Echinacea anyone?

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I received some interesting information the other day about the herb Echinacea.  This came through conventional medical channels, with a controlled clinical trial, where it was reported that research by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre revealed that extracts from echinacea purpurea can slash by nearly 60 percent the number of colds suffered by people with a weak immune system or prone to recurrent infections.

The study was the largest clinical trial ever conducted on the benefits and risks of taking the herbal remedy, run over four months.

The researchers gave the herb extract, produced by Swiss herbal medicine firm A.Vogel and sold in the UK and worldwide under the brand name Echinaforce, and a placebo, to 755 volunteers.

As well as slashing cold outbreaks it showed that the herb reduced the severity of cold and flu symptoms and halved the need for cold sufferers to take painkillers, so reducing the risk of paracetamol overdose.

Professor Ronald Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre, said, “These new results confirm that Echinaforce supports the immune resistance, and in parallel acts directly against a series of viruses.  This appears to be an effective therapeutic approach, which not only works at the level of the human host but also acts on the invaders, all with highly acceptable tolerability.”

University of London researcher Dr Margaret Richie said, “The clinical trial indicates that echinacea supports low-running immune systems but does not over-stimulate well-supported ones.”

Dr Jen Tan, medical director at A.Vogel said, “It’s promising to find that echinacea cuts the risk of catching a cold and helps reduce sufferers’ pain relief requirements, making it a safer alternative to relieve cold and flu symptoms.”  (But of course she would say that, wouldn’t she!)

Now, one of my doubts about ‘alternative’ medicine has been the lack of properly controlled clinical trials, so I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by this one.  However (and there always is a ‘however’ isn’t there), this was not a large trial with only 755 volunteers, and since it was comparing those who received the herb, against those who got a dummy pill, this means that only around 375 received the active ingredient.  This is not a very large number statistically.  So even though the study looks promising, it is a long way short of clinical “proof”.

The people who ran the study said that it was the “largest clinical trial ever conducted”, but if 755 people is the “largest”, it is not good enough for me.  I like to see statistical research done on tens of thousands of volunteers, and preferably from more than one country.

And to show that I do have grounds to be a doubting Thomas, a brief search of the literature turns up the following:

Echinacea is also used against many other infections including the flu, urinary tract infections, vaginal yeast infections, genital herpes, bloodstream infections (septicemia), gum disease, tonsillitis, streptococcus infections, syphilis, typhoid, malaria, and diphtheria.  Other uses not related to infection include chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), rheumatism, migraines, acid indigestion, pain, dizziness, rattlesnake bites, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Sometimes people apply echinacea to their skin to treat boils, abscesses, skin wounds, ulcers, burns, eczema, psoriasis, UV radiation skin damage, herpes simplex, bee stings, and hemorrhoids.

Honestly I know of no pharmaceutical compound with that spread of efficacy.  Come on, do you really expect me to believe that this one herb is able to treat genital herpes, rattlesnake bites, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ADHD (and a host of other conditions as well).

However, Echinacea does have some effects you don’t want.  When taken by mouth, echinacea usually does not cause side effects, but however, some people experience allergic reactions, including rashes, increased asthma, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction).  In clinical trials, gastrointestinal side effects were most common.

People are more likely to experience allergic reactions to echinacea if they are allergic to related plants in the daisy family, which includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies.  Also, people with asthma or atopy (a genetic tendency toward allergic reactions) may be more likely to have an allergic reaction when taking echinacea.

So there you are.  Take care when self-administering Echinacea.  It may do some good, but has the potential to do the opposite.