Echinacea called ineffective…


Jeffrey S. Hoard

Yesterday I saw the headline, “Popular herbal cold remedy fails to relieve symptoms, study finds” in my morning St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The herb in question turned out to be Echinacea. Knowing empirically that Echinacea does indeed do what we think it does when it is prepared and used properly, I was interested to learn details of a study that shows it does not.

The article appeared to be a straight feed from the Associated Press. It actually raised more questions than it answered. Neither the Associated Press nor the Post-Dispatch felt it necessary to inform the reader of the species of Echinacea used or the dosage, or even the method of administration.

The most interesting thing I read that morning (apart from the fact that this study was done with children) was that the “Echinacea” used in the study contained extract mostly from the flower. Extract? What sort of extract, I wondered? Surely not what I consider to be an extract, wherein one attempts to extract as close a chemical picture of the plant itself as is possible. But what?

Flower? Why did researchers use the flower (or “mostly” the flower)? Would not researchers choose to use the root, which actually has a reputation for fighting colds and flu, or the whole plant, which has a reputation of its own (depending on species) for the same qualities? But the flower? I have never heard anyone say that the flower is the thing. Never. Have you?

The Seattle Times took a more responsible approach to reporting the study by having their medical reporter actually do some research and write a story. This may, though, be due to the fact that the lead researcher for the study, Dr. James A. Taylor, is a pediatrician at the University of Washington Child Health Institute. The reporter, Warren King, identified the species – purpurea – and the method of administration – a syrup, taken orally, I presume – but still no dosage.

King also interviewed a local TCM practitioner, who pointed out that Echinacea is usually used in combination with other herbs, works best when used at the very first signs of symptoms and “definitely, absolutely works”. But buried in the story, is what I found to be the most amazing news. Taylor reported that “Children who took Echinacea did have fewer recurrences of colds than those on placebos.” Children who took Echinacea did have fewer recurrences of colds than those on placebos!

Prevention. What a concept. The Associated Press and/or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn’t even think that was important enough for me to know. This is just intellectual laziness. Shame on ‘em! It occurs to me that a littleginkgo biloba might just brighten them up a bit. But I digress.

The study, entitled “Efficacy and Safety of Echinacea in Treating Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Children”, was published December 3, 2003 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The Echinacea used in the study was “made” by an International Phytopharmaceutical company, Madaus AG. Believe me, this was not Echinacea, the wonderful purple coneflower of our native Americans. This is medicine. That is what this company advertises that it “makes.” Medicine. Not herbs (which, by the way, are “made” by God, right?), but medicine. The failure of the pharmaceutical industry to prove the efficacy of selective medicinal extracts of plant material has little or nothing to do with the efficacy of the plants themselves. Don’t let them confuse you! Keep taking your Ginkgo!

Both articles mentioned Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), an independent group which studies herbs. Knowing the fantastic work of the ABC through their peer-reviewed journal, Herbalgram and their website, I was happy to see his contributions.

Noting that herb practitioners (like the one mentioned above) recommend taking Echinacea at the very first sign of symptoms in order to achieve optimum benefit, Blumenthal pointed out that in the study, parents were told to start administering treatment after the children developed at leasttwo cold symptoms. Herbalists recommend higher dosages to achieve results when treatment is delayed like this.

The ABC also publishes The German Commission E Monographs and the Expanded Commission E Monographs, which detail numerous positive studies on the use of Echinacea and other herbs as well. These are wonderful resources I use all the time.

Another important aspect to success with Echinacea is preparation. I have seen this herb stuffed into every sort of product from lip balm to soda pop to ear candles. Ear candles! Mostly I see capsules of the powdered root. I am pretty sure that most of them are useless. When you powder an herb you are exposing a maximum surface area of the herb to the air. It will begin to lose its potency much faster than other forms of the herb. It has also been pointed out to me that digestion of this herb is a difficult process and introduced into a digestive system which may be functioning at less than 100% efficiency (you’ve got a cold, or the flu, remember?) it is unlikely to be absorbed in time to provide benefit.

There is no such problem when you make a tea with the root or use a liquid extract of the root (Echinacea angustifolia) or the whole plant (Echinacea purpurea) and it is preparations like this which have been well-established (plenty of scientifically-based studies and all) to have a positive effect on the severity and frequency of upper respiratory infections. I have seen this. I have experienced this!

Finally, the Seattle Times reports that researcher Taylor advises “doing what your grandmother said to treat colds: get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.” In addition he suggests you raise your head on a pillow at night to promote free breathing through the nose, use a humidifier (I often recommend a cheap steam vaporizer to our St. Louis customers to combat our dry winters and even dryer forced air heating) and don’t turn up the heat very high.

Interestingly, my grandmother did all the things the good doctor recommends, but she also used Echinacea! Yes! It was in very common usage in this country less than 100 years ago, before the advent of sulfa drugs and antibiotics in the 1930s and 40s.

I would, therefore, have to agree with Dr. Taylor. To lessen the severity and duration of upper respiratory infections, do what my grandmother did. Take Echinacea!


December 4, 2003


“Popular herbal cold remedy fails to relieve symptoms, study finds”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Associated Press. Wednesday, December 3, 2003

 “Echinacea called ineffective remedy for Kids’ colds”. Seattle Times. Warren King. Wednesday, December 3, 2003.

 “American Botanical Council Emphasizes Potential Benefit of Echinacea Syrup for Children’s Colds in New Clinical Trial”. American Botanical Council. December 1, 2003.

 “Echinacea Angustifolia herb and root/Palida herb”. American Botanical Council. Expanded Commission E Online.

 “Efficacy and Safety of Echinacea in Treating Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Children”. The Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 290 No. 21, December 3, 2003.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.