Echinacea: Nature’s Perfect Support for Your Immune System and Anxiety

September 2023 Update

By Michael Gaeta | Updated September 6, 2023

The Most Important and Misunderstood Herb for the Immune System

Echinacea is an oft-misunderstood Native American herb of immense benefit to for a variety of health concerns, and your patients with both chronic and acute conditions. Its lipophilic (fat-loving) extract is known as a traditional echinacea extract.

Echinacea is a traditional North American herb. Native Americans have highly valued and used it therapeutically for hundreds of years. I consider Echinacea root to be the single most important herb in the world for supporting your innate or cellular immunity. It is also one of the most misunderstood herbs in the world.

There are several myths about Echinacea, popular in today’s media, culture and even natural health field. The main one is that Echinacea is only a short-term herb, solely used for a few days at the first sign of sickness of infection. This, we now know, is incorrect. The idea is based, in part, on the traditional use of Echinacea root – as needed, for days, weeks or months, for any type if infection or inflammation. It is also based on a poorly-designed, misinterpreted 1989 study with sterilized, injected Echinacea. .

Traditional Use

In the 1800s and early 1900s, American physicians of the Eclectic school of medicine used Echinacea angustifolia root with consistent documented success using this herb, internally and topically, for helping patients with the following conditions, and more:

Boils                                         Indigestion                             Mastitis                 Abscesses              

Diarrhea

Leucorrhea                            Septicemia                             Dysentery              Vulvitis                  

Snakebite

Fevers                                     Gonorrhea                             Insect bites            Influenza              

Syphilis

Tuberculosis                          Toothache                              Tonsillitis              Pneumonia            

Malaria

Bronchitis                             Measles                                  Impotence            Gangrene                

Chickenpox

 

Even without our modern understanding of the immune system, it’s clear from the above mentioned list that Echinacea is most certainly an immune-supporting herb. We should keep in mind that the Native Americans and the Eclectic physicians only used Echinacea angustifolia root, extracted with a high alcohol-to-water ratio, to achieve these impressive results.

Current Research, Modern Understanding

Modern research, especially from the last 30 years, has shown us a new use for Echinacea – that it is most certainly also a preventative herb, to be taken daily, long-term. Unlike some botanicals, Echinacea can be taken for long periods of time or for life, without any adverse effects. It seems that Echinacea works best when it is in your system already at the time you are exposed to a possible pathogen. This is an important new understanding, for an herb traditionally used only as needed for acute conditions.

Quality Matters: Not All Echinacea Formulas Are Equal

Also, the quality of an Echinacea product is critical to how well it works. Modern research has confirmed what parts of Echinacea provide the remarkable immune-supporting effects. They are a group of phytochemicals called alkylamides, which also create the distinctive tongue tingling produced by a high-quality Echinacea extract. Interestingly, the Eclectic physicians back in the day distinguished a clinically-relevant product as “producing a persistent tingling sensation in the mouth.” The more alkylamides, the stronger the tingle, and the more potent the Echinacea formula is.

In my own experience in practice over the past 33 years, I have found very few Echinacea products that cause any significant tingle in the mouth, other than the Echinacea Premium from MediHerb. Echinacea Premium is an herbal extract which blends the roots of Echinacea Angustifolia and Echinacea Purpurea. This product is, in my experience and review of Echinacea over the years, the most powerful and effective Echinacea product in the world. I’ve had many patients who reported no benefit from years of taking other Echinacea products, who felt immediate benefit from Echinacea Premium.

Is it Really Inappropriate for Autoimmune Patients?

Another common myth is that Echinacea should not be taken by people with autoimmune conditions. This would be a serious concern, given that about one in five Americans (over 50 million) have one or more of 155+ known autoimmune conditions. This concern is based on the incorrect idea that Echinacea stimulates the immune system. More accurately, Echinacea root improves your innate immune response, modulating / adjusting your immune function, rather than being an immune stimulant.

Also, autoimmune disease is a condition of excessive natural tissue or auto antibodies, which is part of your acquired or humoral immune system. Echinacea has no effect on antibodies, but rather strongly supports the innate or cellular immunity, which is your primary immune system. (This is another reason why vaccines are completely ineffective at improving anyone’s health. Vaccines only produce an artificial and temporary antibody response to synthetic or man-made pathogens. They do not affect or improve your immune system, health or strength).

So, Echinacea is not only safe and appropriate for patients with an autoimmune condition, it is actually very useful for supporting these patients. Echinacea helps correct the immune imbalance found in autoimmune conditions, where the innate/primary immune system is weak, and the acquired/secondary immune system is overactive to body tissues. This is the same reason why Echinacea root is so helpful for people with allergies, by balancing the allergic or excessive immune response to normal things in the environment. It’s basically the same pattern: allergies are an inappropriate response to normal proteins from outside your body, and autoimmune disease is an inappropriate response to normal proteins inside your body. Echinacea helps both, as an immune modulator or balancer.

The Main Herb for the Immune System: Summary & Conclusions

Echinacea root has been used for hundreds of years topically for various types of skin conditions, such as boils, psoriasis, and insect and snake bites. Traditionally, Echinacea was used for days, weeks or months to help people recover more quickly from an infection, by improving immune response to colds, flu, respiratory infections, really any type of infection anywhere in the body. Modern research has now confirmed that it also has a powerful ability to help prevent infections from happening in the first place. Personally I’ve been taking Echinacea premium daily since 2002, and have found it incredibly helpful in my own health as well as for hundreds of patients who have benefitted greatly from this wonderful formula.

Just remember, Echinacea can be used for helping get through an infection more quickly (traditional use), as well as preventatively with daily long-term use to support your immune system and immune response (modern research). I always combine Echinacea Premium, with Standard Process Nutritional Support for the immune system. So ask your practitioner which nutritional formulas from Standard Process would be most appropriate for you in your case.

Can Echinacea Root Help with Anxiety?

To my surprise, and that of many familiar with this herb, echinacea root, the single best herb in the world for supporting the immune system, is also effective in reducing anxiety. Starting with the first one in 2010, there have been at least five studies in this new area of echinacea and anxiety, showing promise in supporting people with this increasingly common emotional challenge.

It began with a 2010 animal study entitled “The effect of Echinacea preparations in three laboratory tests of anxiety: comparison with chlordiazepoxide” (Librium). This study showed “Anxiolytic effects were consistently seen in three different tests of anxiety”. It continues, “Earlier evidence shows that Echinacea preparations have an excellent safety profile, while our findings suggest for the first time that certain preparations have a considerable anxiolytic potential.” Dose is important, and the most powerful Echinacea product available, Echinacea Premium, at a dose of at least two tablets per day (I take and usually recommend three per day to my patients), provides a sufficient dose to be effective with anxiety, as well as the more popular use for immune support.

The following year, in 2011, “The Effects of an Echinacea Preparation on Synaptic Transmission and the Firing Properties of CA1 Pyramidal Cells in the Hippocampus” gave us insights as to a possible mechanism of action elucidating how Echinacea helps patients with anxiety. “Our aim in this study was to uncover the potential effects of an Echinacea preparation on neuronal operations in the hippocampus, a brain region that is involved in anxiety and anxiety-related behaviors.” The authors concluded that “Echinacea extract can significantly regulate excitatory, but not inhibitory, synaptic transmission in the hippocampus, and this action might be involved in its anxiolytic effects observed in behaviour tests.”

In 2012, a study including both rats and humans, “The Anxiolytic Potential and Psychotropic Side Effects of an Echinacea Preparation in Laboratory Animals and Healthy Volunteers” further solidified the usefulness of this remarkable herb. The rat arm of the study found that Echinacea “decreased anxiety in the elevated plus-maze and ameliorated contextual conditioned fear.” The human arm of the study found that Echinacea “decreased STAI scores within 3 days in human subjects, an effect that remained stable for the duration of the treatment (7 days) and for the 2 weeks that followed treatment.” Low-dose Echinacea was not effective, further confirming the accuracy of the 2-3 tablets per day dose of Echinacea Premium.

Seven years later, in 2019, a human double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was published. “Double-blind placebo controlled trial of the anxiolytic effects of a standardized Echinacea extract” concluded, even using an incredibly low (sub-clinical) dose, that “particular Echinacea preparations have significant beneficial effects on anxiety in humans.” If a trained herbalist helped design the study, and selected even a modest therapeutic dose of the herb (2-4 grams per day), I believe the results would have been far more substantial. This study highlights that even very low dose Echinacea can have benefit, and that potentially good studies are often ruined by less-than-well-informed study design (sometimes called “materials and methods”), by scientists who apparently know little to nothing about herbal medicine, and likely have no clinical training or experience.

Most recently, in 2021, the Journal of Affective Disorders published a research study entitled, “An investigation into the anxiety-relieving and mood-enhancing effects of Echinacea angustifolia (EP107™): A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” The incredibly low-dose formula used in this six-week study “was not associated with greater improvements in anxiety in adults with mild-to-moderately severe anxiety compared to the placebo. However, there were greater improvements in positive and negative affect, and emotional wellbeing, suggesting antidepressant effects.” Similar to the 2019 study, the dose used in this study would never even be considered by serious, trained herbalists, which recognize that the 2-5 gram (2-5,000mg) dose used in traditional herbal practice going back to the 1800s, and supported by modern research, would like produce far superior benefits.

All of us can benefit from a therapeutically-relevant dose of this wonderful herb, Echinacea root, for its immune-supporting and anxiety-reducing properties.

To learn more about how to use botanical therapy to help yourself, your family and patients, join our upcoming online symposium Autumn Herbal School, Sept 22-23, 2023. Learn from all of our herbal self-study programs on our Herbal Education Center. Also see our other popular home learning programs at michaelgaeta.com – Click on Courses.

About the Author

Dr Michael Gaeta is an herbalist, educator, clinician, podcast host and writer in the field of natural healthcare. He offers patient care, lectures and learning programs to co-create a world of resilient, vital people who choose a lifestyle of nature first, drugs last. A successful practitioner of 33 years’ experience, he works each year with thousands of clinicians who want to improve their patient care. More at michaelgaeta.com.