Echinacea, or coneflower, is traditionally used to improve performance and to treat flu and colds. Supporters of the herb say it boosts oxygen transport and enhances the immune system.
Experts believe Echinacea supplies a complex mix of active chemicals which have antimicrobial and antioxidant effects. Furthermore, the plant contains phenols which regulate the activity of enzymes and cell receptors necessary for maintaining health.
While many individuals swear by Echinacea’s
benefits, others are not so sure about its overall
This is because there are 9 distinct species of Echinacea plants and at least 40 genetically diverse populations of the herb. Echinacea is also prepared as an extract and as a juice featuring varying degrees of roots and upper part of the plant, so clinical trials are not standardized or well-controlled. This results in conflicting research regarding Echinacea’s benefits, leaving its effects up for debate.
Echinacea and Exercise
Echinacea is working its way into the bodybuilding world due to its ability to increase erythropoietin. Erythropoietin, or EPO, is a glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production and is involved in the wound healing process. Higher red blood cell count makes it easier for oxygen to be carried to the muscles, enabling athletes to work harder for longer.
In a recent study, researchers administered an 8 g dose of Echinacea or a placebo to 24 men for 28 days. Analyzed blood samples revealed Echinacea boosted EPO levels by 63% in 14 days.
However, this increase in EPO did not translate into an increase in red blood cell count or hemoglobin production. Consequently, taking Echinacea is not yet clinically proven to enhance oxygen transport or performance.
This lack of clinical proof, on the other hand, has not stopped Echinacea supporters from using it to improve workouts. Anecdotal evidence suggests Echinacea optimizes oxygen intake.
“I took 700mg of echinacea with the rest of my pre-workout stack about an hour before workout. Roughly 45 minutes after taking it, I started to notice a change in my breathing pattern,” explains Rich D. on Amazon.com. “I was just getting better oxygen transportation and thus didn’t need to breath as deeply. . . Exertion perceived was lower. Barely broke a sweat. Recovery time was negligible. Heart rate was 158 instead of 168-172 that I usually end up at with the speed I maintain.”
Positive reviews, such as this one, propose Echinacea may be beneficial as a pre-workout supplement, though further clinical evidence is needed to validate its use.
Echinacea and the Common Cold
Echinacea is most widely known for its supposed benefit to the immune system.
Echinacea contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids which are thought to have a therapeutic effect. These chemicals are found in varying degrees in the root and the upper part of the plant; for example, the upper part of the plant tends to contain more polysaccharides (which trigger immune system activity) than the root.
Professional herbalists often use a combination of upper and lower parts of the plant to treat colds, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and flu-like infections. Due to the wide variety of preparation techniques, Echinacea’s effectiveness differs from one product to another and from one study to another.
According to one study, commercial preparations of freshly pressed Echinacea juice were tested. Macrophages (mobile white blood cells important to the immune system) cultured with Echinacea produced significantly higher levels of IL-1, TNF-?, and IL-10 (cytokines which regulate inflammatory responses to infection).Researchers concluded, “These results demonstrate the immune stimulatory ability of the unpurified fresh pressed juice of Echinacea purpurea and offer some insight into the nature of the resulting immune response.”
While this study was promising, researchers in a separate study found conflicting results.
In an analysis of 24 double-blind trials involving 4631 participants, experts examined the statistical significance of Echinacea’s results on colds.
They concluded “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some Echinacea products: the results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.”
Despite conflicting research, countless Echinacea enthusiasts experience positive benefits while taking the herb.
For example, Gil Miller has been taking Echinacea supplements daily for 26 years (after a heart by-pass operation). According to Gil at Amazon.com, “I haven’t had a cold in all of that time. Odd thing is, occasionally I’ll get the symptoms of a cold coming on–a few sniffles and sneezes but within twenty-four hours everything’s back to normal. Whether or not this is because of the efficacy of the Echinacea, I don’t know, but the supplement is so inexpensive that I see no reason to eliminate it from my daily regimen.”
Similarly, Vickie P at Amazon writes, “I think the purpose of Echinacea speaks for itself- better immune health. I feel a lot better knowing I’m being proactive and taking my supplements as well as boosting my immunities. I think it’s an essential part of life and being conscious of it could help a lot of people. I have decreased my amount of sick days by over 50% since being proactive and utilizing not only Echinacea but other vitamins such as C, garlic, and more.”
While the clinical research is mixed, anecdotal evidences indicates Echinacea has potential benefit as an immunity booster.
What Else Can Echinacea Do For You?
Echinacea is becoming more and more popular for a wide range of uses, including but not limited to treating vaginal yeast infections, genital herpes, urinary tract infections, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Unfortunately, clinical evidence has yet to catch up to anecdotal evidence for any of these conditions. While many users love how Echinacea benefits their health, researchers still need to standardize Echinacea extracts to maximize these potential benefits and provide consistent, reliable results in their studies.
But, just because research hasn’t validated Echinacea use doesn’t mean it hasn’t successfully helped users. When used regularly, Echinacea seems to have a positive impact on overall health while causing few, if any, negative side effects.
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