Dear Alice,

As usual, there are a lot of "bugs" going around this winter. Only this year, I've been hearing more from people who swear by echinacea, yet I can't find any information about it. Are there studies about it? Does it work? What's the best way to take it and how often should you take it? Should you take it only when you are feeling sick, or all the time to prevent sickness? Can you take too much?

Dear Reader,

Kudos to you for exploring your options when it comes to staying healthy during cold and flu season. Many people who have tried echinacea, the purple coneflower (and relative of the sunflower) native to the Midwestern region of the United States, swear by it's ability to fight off colds, flu, and other minor infections. And though this supplement has a number of fans, not all of the research findings agree about its effectiveness (more on that in a bit). It’s also wise that you’re asking about dosage amounts and timing. There are a number of dosage recommendations and it’s good to note that echinacea is not safe or appropriate for everyone. Lastly, because nutritional supplements like this one are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s worth doing a bit of homework to find a reputable manufacturer for this supplement.

What research has been conducted regarding the medicinal uses of this plant include boosting the immune system, pain relief, and it is also thought to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. As far as fighting off the cold or flu virus, not all research findings jive with these claims. Some findings have demonstrated that echinacea can help you feel better faster if taken when you’re sick with either condition. One such meta-analysis of 14 different studies found that folks who used this herb were 58 percent less likely to develop a cold and those who did get one experienced a shorter duration of symptoms (about one to four days total). It’s good to note, however, that some experts have challenged these findings due to the variance in supplement type and dosage as well as weaknesses identified in the analyses. On the other hand, other studies found no effect at all. Needless to say, additional research is needed.

So, in order to try it out for yourself, it’s good to know when and how much to take, right? Echinacea is available in liquid extract, tincture, capsule, tablet, and cream/gel forms. It may also be found in supplements that contain a combination of various herbs meant to boost immunity. It seems that in order to stave off the cold or flu, it’s best to take this supplement about three times a day when you already know you’re sick until you feel better. That being said, it’s best not to take the supplement for this purpose for more than seven to ten days. Doing so will hopefully shorten the duration of either viral infection. However, the dosage depends on what type of echinacea supplement you are using.

Echinacea is generally seen as a safe supplement that results in few side effects. However, it is noted that if you take it as an oral supplement, you may experience some tingling or numbness in your mouth. Additionally, if you’re allergic to plants in the daisy family or have asthma, it’s recommended that you steer clear of it. It’s advised that folks with a liver disorder, an auto-immune disorder (including HIV/AIDS), leukemia, connective tissue disorder, diabetes, or tuberculosis avoid this supplement. Though there’s little evidence to suggest that using echinacea during pregnancy results in any birth defects, it’s generally recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding forgo taking this supplement. There are some noted drug interactions as well, so your best bet is to consult a health care provider if you’re using any medications before picking this up at a store.  

Ready to hit the supplement aisle at the market? Not so fast — be on the lookout for products from reputable manufacturers. Because the supplements are not regulated in the U.S., ingredient lists may be deceiving. One independent company, Consumerlab.com, conducted a study of eleven different echinacea products and found that less than half of the products contained the ingredients listed on their labels. Additionally, about ten percent of the products studied didn’t contain any echinacea at all! It's also a good idea to seek out the advice of a health care provider to help you determine if this supplement is safe and beneficial for you to use. For more information on echniacea and other dietary supplements, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website.

Alice!
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