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Echinacea

 

Before antibiotics came along in the 1930s, one of the most popular products a drug company could sell was echinacea, a native North American flower often called Purple Coneflower. Sold as creams and pills, echinacea products were used to fight both minor infections as well as killers like typhoid, malaria, meningitis, and diphtheria.


Although it might be considered "folk medicine" by many people, echinacea is in the realm of serious medicine in Germany. Companies there extract medicine and squeeze juice from both the roots and leaves of the flower, and they market more than 180 echinacea products.


The German government has approved echinacea to stimulate the immune system and to treat respiratory and urinary infections, connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, abnormal growth of white blood cells, tuberculosis, and multiple sclerosis. Echinacea creams and ointments are used to treat hard-to-heal wounds. Sold without a prescription, echinacea is also a favorite remedy in Germany for colds and flu.


American Indians used echinacea, and they brought the member of the daisy family to the attention of European settlers. In fact, echinacea was one of the most popular herbs among at least 14 tribes of Native Americans. It was used for toothaches, colds, coughs, sore throats, tonsillitis, syphilis, and even snakebites - hence an Indian name for the plant, snakeroot. Other tribes called it "toothache" plant for the numbing effect the herb produces when chewed. Indian medicine men worked wonders with this anesthetic effect. They would rub the mashed root juice on their hands and then handle fire.


A German lay doctor living in Nebraska introduced echinacea into mainstream medicine in 1871. He learned of its healing virtues from Native Americans and began making a patent medicine from it. Echinacea remained a popular remedy until the 1930s when it was displaced by the new antibiotic wonder drug, sulfa.


Today we know this flower as the Purple Kansas Coneflower, Black Sampson, Red Sunflower, the Comb Flower, and, its most widely known moniker, the Purple Coneflower. The perennial plant is native to Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. It has narrow leaves; a stout stem up to 3 feet high; and a single, large, purplish, spiny flower. Nine species of echinacea grow in the United States. Echinacea purpurea is the most commonly used medicinal species, followed by Echinacea angustifolia.


From allergies to arthritis, it keeps swelling down. When one of your body parts swells angrily because of an infection or arthritis, much of the blame can be put on the enzyme hyaluronidase, which destroys cell barriers and allows invaders in. By neutralizing this enzyme, echinacea keeps inflammation down.


Echinacea reduced inflammation by 22 percent in arthritis sufferers, according to one research study. While it is only half as effective as steroids, those drugs frequently have serious side effects such as mood swings, rapid weight gain, swelling, and fatigue while echinacea has virtually none. What's more, steroids suppress the immune system so they increase your risk of infection and illness. Echinacea, on the other hand, supports the immune system and aids the body in healing.

 

Echinacea may even halt the progress of degenerative inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The Purple Coneflower heals inflammatory skin conditions like poison ivy, eczema, impetigo, and psoriasis. Other studies show it reduces or prevents the redness and swelling of allergic skin reactions.


Its anti-inflammatory properties may be the reason echinacea is effective in treating chronic enlarged prostate gland, pelvic inflammatory disease, and respiratory allergies.

Immune system enhancer. In 1978, German scientists put human cells in test tubes; treated the cells with echinacea; then infected them with flu, herpes, and canker sore viruses. The echinacea increased the cells' resistance to infection by 50 to 80 percent - exactly the same as treatment with interferon, a key protein in your body's natural defense system.


Interferon keeps viruses from multiplying and ties up receptors on cells that viruses would normally attach to. Researchers aren't sure whether echinacea actually works like interferon or whether it stimulates the immune system to produce more interferon. Or both. Either way the results are the same - reduced infection.

 

A strong immune system becomes vitally important as time subjects us more and more to the ravages of free radicals. The better your immune system works, the better you can fight off illness and remain healthy and "young." Scientific studies clearly show how echinacea boosts immune function:


Echinacea stimulates the lymph system to clean up waste material, bacteria, and other invaders and toxins from the blood. The flower puts several of our natural infectionkillers to work. Macrophages, specialized white blood cells that engulf bacteria and viruses at the site of an infection, get more active in the presence of echinacea. And echinacea seems to increase production of white blood cells called T lymphocytes (T cells), which are the body's main defense against acute bacterial infection as well as cancerous cells. T cells are also important in producing B lymphocytes (B cells), which make antibodies targeted to specific enemies. And third, echinacea stimulates two proteins that help prevent or diminish infection - interferon and properdin. Properdin actually attaches to the surface of invaders and causes them to explode.


Echinacea also helps cells set up a barrier against invading bacteria. It neutralizes an enzyme called hyaluronidase that invites infecting invaders into cells, and echinacea increases the strength of the cell wall to keep out invading germs.


The flower even helps regenerate cell-connecting tissue destroyed during an infection.


Cancer treatment. Because it enhances the immune system, echinacea may be a weapon against cancer. In studies, oil extracted from echinacea fought the growth of two types of cancer - lymphatic leukemia and Walker's carcinosarcoma.


Echinacea could especially benefit people with cancer who are getting radiation and chemotherapy treatments because it naturally stimulates your own defenses - particularly important when your immune system is suppressed by those standard cancer treatments. Studies found the flower increased the number of white blood cells in people undergoing radiation.
 

Fights cold and flu. In Germany, echinacea is listed by the government as a standard, accepted treatment for colds, coughs, sore throats, and flu. Echinacea's antiviral role is especially important because antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.


You might consider taking it during cold and flu season. After symptoms appear, the herb also seems to relieve symptoms and help you get over colds, flu, chronic upper respiratory tract infections, and ear infections faster.


Commonly, people report they begin taking echinacea extract at the first sign of a cold and often, to their surprise, they find the cold disappears within 24 hours, sometimes after taking the extract only once.

Skin problems. Echinacea's capacity to stop bacteria from entering cells makes it an excellent treatment for skin conditions such as cuts, burns, scrapes, mouth and gum infections, vaginal infections, and even acne. Echinacea acts as an antibiotic against the bacteria staph and strep, which commonly cause skin infections. This makes it an effective treatment for strep throat, too.


Echinacea actually aids blood clotting - essential to healing open wounds - and stimulates the growth of new tissue. All of these qualities make echinacea particularly valuable in treating wounds that are slow to heal.


Echinacea has proved useful against other skin conditions such as warts, chronic skin ulcers, boils and abscesses, and frostbite, as well as insect bites.

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