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The Truth about Echinacea

There have been some discouraging studies published over the last three years on the effects of Echinacea preparations. Fortunately, most of these preparations could not be purchased by the general public. Plus, there is a wealth of current research and positive information available.

Some of the most exciting, promising, and innovative research now underway is being conducted by a center already known and loved by many quality-minded consumers. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), awarded the first ever Small Business Initiative grant to a commercial herbal company, Gaia Herbs, Inc., of Brevard, NC.Awarded in 2002, this research grant was designed to fully characterize and optimize all forthcoming preparations of Echinacea for use in future clinical trials by the federal government.

Dr. Xiping Wang, Gaia Herbs' lead scientist, and his team—including a horticulturalist, a botanist specializing in genetic finger printing, and a pharmacognocist—have made several new discoveries. The first characterized the group of compounds known as alkamides, specifically isobutylamides, found in Echinacea angustifolia to be anti-inflammatory, and not immune-stimulating as previously thought. This discovery may explain why Echinacea preparations rich in isobutylamides are so effective at controlling inflammation at the onset of a cold. (Incidentally, Gaia Herbs is the only manufacturer in North America that discloses the level of active alkamides on its label.) High concentrations of this compound are currently analyzed through pharmacokinetic, in vitro, and in vivo studies to determine the specific mechanism through which these compounds are most effective.

Another important discovery was a natural hybridization yielding a plant with much higher concentrations of alkamides and that grows more heartily than Echinacea angustifolia, which is notoriously difficult to cultivate.

These two discoveries are interrelated and will likely yield new products from Echinacea and clarify their uses for consumers. The isobutylamide-rich preparation will be used for the relief of symptoms, such as congestion, scratchy throat, excess mucous secretion. The other preparation would be made from the fresh flowering tops of Echinacea purpurea and will be rich in Arabinogalactan Proteins (AGP), cichoric acid, polysaccharides, and other water-soluble compounds that modulate immune function. This preparation will in effect prime the infection-fighting process on a daily basis.

The most recent study on Echinacea, on which a good deal of this negative backlash is based, was conducted on children through Child Health Institute, University of Washington, and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, WA (JAMA Dec 2003; 290:2824-2830). This study used a preparation of fresh-pressed flowering tops from Echinacea purpurea. The medicine was not standardized, tested for shelf stability, or measured for any of the marker compounds that would indicate potency or therapeutic action; important factors in producing repeatable science. These preparations are not suited to treat symptoms of the common cold because they are immune stimulants and could potentially exacerbate the symptoms, which is what the study reported. It was interesting to note, however, that there was a statistical decrease in the total number of infections incurred by the subjects not on placebo during the four-month period. This would indicate that a fresh-pressed flower juice preparation may be effective as a preventative, not as a treatment.

Viral epidemiologists agree it isn't necessary for the subject to experience the type of inflammation caused by the immune response to the Rhinovirus to fully recover. In one study, 25% of those infected with the Rhinovirus didn't report any symptoms, yet recovered just as quickly as those who reported heavy symptoms.

Echinacea angustifolia root was used for toothaches; dyspepsia; insect, snake, and spider bites; various types of blood dyscrasia; and a wide variety of infectious disease by Native American tribes (Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Teton Sioux) and eclectic medical doctors. These indigenous people knew from experience that the root of this particular species was what produced the most numbing, tongue-tingling sensation that relieved the symptoms associated with colds and toothaches. Medicinal herb growers use organoleptic methods, such as the "taste test," to see when roots are ready for harvest. Gaia Herbs uses this method, plus Good Manufacturing Practices and Standard Operating Procedures to ensure potency through preextraction analytical testing with sophisticated instruments, such as High Pressure Liquid Chromatography and Gas Chromatography. This manufacturer has also developed a patented herbal delivery system called a liquid Phyto-Cap; a liquidfilled, vegetarian, alcohol-free, non-oilbased concentrate.

Other botanicals beneficial for supporting a healthy immune response include olive leaf extract, oil of oregano, black elderberry, and astragalus. Olive leaf has tested positively against numerous bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, and has anti-viral properties. It contains a group of biophenolic compounds known as oleuropins, which have also shown cardio protective properties. Black elderberry has a long tradition in European folk medicine for helping fight the effects of flu. It contains antioxidants that scavenge free radicals, which cause tissue stress from the effects of viral enzymes. Oregano also has a long tradition of use, dating back to ancient Greece. The volatile oils in oregano, specifically carvacrol and thymol, help support a healthy microbial environment in the intestines and throughout the body. Astragalus is a Chinese herb with a respectful history as an immune tonic and helps support a healthy adaptive response to stress.

As the healing practices of both ancient traditions and modern research show, Echinacea effectively supports the immune system and helps shorten the duration and intensity of a cold or the flu when taken in the proper preparation. Gaia Herbs' Echinacea Supreme is one such preparation to earn a place in your medicine cabinet.

For further information about these herbs and to read the published research on Echinacea, please visit Gaia Herbs'.

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Echinacea Supreme