Two newly-published studies have highlighted the health benefits of echinacea – through the powerful antiviral effects of the herbal remedy Echinacea purpurea on preventing respiratory tract infections that surge in winter months.
The stronger your immune response the better your chances of fighting off the virus before you even develop symptoms. However, everything from stress to inactivity weakens this response. “The key to staying well lies, first and foremost, with eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise and sleep,” explains Immunologist and Founder of A-IR Clinical Research, Dr Ross Walton.
Things that weaken our immune response include stress – which is why you catch cold when you’re under pressure and run down. ‘Stress hormones change the way your body responds to pathogens it is exposed to; weakening its ability to fight them.’
Other factors that weaken your immune response include obesity – those with a BMI over 40 are at a greater risk of more severe infections, Dr Walton points out – as well as a lack of sleep and exercise.
But how can we stimulate our own immune response to help us fight those pesky pathogens before they become a cold or flu?
‘The over-use of decongestants can often mean you end up with more mucus than when you started,’ says Dr Walton. ‘It’s why as researchers we are looking more at traditional treatments and looking at how they might help, both in the prevention and treatment of a cold or flu.’
One of the key remedies studied by Dr Walton and his team at Imperial College London is echinacea and the research for this herb is continuing to mount.
What studies into the health benefits of echinacea tell us
A research study published in the journal BMC Open Access has shown Echinacea purpurea boosts the ability of lung cell models to fight off respiratory tract infections –at the first sign of a virus – including the common cold, influenza and new strains of corona viruses such as CoVid-19.
The laboratory research study on experimental cell models (which are representative of immune cells found in the lower airways) identified possible mechanisms for how Echinacea stimulates the body’s immune system to first sense and detect viruses and then enhance the body’s defences to deal with them swiftly.
Also, more recently a third new paper demonstrates that antibiotic use may be reduced as a result of the use of the herb Echinacea purpurea in the treatment of common colds and influenza. Twenty percent of influenza infections lead to complications, particularly in older people and those suffering from chronic disease.
These infections often result in more time off work and in worse case scenarios, hospitalisation. Fear of complications is the main motive for antibiotic prescription by GPs as well as pressure exerted by patients to be prescribed antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics, leading to increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, is now a major global public health problem.
Echinacea is as effective as flu medication
Oseltamivir, an anti-viral medicine also known as Tamiflu, is the current ‘gold standard’ treatment for flu. “However, limitations regarding side effects and the emergence of drug resistant flu strains really highlight a need for alternative treatments,” explains Dr Walton.
Research published in the journal Current Therapeutic Research showing that Echinacea (combined with black elderberry in a hot drink) can make a considerable difference is promising. “‘In this study Echinaforce Hot Drink was as effective as Oseltamivir in shortening flu symptoms and reducing respiratory complications, as well as having fewer side effects,” says Dr Walton.
“Never more so has the need for additional, safe, self-administered support treatments for infection been so crucial as they are today, where a requirement to augment the critical and ongoing vaccination program is vital.
“The requisite to further evidence efficacy in fully controlled, larger, population-based clinical studies is key to build on small sample data showing efficacy in both children and adults, along with important findings in reducing severe secondary complications and antibiotic prescription.
“This, along with the broad virucidal and anti-viral capacity of Echinacea extracts, shows efficacy against a large number of respiratory pathogens including importantly a number of different SARS-CoV-2 strains, and favourable safety profile provides a compelling rationale for its additive use alongside vaccine generated immunity strategies.”
Finally, Dr Richard Middleton a pharmacist and former chair of the British Herbal Medicines Association says: “There is a growing body of pre-clinical and clinical evidence that the herb, Echinacea purpurea, can modulate the human immune system and that it also has significant anti-viral activity.
“Whilst recent clinical studies have been conducted in relatively small patient groups, the safety of the herb makes a compelling case for its use both prophylactically and in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections, including SARS-CoV-2.
“I would have no hesitation in recommending that patients take the herb as an adjunct to vaccination, preventative and treatment therapies for all virally induced respiratory tract infections, but I would always recommend an Echinacea product that has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Such products are always of high quality and contain a patient information leaflet which ensures that the medicine is safe and appropriate to take.”
Echinacea is available in the UK as a PL and THR licensed herbal medicine which means it has been quality and safety checked by the MHRA and has the medicinal claim to treat symptoms of common cold and influenza – look for the THR logo on the pack when buying.
If you are on any medication do consult with your healthcare provider before taking herbal medicines.
To find out more about the herb echinacea visit avogel.co.uk
The research and products used in the above article are all based on the A.Vogel range of, Echinaforce herbal medicines which are used in all of the studies. This range is available from www.avogel.co.uk , Boots, Holland & Barrett, and independent pharmacies and health stores.
i Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench treatment of monocytes promotes tonic interferon signalling, increased innate immunity gene expression and DNA repeat hypermethylated silencing of endogenous retroviral sequences. Declerck K et al. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2021; 21 (1): 141 https://bmccomplementmedtherapies.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12906-021-03310-5
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