Consumer Health — 19 October 2012

The herb echinacea is widely used to fight infections, especially the common cold. And those who use it as part of their health care arsenal swear by its effectiveness. A new clinical study out of England appears to support their claims.

In what’s being called the largest clinical trial ever conducted on echinacea, researchers say a Swiss extract of the herb, marketed under the brand name Echinaforce, is both safe and effective in helping to ease symptoms of the common cold.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, a team at the Common Cold Center at Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales followed 755 healthy people over a four month period. They were asked to keep a diary listing any colds or flu-like symptoms, as well as their use of echincaea extract, the placebo and conventional pharmaceutical drugs.

According to researchers, people using the echinacea extract had significantly fewer incidences of cold or flu symptoms;  149 colds lasting 672 days, while subjects in the placebo group reported 188 colds lasting 850 days

They also had a third less recurrence of cold symptoms, fewer influenza-type viral infections, and less reliance on the use of conventional over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen

“It is heartening and refreshing to see such positive conclusions coming from this largest echinacea clinical trial ever published,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

“While there have been previous clinical studies producing mixed results on the efficacy of various types of echinacea preparations, used at different dosage levels, and in different types of study design, this highly impressive clinical trial is historic due to its size,” he said.

Derived from the root, leaves and flowers of the echinacea plant, the herb is believed to stimulate the immune system to produce an increased number of virus-attacking white blood cells. While it is generally well tolerated, side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, itch, and rash.

While most other research seems to support the notion that echinacea can treat a cold’s symptoms, the claim that it can prevent a cold has been a source of debate among the scientific community.

Dr. Dan Labriola, director of the Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic, says echinacea can provide some cold relief. But in an article in the Seattle Times, Labriola warned that more ”is not better” and that when taken improperly, echinacea can make a person’s cold symptoms feel worse.

“While occasional, targeted use of echinacea creates more white blood cells to presumably kill off cold and flu bugs,” he said, “using the herb constantly results in more colds and flu.”

He likened the over use of the herb to working out too much.

“A nice short run will help you feel invigorated, strong and ready to do battle with the world. If you run until you are exhausted, however, you will be tired and less effective,” said Labriola. “The same thing happens with your immune system. When asked to produce increased numbers of white blood cells for too long, the immune system weakens and eventually does less.”

His advice to anyone thinking about using echinacea is to first ask their doctor if it is safe for them as the herb can theoretically worsen some diseases including leukemia.

The Swiss extract of echinacea (Echinaforce) is made by Bioforce AG in Roggwill, Switzerland.

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Richard Lenti

Richard Lenti has worked as a news writer for the last 20 years at various television stations in Los Angeles. He is a Golden Mike winner and a graduate of California State University, Fresno. With roots in print journalism, Richard is excited to be “published” once again; having people read his work as opposed to having it read to them. As a freelance writer his work has appeared in the Easy Reader, L.A. Jazz Scene, Irrigation and Green Industry, and the KCAL 9 Online website.

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