By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Heading into the chart of the top five best-selling herbal products in the US is Echinacea, the colorful purple coneflower, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
While it is the fifth most-popular herb in the States, Echinacea is no one-hit wonder. This herb has been used as a remedy in Europe and America for over 100 years. Touted as a cold, flu, infection, and immune support aid, Echinacea has a lot of supporters.
But the herbal remedy may cause side effects, serious allergic reactions, and even sterility, scientists say. Is Echinacea safe? Could the seemingly non-risk cold remedy harm you?
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea purpurea is a decorative plant also known as the purple coneflower. Native Americans used an extract of the Echinacea plant to treat a wide range of conditions, from respiratory infections to snakebite. The remedy became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth century pharmaceutical manufacturers took an interest in marketing the remedy to Americans.
Today, Echinacea is widely used to treat the common cold and the flu. Although many people swear by their Echinacea tablets in flu season, there is no evidence it actually helps prevent colds. Echinacea's best recommendation concerns its power to help you recover from a cold - it seems to limit the sneezes and snuffles, and clears up colds faster. Scientists believed that Echinacea worked by stimulating the immune system, but recent studies seem to dispute this. At present even the experts don't really understand how Echinacea works, or whether indeed it works.
How Much Echinacea Should You Take?
There is no standard agreement or recommendation for the amount of Echinacea you should take. A typical dose of the herbal remedy in powdered form is 300mg, three times daily. Echinacea juice is usually taken at a dose of 2 or 3ml, three times a day, while you can safely take 1 to 2g of the whole dried root three times a day.
Echinacea's Minor Side Effects
At these doses, Echinacea doesn't appear to cause major side effects, and reported side effects are relatively rare. Scientists found the remedy was well-tolerated by most people in a 1996 study (MJ Parnham, published in Phytomedicine) - the most common side effects included shivering, fever, or muscle weakness. Other studies have reported mild gastrointestinal distress, and increased urination. Some people suffered mild allergic reactions.
Allergic Reactions and Echinacea
If that were the only problem with Echinacea, it would appear to be completely safe. However, some people have suffered not mild but severe allergic reactions when taking the herbal remedy.
An Australian study (2002, John James Medical Centre) showed that 20 percent of allergy-prone people were allergic to Echinacea. The authors of the study reviewed literature related to Echinacea use and discovered that the remedy had caused anaphylaxis and acute asthma attacks in several people - symptoms occurred just 10 minutes after these people took their first ever dose of Echinacea.
Further severe allergic reactions included recurrent episodes of mild asthma, and a rash.
Even if these episodes are rare, they are still significant. If you are prone to allergies, Echinacea may not be the perfect remedy for you.
Echinacea Triggers Erythema Nodosum
Erythema nodosum is an inflammatory disease that results in tender bumps under the skin. The condition usually occurs following cold-like symptoms. In a 2001 study from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada a 41-year-old man took Echinacea when he believed he was getting a cold, but on each occasion he developed erythema nodosum instead. When he stopped taking Echinacea for cold-prevention purposes, he didn't get another erythema nodosum flare-up.
Does Echinacea Cause Sterility?
Scientists suggest that Echinacea may cause an unwanted side effect - sterility. While this is frightening stuff, the study in question didn't involve humans but hamsters. Researchers from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California found high doses of Echinacea affected "oocytes" - they put Echinacea in a test tube with hamster sperm and ova and discovered that sperm were less able to penetrate the ova. Whether this result is meaningful in real life is unknown - but it does throw some doubts over Echinacea's seemingly spotless reputation.
Can I Take Echinacea During Pregnancy?
Most experts agree that low doses of Echinacea are safe to take during pregnancy and a 2000 study from The Hospital for Sick Children, Ontario, Canada found taking the herbal remedy does not raise the risk of birth defects. However, the evidence is not completely soundproof, and doctors generally advise women against taking Echinacea during pregnancy, seeing as it is not essential for moms-to-be to take the supplement. Safety in children has not been proven, similarly safety in breastfeeding moms.
Echinacea is generally a safe herbal supplement, and adverse events are not commonly reported. You can assume that taking a low dose of the herb when you feel a cold coming on will probably not result in major problems - however, risks remain. Echinacea is not a completely safe herb. A 2005 study from the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, UK found that the most common side effects were stomach upsets and rashes but that taking the supplement was associated with rare but severe allergic reactions.
If you suffer from allergies consider carefully whether you need to take Echinacea. The same goes for pregnant and lactating women. Echinacea is not recommended for people with multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS, autoimmune disorders, white blood cell disorders, collagen disorders, or tuberculosis. Echinacea may be an herb but that doesn't mean you can assume it will cause you no harm.