Echinacea purpurea

What Does Echinacea Do to Your Body?

By: Megan Grant

What supplements can you take to arm your immune system for a good fight? You probably know that zinc, vitamin D and vitamin C are must-haves for your arsenal. But what about herbal supplements?

One of them in particular, echinacea, has been used for generations to help people stay well during those challenging seasons. As it turns out, this pretty flower can be standardized into a pretty powerful supplement for immune health.

But not all echinacea supplements are equally powerful. So without further ado, let's talk about how echinacea works, and how to find the best echinacea supplement.

What is echinacea?

First, let's specify what we mean when we talk about "echinacea." There are nine known species of echinacea, and while all of them offer some health benefits, only three of them are considered important in herbal regimens: echinacea purpurea (also written as E. purpurea), echinacea pallida, and echinacea angustifolia. Echinacea purpurea is the most common (and what people are usually referencing when they talk about the herb), while pallida and echinacea angustifolia are more common in morphology. The only real difference is that echinacea angustifolia has shorter and extended petals. Pallida's petals are longer and drooping, compared to echinacea angustifolia.

Echinacea purpurea is an herb that originated in North America made from a Native American plant called the purple coneflower. The purple coneflower gets its name from the Greek echinos for "hedgehog." This is because it has prickly scales that look similar to the spines of an agitated hedgehog.

Echinacea purpurea isn't exactly new. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence suggesting that herbal use dates back more than 400 years, likely as a general catch-all but also used for specific needs. Our ancestors knew long before we did that echinacea contains amazing immune supportive properties. Nowadays, people commonly use echinacea supplements to keep those icky winter season "blahs" at bay. It's one of many ways you can use nutrition to support your immune system.

Echinacea purpurea is so powerful because it contains a lot of antioxidants. Antioxidants fight free radicals in your body, stopping them from getting to levels that can negatively impact you. This is why echinacea is great for your immune system. It's also able to offer therapeutic benefits thanks to its polysaccharides (polysaccharides are a type of carbohydrate), alkamides (similar to fatty acids), and flavonoids (which are found in many plants).

What does echinacea do for you?

The research on Echinacea purpurea is promising. Here are some health benefits of the purple coneflower extract, according to science.

1. Echinacea can support your immune system

Research suggests that echinacea can be an effective immunomodulator, helping your body fight off challenges. You can take the herbal supplement if you're starting to feel a bit "off" your game, or even just as a proactive measure.

2. Echinacea supports a healthy inflammatory response

When your body perceives a potential "opponent," it rallies the troops, so to speak. However, too much of that can be a bad thing, which is why it's important to promote a healthy inflammatory response—which is exactly what echinacea was found to do, both in a study with mice, and in another study of adults with aging bones.

3. Echinacea can help you feel calm

Studies have found that echinacea can have an anxiolytic effect, which means that the herb can help you stay calm. This has been observed in both rats and humans. In a study using an index to report feelings of being worried, human participants who took echinacea reported a healthy response to stress within three days, and for two weeks following.

Who should take echinacea supplements?

Because it can be used to support general health with few reported side effects, most people can benefit from taking an herbal echinacea supplement.

How much echinacea should you take a day?

Always read the instructions on the bottle, because this may vary among different echinacea supplements. With Life Extension's Echinacea Elite supplement, for example, you're directed to take 250 mg twice daily, for a total of 500 mg a day. This recommendation is based on a review of multiple clinical trials and typical echinacea doses seen on the market.

Best practice is to follow the directions on your product. If you're ever unsure, just check with your doctor!

When is the best time to take echinacea?

To support your immune function, ideally, you should take an echinacea supplement daily for continuous immune support.

Is echinacea safe to take?

Yes, supplements made from the echinacea plant are generally safe and well-tolerated with few reported side effects. If you are pregnant or lactating, you shouldn't take echinacea. It's always a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider before starting any new dietary supplements, especially if you have a medical condition or take medication.

Does echinacea affect sleep?

This one is tricky to answer—but ultimately, let's just say it depends! If you don't consume caffeine, echinacea shouldn't impact your sleep. But if you do, it could, because Echinacea purpurea can slow down how quickly your body eliminates caffeine, which can disrupt your sleep if you're consuming coffee or energy drinks later in the day. So, ultimately, you might want to skip that coffee if you're taking echinacea, or at least stop after one cup!

How to choose a high-quality echinacea supplement

Which species and even which part of the plant your echinacea supplement is made from matters: you want a supplement that uses standardized, whole plant extracts of Echinacea purpurea & Echinacea angustifolia to maximize effectiveness. (We recommend Echinacea Elite for this reason.)

Additionally, with any herbal supplement, you want to pay careful attention to where and how the ingredients are sourced. Does the formula contain a lot of additives and other hidden ingredients? Does the label clearly state what exactly is in the formula? Is the brand reputable with good reviews? Have consumers noted any strange or undesirable side effects?

Digging into the details can help you better understand if your echinacea supplement is high-quality. A good place to start is to request to see a Certificate of Analysis from the brand—if they won't provide it, that's not a good sign!

When should you not take echinacea?

Herbal echinacea extract has been safely used in various clinical trials in doses ranging from 40 mg to 4,000 mg per day, with little to no side effects. Consumers should follow the dosing instructions on the product label.

And, as with starting any new dietary supplement, talk to your healthcare provider first, especially if you're undergoing treatment for a medical condition or you're pregnant or lactating.

Can you take echinacea with multivitamins?

Yes! This is safe to do, as echinacea supplements have been used traditionally with overall safety and few side effects.

Other natural sources of echinacea

Echinacea purpurea is an herb—technically, a group of plants in the daisy family. There are no known natural food sources for the extract, so you must get it through supplementation. You can also find echinacea tea, and echinacea extract in creams and juices. (But as is the case with all juices, watch those sugar calories!)

What other herbal options benefit the immune system?

In addition to echinacea, you can take elderberry, which also has a long history of use as well as scientific research backing up its immune health benefits. Additionally, the Tinospora cordifolia plant also has been shown to support optimal immune health.

Psst! Not sure what supplements you should be using? Take our immune health quiz to find out.

5 other ways to keep your immune system healthy

Echinacea supplementation—along with other vitamins, minerals and probiotics that support immune health—is a great way to keep those natural defenses primed and ready for whatever life throws your way, but it's not a panacea.

Follow these five tips to promote optimal immune function:

  1. Get enough sleep.

    Regular, restful sleep encourages a strong immune response—so never skimp on those ZZZs!
  2. Exercise regularly.

    Having a fitness routine isn't just about getting a beach body; it also helps keep your immune cell function youthful.
  3. Follow a nutritious diet.

    From mushrooms to pineapple to whey protein powder, certain foods promote immune health. (And, as an added bonus, most of them are delicious!) And don't be afraid to add some spice! Garlic is well-known for its immune-supporting properties.
  4. Get plenty of liquids.

    Being well-hydrated is key to overall health, which of course includes your immune system. Drink plenty of water, and if you want a hot beverage, try green tea, which not only encourages brain and heart health, but also may benefit your immune system.
  5. Manage stress.

    Feeling a little bit frazzled—whether it's from a specific stressor in your life, or just the everyday hustle and bustle? Finding healthy ways to manage stress will also help you maintain a robust immune response.

About the Author: Megan Grant has a degree in communications from University of Michigan. She has been writing professionally for 15 years, with a focus on nutrition, fitness, and general health. A lifelong competitive athlete, she's fascinated by how the human body responds to food and movement.

References

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

By: Megan Grant