Echinacea is a botanical (plant) product of the herb category. Although it has been used for centuries as a cure for anything and everything, in modern times of more regulated elucidation, it has been suggested that it helps to temporarily improve immune function. Simply stated, it is claimed that echinacea can boost the body's immune system to help combat various infections.

Before we review echinacea, we must ask ourselves, what do we mean by "improving of immune function?" Our immune system is a collection of cells, cell products, as well as other tissues (also composed of cells), which function in keeping out foreign substances and microorganisms. Several cell types of the immune system patrol the body, detecting "potential threats" to our health. Upon recognition, these cells may immediately destroy the assumed threat. These immune cells may also partially digest and process the product, in order to provide the immune system with a "memory" of the particular threat, in the case we are subjected to the same intruder on a future occasion. Although the immune system is a wonderfully elaborate system capable of defending against a multitude of potential threats, such as pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, etc., the immune system sometimes over-reacts to normally harmless substances such as pollen. When this situation occurs, the immune system has developed for us, what we call an allergy. Although the immune system may have its flaws, it is essential to life. Without the immune system, we would succumb to infection and die within days. Therefore, we can see the importance of this part of our composition.

On its own, the healthy immune system pretty much does the job of protecting us from the outside world. The immune system fails in many respects when it comes to protecting us from "tumours" or malignancies. It would be nice if the immune system could accomplish this. However, the immune system has limitations (from a practical standpoint) of only being able to differentiate our own cells from foreign substances. Unfortunately, cancers and the like, form from our own cells, so this makes it difficult for the immune system to "notice" them. However, there are occasions when the immune system can help in these situations, especially depending on degrees of differentation of the cancer cells. And if malignant, or premaligmant cancer cells have been made this way from viruses (eg., human papilloma viruses), the immune system can sometimes eradicate the infected cells over time, dependig on the subtype of virus).

Back to the basics.... As we've said, echinacea is a plant product. Just as there are different types of dogs, cats, etc, there are a few different species of echinacea that we know of. E. purpurea ("E" for echinacea), E. angustifolia, and E. pallida are the three species of echinacea that are used for human consumption. The supplements marketed can come from any part of the plant (eg., root). It is also important to realize that we are still trying to elucidate what chemicals in echinacea are actually responsible for doing what is claimed. There are types of chemicals called "phenols," such as caftaric acid and cichoric acid that are contained in the plant which may boost immune function. There are also certain sugars that may also have an effect. A yet undiscovered chemical in echinacea may also be responsible. Logically, with testing, time will eventually tell what the story here is. Keep in mind that different species of echinacea may contain different amount of substances. Additionally, depending on where they were grown and in what type of soils, composition will vary. Traces of minerals such as lead, etc., may also be found in echinacea and this too, will vary upon where it was grown.

As a health product, echinacea seems to be reasonably safe. Its claims are that it can help reduce the "healing" or recovery phase of colds, flues, and possible other infections. Remember that echinacea cannot prevent infection. But, if echinacea can reduce the recovery period, and reduce symptons, that would be nice in my book. The only grey area is in the testing. When we test a product like this we basically do one thing. We gather a group of peope with an ongoing infection (colds, for example). We then split them into 2 groups. We give group A echinacea and give nothing to group B. We interview the participants each day and ask them how they feel. If a significantly large number of group A (talking echinacea) say that they feel less miserable than group B, then we build confidence in this product. This is the jist of it. We conducted a study of the efficacy of echinacea with a small group of individuals, and there was a slight decrease in recovery time. Although small in our study, any help is appreciated when you're feeling miserable with an annoying cold or flu. Hey! Be careful, if the echinacea happens to help you recover more quickly, then the boss will want you back at work sooner.. :op

Don't forget! Vitamin C also helps significantly for a cold. flu and other infections. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) helps to rebuild tissues that are damaged from infection. Vitamin C also can act as an antihistamine, possibly partially or totally alleviating those stuffy noses during a cold, flu and even allergy attacks..

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