chemotherapeutic effect of corticosteroids, and should be avoided during corticosteroid therapy.

Toxic cellular effects were only seen at very high, clinically irrelevant concentrations. Very high doses may have a depressant action.

The Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman 1991 (pages 150-154)

History: Echinacea has had a long and varied history, from being a primary medicine of the Plain's Indians, to an ingredient in early "snake oil" patent medicines in the 1870's, then gaining popularity again in the 1920's, and losing it again to "regular" medicine in the 1930's, only to be a main staple of the herbal revival of the 1970's, it has survived a roller coaster of popularity.

Contemporary herbalists still tout it as an antibiotic and immune system stimulant. And many recommend taking it daily as a infection preventative.

Healing: It kills a broad range of disease causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It contains a natural antibiotic (echinacoside) comparable to penicillin that has a broad spectrum activity. It can strengthen tissue against assault from germ attack. t may also prevent infection by enhancing the immune system.

Safety Factor: It often causes a tingling sensation of the tongue, which is harmless. There is no reports of Echinacea toxicity. The FDA lists it as a herb of "undefined safety", but for non nursing, non pregnant, otherwise healthy individuals, it can be considered safe. It should only be used in consultation with your doctor, stop using it if you experience diarrhea or stomach upset, and see your doctor if the symptoms for which you are using the herb do not improve significantly in two weeks.

It takes three or four years for roots to grow large enough to harvest. Pull them after the plant has gone to seed. Roots greater than 1/2 inch should be split prior to drying.

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