eEchinacea, also called coneflower, is a perennial flower you'll often see growing in gardens. Most varieties are purple, and it's much-loved by gardeners as a non-fussy and vigorous plant. The health benefits of echinacea also make it valuable as a medicinal herb.
The Native Americans frequently used echinacea as one of their primary medicinal plants, and North American herbalists eventually caught on to its benefits as well.
Today, this herb is well-known in many parts of the world for its ability to enhance the immune system. It's become a very popular natural supplement for fighting off colds, flus, and other infections.
Here's more about the top benefits of echinacea and ways to use it for your health.
What Is Echinacea?
Echinacea is native to the prairies and wooded areas of North America. There are several different varieties of Echinacea, but the two most commonly used medicinally are Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia. Both are purple-flowering members of the daisy family and often go by the name 'purple coneflower'.
You'll find there are many different types and colors of coneflower for ornamental use in gardens, but these should not be used for medicinal purposes.
All species of Echinacea are perennials and easily grow in many different types of soil and regions. They like full sun (except in very hot climates) and are drought-tolerant. Besides being used by humans, Echinacea plants also feed birds and other wildlife with the seed heads that develop after flowering.
Medicinally, the whole Echinacea plant can be used: seeds, flowers, roots, and leaves. The roots contain volatile oils that have medicinal benefit, while the upper parts contain polysaccharides, caffeic acid, and other compounds that boost immune function. (1)
Top Benefits of Echinacea
If you've heard about echinacea at all as a medicinal herb, you've likely heard something about its benefits for the immune system.
It works in two ways: stimulating your immune system to ward off infection and boosting your immune system to get rid of an existing infection. Most studies have been done on echinacea and viral infections like the common cold and the flu.
One review of several existing studies determined that taking echinacea regularly could reduce your chance of catching a cold by as much as 58%. The same review found that it could also shorten the symptoms of a cold by 1-2 days. (2) Similar results have been shown for its ability to shorten flu symptoms, and one study proved it as effective as a "gold standard" flu medicine. (3)
Echinacea is thought to work by stimulating macrophage and T-cell activity, which are two of your body's main defenders against pathogens. The plant is also rich in polysaccharides that protect cells from viral and bacterial invaders. (Rosemary Gladstar. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide, pg. 130)
Renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar advises that Echinacea is most effective when taken as a tea or tincture at the first signs of illness. For prevention, she recommends taking frequent small doses of tincture. (Gladstar, pg. 130)
To show your immune system some love, try this Immuni Tea made with Echinacea and other immune-boosting herbs like elderberry.
Along with its work as an immune enhancer, Echinacea has been shown to fight inflammation. (4)
Inflammation is natural and your body's way of defending against infection and healing itself. However, chronic inflammation is not a good thing and is believed to be the cause of many chronic diseases and health issues.
While there are other herbs more commonly recommended for inflammation and pain, Echinacea is being suggested as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases like Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.
In one study, adults with osteoarthritis who did not respond well to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to relieve pain and inflammation, responded well to a standardized ginger and Echinacea supplement. Not only were participants able to tolerate the supplement, pain and inflammation both decreased. (5)
Fights Various Infections
Besides helping you to fight off colds and the flu, the benefits of Echinacea extend to several other types of infection.
Traditionally, echinacea was used by the Native Americans for everything from smallpox to measles to headaches. While it's impossible to clinically research its effectiveness for all these conditions, Echinacea does have strong anti-fungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
Today, the herb is still recommended for bronchial and respiratory infections and sore throat. (Gladstar, pg. 130) It may help with strep throat, whooping cough, and is showing promise for treating asthma.
A 2015 study confirmed that Echinacea does have significant bronchodilatory effects, meaning it makes breathing easier. The study also concluded that the benefits of Echinacea for respiratory issues is similar in strength to commonly used synthetic drugs. (6)
May Improve Skin Health
Another traditional use for Echinacea roots was as a poultice for wounds, bites, stings, and other skin inflictions.
The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory nature of Echinacea is likely what provided the benefits for healing skin and preventing infection. Although it's now mainly used as an internal supplement, Echinacea extract is showing promise for skin health when used externally.
Lab tests have shown that it can suppress the growth of one of the main strains of bacteria that causes acne. (7) Small studies have also shown that skincare products made with Echinacea can improve eczema, hydrate skin, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. (8)(9)
The only downside to using Echinacea for skincare is that it seems to have a very short shelf life, which means that products aren't likely to be hitting the stores anytime soon.
But for a soothing and completely natural skincare option, you can try this Calm Cream instead.
Ways to Use Echinacea
Echinacea is available in many forms: tinctures, teas, extracts, capsules, and tablets.
There's no one best way to use it, but a tincture, tea, or extract is generally what's recommended for fighting or preventing infections. You can purchase the dried leaf and/or root to make your own infusions and tinctures at home.
Talk to a qualified herbalist or natural health practitioner to find out what dosages are appropriate for what you want to use Echinacea for.
Echinacea is generally a very safe herb to use, but it can trigger allergic reactions, especially for those who are allergic to members of the daisy family. If you experience hives, itchy eyes, runny nose, etc. discontinue use.
Because it stimulates the immune system, people with autoimmune disorders should use Echinacea with caution and only under the guidance of a doctor or herbal practitioner.
There are no known contraindications for pregnant or nursing women.
Discover the Benefits of Echinacea
Echinacea remains one of the most popular herbal supplements, especially for immune support. It's a great herb to have on hand for cold and flu season and can really help you ward off infection.
Ready to discover its health benefits? Try Echinacea in an immune-boosting tea or make your own tincture to have on hand. Your immune system just might thank you.