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echinacea, immune system

Echinacea: The magic immune medicine?

Echinacea is the latest in an ever-growing line of products that is said to improve your immune system – keeping you healthy and as an athlete - at the very top of your game. Echinacea, which can be found in capsule or liquid form, has been marketed to strengthen the body's ability to resist infection with fantastic results. But is it just a passing fad, or is this old medicine the real deal?

If you did decide to take Echinacea to give your immune system a boost, how much should you take? How often should you take it? Those are two tough questions, since the effectiveness of various oral dosages has not been explored completely (most research has utilised injectable Echinacea, which is probably not a desired option for you), the available Echinacea preparations on the market probably vary in their actual Echinacea content, and there is some indication in the literature that the intake of too-much Echinacea (or overly extended use of the product) might actually reduce its effectiveness or even suppress the immune system a bit (some students of Echinacea have even suggested that high doses of the herb would be helpful in 'auto-immune disorders' such as multiple sclerosis and lupus,in which the immune system rages out of control and needs to be toned down).

So, the jury is still out on intake levels, but if you decide to give Echinacea a try, you should begin with very small quantities (allergic reactions have been reported). If your body tolerates Echinacea well, one option would be to take in one to two total grams of Echinacea per day for a period of five to 10 days, after which Echinacea intake would be discontinued for a couple of weeks. This might be a way to strengthen your immune system and lower your risk of getting sick as you head into the flu and cold 'seasons' or as you come into contact with individuals who are already ill. This pattern might also limit the symptoms of a cold or flu-like illness which you have unfortunately contracted. Constraining yourself to no more than 10 days of continued use could also be a way to evade the problem of lost benefits (or potential immune suppression) associated with regular long-term use of the herb.

However, bear in mind that the second human respiratory-illness study mentioned above found that about two grams of Echinacea per day - taken continuously for eight weeks - were very effective at preventing infections in individuals predisposed to respiratory system problems. We'll simply have to hope that further studies will shed more light on the issues of optimal timing and dosage of Echinacea.

Experts are divided on whether it's best to ingest pieces of whole root, powdered Echinacea in capsule or tablet form, or liquid extracts. Most of the research has been carried out with the liquid, alcohol-based extracts rather than the dry stuff, and many devotees believe that Echinacea's constituents are best protected from spoilage in liquid-extract form. However, some experts have contended that the alcohol in extracts might break down Echinacea's beneficial polysaccharides (a glycerol-based Echinacea extract is now available to get around this potential problem).

The Conclusion

Echinacea is not simply oil to aid the recovery from snake bites. Too many studies have linked it with improved immune-system activity for this to be true. Our advice is: if your budget permits it, you can give Echinacea a try to see if it helps you ward off infections - or alleviates their symptoms after you are already sick.

Jim Bledsoe

echinacea, immune system