The early natives of Nebraska and Missouri used the echinacea root to heal infected wounds and snake bites. By the late 19th century, Dr. Meyer, a medical researcher, discovered its properties while living among the Indians. From then onwards, echinacea has been the focus of many scientific studies, which revealed the many virtues of this plant and its active processes.
Today, echinacea root is part of several pharmaceutical preparations, and it is one of the plants about which a higher number of scientific studies have been performed.
Echinacea Root Scientific Facts
- French: Rudbeckie a feuilles etroites.
- Spanish: Equinacea.
- Environment: Native to North America, it grows on plains and sandy river banks, mainly in the great Mississippi River Valley. It is cultivated as a medicinal plant in Central Europe.
- Description: Plant of the Compositae family, whose hollow stems grow up to one meter high. It has elongated, hairy, narrow leaves and mauve flowers that grow on the stems’ tip and are quite exuberant.
- Parts of the plant used medicinally: The root.
Healing Properties and Indications
The composition of the echinacea root is highly complex. Many active substances have been identified and could be classified according to the following guidelines:
- Essential oil: It consists of more than 20 components, among which the geranyl-isobutyrate is vital; it also contains terpenes (pinene, thujone, and others), and cys-1.8-pentadecadien, a substance which, in vitro, has oncolytic properties (can destroy tumoral cells). The essential oil seems to be responsible for immune stimulation.
- Echinacoside: A glycoside formed by glucose and rhamnose, which has a substantial antibiotic effect on several germs, especially on the golden staphylococcus.
- Polyacetylene, which kills bacteria and fungi.
- An inhibiting factor for hyaluronidase, which is an enzyme produced by many bacteria. Hyaluronidase breaks hyaluronic acid (a primary component of the connective tissue), allowing the spread of pathogenic germs. By inhibiting this enzyme, the echinacea root stops the spread of germs throughout the tissue.
- Resin, inulin, and vitamin C.
As frequently happens in phytotherapy, the extract of the plant (of its root, in this case) is much more active than any of its active components when isolated. This is due to the interaction among its components when some of them enhance the action of others. Also, there may be some unidentified active components.
The basic properties of the echinacea root are the following:
- Immunostimulant: It increases the defense mechanisms, which a general non-specific stimulation both in the humoral activity (antibody production, activation of the complementary system) and in the cell immunity (phagocytosis: destruction of the microorganisms by leukocytes). It produces an increase in the number of leukocytes in the blood.
- Anti-inflammatory: It prevents the progression of infections by inhibiting the enzyme hyaluronidase produced by many bacteria species. It also promotes the growth of granulation tissue, which is responsible for wound healing; it stimulates the reproduction of fibroblasts, which are essential cells of the connective tissue and are responsible for the regeneration of tissues and scar formation.
- Antitoxic: It stimulates the purifying process of the liver and kidneys, through which toxic and foreign substances flowing into the blood are neutralized and eliminated.
- Antibiotic and antiviral: This action has been experimentally proven in vitro (in a test tube). However, the property of stimulating defenses is more important in vivo (in the body).
- Anticancerous: It can destroy malignant cells (an effect only proven in vitro up to now).
Hence, the clinical applications of this plant are the following:
- Infectious diseases in general. The best antibiotic will fail when our body’s defenses do not cooperate in the fight against infection. Echinacea root acts on the field, that is to say, on the body suffering from the disease, rather than destroying the causative agents. This means that its action is slower and perhaps less spectacular than antibiotics; however, it often renders the best results in the middle and long term. It has preventive and healing actions and lacks the side effects antibiotics have.
Echinacea root is recommended, among other cases, for children’s infectious diseases, influenza, sinusitis, tonsillitis, and acute and chronic respiratory infections, especially when these are frequent (preventive effect); for typhoid fever; in all septicemia (blood infection) for any reason (gynecological, urinary, biliary, etc.).
It has been applied in the treatment of AIDS, combined with other remedies, with promising results, such as:
- Skin lesions: Due to its anti-infectious, healing, and tissue regenerative properties, it is recommended for abscesses, infected wounds or burns, folliculitis, infected acne, skin ulcers, including varicose ulcers, psoriasis, dermatosis, and eczema. In these cases, it is applied both internally and externally.
- Snake and insect bites: Due to its antitoxic properties, it neutralizes (partially) poison and prevents it from spreading. It must also be applied internally and externally.
- Prostate afflictions: It reduces congestion of the prostate and also prevents the frequent urinary infections which occur due to the incomplete emptying of the urinary bladder.
- Malignant tumors: Though up to now, its antitumor properties have been only experimentally proven in vitro, there are enough reasons to think that this plant can have a beneficial action on cancerous tumors. While waiting for new research, it must be used only as a complementary treatment.
The use of echinacea renders good results to correct leukopenia (decrease of the number of leukocytes) and reduce defenses that radiation or chemical therapy for cancer treatment causes in the human body.
Purple echinacea (Echinacea purea Moench.) differs from the common echinacea (Angustifolia) in the color of its red flowers. The medicinal applications of both species are the same.
How to use Ecninacea
- Decoction with 30-50 g of ground root per liter of water. Drink from three to five cups daily.
- Pharmaceutical preparations: Echinacea is usually presented in several forms: fluid extract, tincture, capsules, etc. In any case, carefully follow the instructions.
- Compresses with the same decoction used internally.
- Lotions with the liquid of the decoction as mentioned above.
- Pharmaceutical preparations: creams, ointments, and others.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. vols. 2 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 755, 756, 757. Print.[echinacea root]