Immune system: Recent echinacea study is flawed

Date: 18 August, 2005

It’s time once again to fill in some key details the media has left out.

If you’ve ever successfully used echinacea to help prevent or treat common colds, you might have been surprised to find out that this herb doesn’t work.

Well, that’s the conclusion American researchers from the University of Virginia (UV) School of Medicine came up with, anyway. Problem is…there are some glaring weaknesses in this study. And it’s a shame, because 1) many people may now shy away from using echinacea products, and 2) the researchers could have put to use an ideal design for an echinacea study, developed by an HSI Panellist.

Echinacea tested against virus
The UV team recruited about 400 students. All of them received a squirt up the nose of rhinovirus (a common virus that prompts upper respiratory infections). Half of the group began taking echinacea or a placebo seven days before being ‘challenged’ with the rhinovirus. The other subjects began taking echinacea right after they received the virus.

After five days of treatment researchers concluded that echinacea produced no significant effects on rates of infection or severity of symptoms.

Those are the nut and bolts. Now…Problem Number 1: Dosage. Subjects were given 1.5 ml doses of echinacea three times each day. This is the dosage level set by the German government. And while it might be perfect for German regulators, it’s only ONE THIRD the dose that’s recommended in most products. So right off the top, this herb was put at a disadvantage.

Problem Number 2: The researchers prepared the extract used in the study. And – who knows? – they might have done a very good job of it. But if you were going to use an herbal product, would you choose one manufactured by a reputable company with expertise in this area, or one prepared by researchers with expertise in…research?

Problem Number 3: Remember when you were young and felt invincible? All of the subjects in this study were students. Here’s how US HSI Panellist Jon Barron looked at this factor: ‘College students, tend to be at an age where they have highly competent immune systems to begin with, so the effects of immune system boosting would be less noticeable than in many other groups.’

Three strikes and…youre out!

It’s an immune system thing
That third problem mentioned above is the key to the way echinacea SHOULD be tested. In many previous studies this botanical has been shown to enhance the immune system. For some people – not all, but some – this enhancement helps prevent colds and flu and may shorten the duration of symptoms.

So instead of squirting virus up the noses of healthy young things, Jon Barron has a better idea. He writes: ‘If you truly want to test the ability of echinacea to boost the immune system, find a test group that has below normal white cell counts, supplement with high quality echinacea extract and test to see if the white cell counts go up.’

Sounds like an excellent plan. If only researchers would take it to heart and the media would report it fairly.

The root of goodness
I’ll say this for the University of Virginia study: They got one detail right. In preparing their extract they used only the roots of the plant, which is the most potent part. As Jon noted in 2003 when he was defending another attack on echinacea: ‘Potency runs from seed to root to leaf to almost none in the flower.’

So when you’re shopping for an echinacea product, look for the word ‘root’ on the label, and avoid ‘flowers.’ Not only are flowers lowest in potency, they also contain pollen which may trigger allergic reactions in some users.

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