Echinacea: A User's Guide

| September/October 1997

When Kris Chavez decided that she wasn’t going to miss one day of work this year because of a cold, she turned her attention to echinacea. The forty-nine-year-old had read about the herb and was intrigued. Not only had it been used by Native Americans more than any other medicinal plant, but scientific research was backing up its reputation as an effective remedy for the common cold. By the time Chavez stepped into the supplement section of her local health-food store, she felt well-informed. But by the time she left, she felt frustrated and less than eager to try herbal medicine.

Chavez probably isn’t alone in her plight. Take a look at the echinacea shelf of almost any health-food store and the choices before you can be daunting. In a recent visit to a local supplement supplier, Herbs for Health staff members found more than twenty different echinacea products costing an average of $10 apiece, including five specifically for kids. It’s an echinacea jungle out there, and, unless your store has particularly well-informed salespeople standing ready to answer questions, you’re basically on your own.

To help solve that problem, we asked experts for advice on choosing an echinacea product. We hope their guidance gives you confidence as you step up to the echinacea shelf.

An Expert’s Way Of Choosing

Varro Tyler, Ph.D., author of The Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993) and one of the country’s most respected authorities on medicinal herbs, says choosing an echinacea product involves two key factors: product form and plant species.

First, Tyler says, there is some indication that tinctures and extracts—products made of echinacea, alcohol, and water—are more rapidly absorbed than solid forms, including tablets or capsules. However, the drawback of tinctures is that many aren’t standardized, a means of ensuring that a product contains a specific amount of medicinal compounds. On the other hand, some solid forms are standardized by content of echinacosides, compounds found in echinacea. Although it isn’t believed that echinacosides contribute to echinacea’s health benefits, Tyler says, they are valid markers, or identification tags, indicating that the product is indeed made from the echinacea plant. Furthermore, echinacea decomposes readily in liquid, so liquid preparations may not be effective. One way to check the efficacy of an echinacea tincture, he says, is to put a few drops on your tongue. If your tongue tingles, the tincture probably contains echinacea compounds that hold up well in liquid.

Second, echinacea supplements are commonly made from three species of the plant. Echinacea angustifolia and ­ E. pallida roots have been used in the United States since the late 1800s to make echinacea preparations. In Germany, the above-ground parts of E. purpurea are pressed into a juice and sold in a popular liquid echinacea product. In the United States, it was once believed that preparations of E. angustifolia root were best; then it turned out that the species was often confused with its relative, E. pallida. Meanwhile, German users have found products made from E. purpurea to be effective.

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