Ask An Adult: Does Echinacea Actually Work?

Is Echinacea a miracle cure or a load of bullshit?

Ask An Adult: Does Echinacea Actually Work?

by Vicky Spratt |

Echinacea: miracle cure or snake oil? If you’ve ever had a cold, which is probably 100% of the people reading this article, then the odds are that someone, at some point, has told you to go and get yourself some echinacea while waxing lyrical about the virtues of this all-natural fixer.

There are people who swear by the stuff, who take it when they feel the first stirrings of a swollen gland and say that it wards a cold off like nothing else. There are also those who take it once theire snot fest is already in full swing and insist that it speeds up their recovery time. And then, there are those who pop it religiously like a supplement because ‘prevention is better than cure’ and insists that they never get sick (except when they, inevitably, do).

It’s no surprise that we’re all so obsessed with staying well. In 2013, , the last time official figures were released, 131 million sick days were taken. The most common reason given for these absences was ‘minor illness’, which covers our dear old friends the common cough and cold.

The magical echinacea plant traditionally hails from North America and Native Americans have long-valued its medicinal properties. Today, you’ll find it in health food shops, supermarkets, local pharmacies and high street shops like Boots. There are dozens of different brands and forms, ranging from tablets to concentrates.

**The question is this: does echinacea actually work? **

A quick Google on the subject is a) inconclusive and b) confusing. It seems that every two years or so a new study is published showing that echinacea definitely does reduce your risk of getting a cold, followed by one a couple of years later arguing the exact opposite.

To clear things up a bit we spoke to Professor Ronald Eccles, director of The Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University.

What exactly is echinacea?

It’s a plant, of the daisy family, of which there are nine different species. Three are most commonly used medicinally – the pinky-purple echinacea purpurea, the pale purple coneflower and the slightly shorter echinacea angustifolia.

Professor Eccles says, ‘It’s like talking about tea or any other sort of plant. If you buy 500g of Paracetemol you know what you’re getting, but there are so many different types around, using the term ‘echinacea’ for all of them is tricky. It’s a matter of quality, just because it says echinacea on the label doesn’t mean anything. It’s about how much is in there, how it was extracted, where the plant was grown.’

So, how do you know what you’re getting?

Different manufacturers prepare it in different ways. That’s why it can sometimes come in a liquid form while another brand produces it as a tablet.

‘This is the problem with a lot of herbal medicines,’ Professor Eccles says. While some manfacturers use the root, others might have used the flower, the leaves or the whole plant. So some brands products might actually have a higher concentration of the plant in them than others.

Because of this, Professor Eccles warns that ‘It’s difficult to get a clear picture’ of how well it works. Right, so that’s why all of the studies are conflicting.

Ok, so how is it supposed to work?

Basically, nobody can agree. No one seems to be able to say, definitively, exactly which ingredients in echinacea might prevent and/or aid recovery from a cold.

Echinacea contains four types of compounds which might boost the immune system: alkamides, glycoproteins, polysaccharides and caffeic acid derivatives – but, not all of these are found in every species, nor are they all present in every part of the plant.

Professor Eccles says, ‘I don’t think there’s anyone living who fully understands how the immune system works. What is the active ingredient in echinacea? We don’t know. We don’t fully understand how it works with our body at the moment.’

Why is it so popular then?

Professor Eccles says, ‘Echinace has a very long history, which goes back to Native North Americans. They used it to treat wounds and it was brought to Europe.’

He points out that while we might not know exactly how it works, many people report good results from taking it. He also reminds us, ‘Morphine – our most potent medicine – came from the humble poppy. It was different because we were able to focus in on the one active ingredient and extract it, but just because we can’t do that doesn’t mean echinacea doesn’t work. It might be that there are several active ingredients and we can't isolate them all.’

Right, so, should we bother taking it?

‘It’s safe’ says Professor Eccles. ‘There’s no risk, but it really depends on which one you buy – how it was extracted from the plant, how fresh it was and so on. You should buy the best quality herbal medicine and give it a go. It might not work for everyone, but it might work for you.’

There you have it. As clear as mud! Echinacea might stop you getting sick, but, it also might not. Nobody really knows. So, the next time you feel a cold coming on you could try taking it, you might still get the cold, but you never know.

And, if you’re going to buy it, you’re better off buying the best quality available, which contains the highest concentration of the plant possible.

Like this? You might also be intrested in:

Does Berocca Actually Work? Or Is It A Waste Of Your Money?

Vitamin D: Everything You Need To Know

Cellulite: What Is It? Can You Get Rid Of It? And Everything Else You Need To Know

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us