Echinacea Purpurea: Benefits, Uses & History

What It Is And Where It’s Found

Echinacea purpurea, also known as purple coneflower, is a flowering plant in the sunflower family. 

It is most commonly found in certain parts of Eastern North America, but is also present to a lesser extent in much of the southeastern, eastern, and midwestern United States. It has also been spotted in Ontario in Canada.

It’s a very tall flower that typically grows to 2 to 4 feet tall. It grows best in temperate regions, in dry open woods and prairies, and prefers well-drained soils in full sun – it’s a tough little plant that’s even able to survive droughts. 

It can also bloom in the shade. It is a perennial plant, which means that it lasts for over two years at a time.

What’s different about Echinacea purpurea is that it’s hermaphroditic, which means that it has both male and female organs in each flower.

It bears a fruit known as achene, which is much sought after by certain bird species. And rabbits are inclined to eat the foliage.

Summary of Medicinal Uses

Echinacea purpurea is best known for its positive effects on the immune system. But that’s not by any means its sole medicinal benefit. It has also been shown to lower blood sugar levels, reduce anxiety, reduce inflammation, and treat skin conditions. There’s also data to suggest that it can help protect against cancer, although this theory requires more research. We’ll be covering these medicinal uses in more depth later in the article.

You can buy it as a dried herb, or you can buy the extract in the form of a capsule, or you can buy the extract as a tincture, which you consume by adding a few drops to a glass of water. 

History Of Echinacea Purpurea

Naming of the plant

Echinacea purpurea was originally named Rudbeckia purpurea in 1753 but it was reclassified in 1794 by Conrad Moench, in a new genus named Echinacea purpurea. 

Then in 1818 a new variety of Echinacea purpurea was discovered and was named Rudbeckia purpurea var. serotina. Two decades later, it was decided that Echinacea purpurea should really come under the category of Echinacea serotina. However, despite this the authors of the classification data agreed to retain the original names so as not to confuse gardeners and herbalists.

“Echinacea” is derived from Greek, meaning ‘spiny one’, in reference to how the ripe flower heads of the species resemble spiny sea urchins. “Purpurea” meanwhile means “reddish-purple” describing the flower’s color.

History of its use beginning in the 1700s

Compared to most other medicinal plants, the history of the use of Echinacea purpurea is relatively short. The first archaeological evidence of its medicinal uses dates back to the 1700s, when it was used by the indigenous Indians.

Traditional healers amongst the indigenous Indians would apply Echinacea purpurea externally in order to treat wounds, burns and insect bites.

But that’s not all. These healers also found health benefits from chewing the roots of the plant. They found that chewing the roots could ease toothache, fight throat infections, provide pain relief, help with coughs and stomach cramps, and even help to treat snake bites.

The first Echinacea purpurea preparation

White settlers in North America soon turned their attention to this helpful little herb and at around 1880, the first ever Echinacea preparation was made, known as Meyer’s Blood purifier. It was marketed as a drug to treat rheumatism, neuralgia, and bites from rattlesnakes.

Echinacea purpurea in the 20th century

By the early 20th century, Echinacea purpurea was the most frequently used herbal remedy in the United States. And its use soon spread to Europe as well. Commercial cultivation began in Germany around 1939. It was then introduced and cultivated in Switzerland around 1950. 

Interest in the health benefits of the Echinacea purpurea extract soon grew further still amongst chemists and pharmacologists, and the exact constituents were soon identified. They include polysaccharides, cichoric acid, alkylamides, echinacoside, and ketoalkenes. 

It is now generally accepted that Echinacea purpurea extract has significant benefits for the immune system, and it continues to be used in pharmaceutics the world over as one of the most widely medically cultivated species of its genus.

Medicinal Uses Of Echinacea Purpurea Extract

Boosting of the Immune System

Echinacea purpurea extract is best known for its effects on the immune system. 

There have been many studies that have looked into how the herb boosts the immune system while the user has infections or viruses, showing that users of the extract recover far quicker from infections and viruses than those who do not take the extract.

But that’s not all, a review of several studies has shown that taking Echinacea purpurea extract can help to lower the risk of developing a cold by more than a whopping 50 %. And if you do still go on to catch a cold while taking it, it can shorten the duration of said cold by approximately one and a half days.

However, one study found that while there may be some weak benefit in using Echinacea products to treat the common cold, it was not shown to be statistically significant.

The Science

It appears to have several mechanisms of action. It can be used to mobilize leukocytes, which are blood cells that make up part of the immune system that help the body to fight infection.

It is also thought to activate phagocytosis, which is the ingestion of bacteria and other foreign material by phagocytes of the immune system. 

Echinacea purpurea extract has also been shown to stimulate the formation of fibroblasts, which is an important biological cell found in connective tissue that releases collagen and plays a critical role in the healing of wounds.

However, since studies of the potential health benefits of Echinacea purpurea are few and far between, and these studies are often of low quality and don’t always show a significant difference, when this article was written, the United States Food and Drug Administration has not approved echinacea as safe and effective for any health or medical purposes. 

Use in Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy for Cancer Treatment

Because of its long known benefit to the immune system, Echinacea purpurea has been implemented in chemotherapy medications designed to tackle cancers, in order to reduce the side effects of the chemotherapy. 

However, this is not recommended. Some studies have shown that it can not only reduce the efficacy of other anticancer medications, but it can also cause adverse effects such as allergic reactions. 

Moreover, Cancer Research UK concludes that there is no scientific evidence that echinacea can help treat, prevent or cure cancer.

There have been a small handful of test tube studies that show that an extract of Echinacea purpurea combined with chicoric acid can trigger cancer cell death and suppress cancer cell growth. But this has not been replicated in animal or human studies and as such is not recommended.

Use Against COVID-19

Test tube studies have shown that echinacea purpurea has an antiviral effect against coronaviruses. However, because studies have yet to be carried out on humans (when this article was written) it is not recommended for the treatment of COVID-19 in humans.

How to take Echinacea to boost your immune system in the short term

If you come down with a cold, the flu, or an upper respiratory tract infection, then you can take echinacea purpurea extract 3 times a day until you feel better. However, it is important that you do not take echinacea on an empty stomach, you must be sure to take it with food or drink.

As things stand at the moment, there is no official dosage recommended for echinacea. So our advice would be to stick to the dosage instructions provided with your echinacea supplement as best you can.

A quick word of caution however – we strongly recommend that you obtain your echinacea from a good, trusted, and well established brand. One reason being that one study of echinacea products found that 10% of the echinacea supplements examined didn’t actually contain any echinacea at all. So be careful.

Why it’s best not to use echinacea over the long term

There are those who take echinacea when they do not have a cold or flu in order to boost their immune system generally and as a way to prevent colds and flu like symptoms. However, this is not recommended because it’s long term safety has not been thoroughly studied, and there are a number of different potential side effects to consider. (More on that later.)

If you feel as though you have a low immune system and wish to prevent colds and flu, it is our advice to please consult with your doctor in the first instance. A flu vaccination may prove to be a better option for you.

If you have an autoimmune condition, then it’s even more important to consult with a doctor before attempting to self-treat with herbal remedies such as echinacea purpurea extract. 

Lowering of Blood Sugar Levels

High levels of sugar in the blood can be a sign of risk of serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a number of other chronic health conditions.

In one study, Echinacea purpurea extract was shown to suppress some of the enzymes that digest carbohydrates. And it is thought that this would reduce the amount of sugar entering your blood if consumed.

Moreover, a  further study has shown that echinacea extracts make cells more sensitive to the effects of insulin. It is thought that this effect is achieved by activating the PPAR-y receptor, which is a common target of diabetes medications.

The PPAR-y receptor removes excess fat in the blood, a known risk factor for insulin resistance. This removal of fat from the blood makes it easier for cells to respond to both insulin and sugar.

It is important to note at this point however, that much of this research has been carried out in test tubes, and there’s been very little research done on this on humans or animals.

Anti-inflammatory Properties

Inflammation occurs naturally when your body’s immune system begins to defend itself from infection. However, this can soon get out of hand and be quite problematic, lasting far longer than it ought to.

Luckily, however, a number of studies have shown that echinacea can be used to reduce excessive inflammation. And one study looking into sufferers of osteoarthritis discovered that taking echinacea extract not only significantly reduced inflammation, but it also reduced chronic pain and swelling.

Antioxidant Properties

Echinacea purpurea is loaded with antioxidants, which are molecules that help to defend the cells of your body against oxidative damage. And since oxidative damage is linked to ageing and certain chronic diseases such as heart diseases and diabetes, there has been speculation that Echinacea purpurea can help prevent these also.

In addition to containing antioxidant molecules, Echinacea purpurea also features compounds known as alkamides. These alkamides are thought to enhance antioxidant activity, due to their ability to renew worn-out antioxidants, and help these molecules to better reach those cells which are prone to oxidative damage.

Treatment of Skin Conditions

Some studies have shown that echinacea purpurea extract can improve symptoms of eczema, and help to repair the thin outer layer of skin.

And one study found that echinacea can help with skin hydration, and even reduce wrinkles.

Potential Side Effects

When used short term over a few days or weeks, echinacea appears to be fairly safe to use. However, the long-term effects still remain unresearched.

But even with short-term use, side effects can occur. There are several known side effects to echinacea extracts. These include:

  • Rashes
  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling
  • Stomach pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hives, and 
  • Nausea 

It is important to note at this point however that not everyone will get these side effects, and they are more common in people who experience allergies to other flowers.