The Health Benefits of Echinacea

Can a tea made from purple cone flowers stave off colds and illnesses?

Echinacea purpurea flower

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Echinacea is a perennial plant commonly grown in North America and Europe and closely related to sunflower, daisy, and ragweed. Echinacea is a popular remedy for colds, flu, and other infections, as it is thought to help boost immunity. 

Some people also believe that echinacea tea can alleviate pain, prevent cancer, improve mental health, and relieve skin problems. But the scientific community does not agree on the benefits of echinacea tea and some have expressed concerns regarding echinacea's side effects.

Commonly Known As:

  • Echinacea purpurea
  • Echinacea angustifolia 
  • Echinacea pallida

What Is Echinacea Tea?

Echinacea tea is an herbal drink most commonly made from the Echinacea purpurea plant. This is different from traditional teas—black tea, white tea, green tea, and oolong tea—which are manufactured using leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Other varieties, including E. angustifolia and E. pallida, may also be used as an ingredient in some teas and extracts. Usually, the purple, cone-shaped flower of the plant is dried or cut fresh to make tea, but echinacea roots and leaves may also be used.

There is no caffeine in echinacea tea. So when you drink this herbal tea, you are not likely to get the boost of energy that you may get from drinking caffeinated teas.

Echinacea Flavor Profile

The taste of echinacea tea can be somewhat strong. Some describe the flavor as being earthy or floral, and its medicinal compounds often have a tongue-tingling effect. In fact, some herbal product makers regard this latter quality as evidence of the herb's effectiveness.

Echinacea is commonly combined with mint or other ingredients, such as lemongrass, to make a more pleasant-tasting tea. If you don't like the taste of echinacea tea, you might choose to consume echinacea in tablet or tincture form instead.

Health Benefits

Echinacea has a long history of being used as an herbal treatment. American Indians were known to have used the treatment for a wide range of ailments before western settlers began using it in the 1800s. Because it has a long history of use, researchers have been studying the herb for decades, with mixed results. 

Cold and Flu Prevention

Echinacea is widely touted as an immune booster that can help prevent cold and flu. However, in 2014, a study in Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews analyzed 24 double-blind trials of echinacea with a total of 4,631 participants and found weak evidence to support the herb's effectiveness for this purpose.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health concedes on this issue somewhat, stating that this herb might help prevent colds, but only slightly. It adds that there isn't enough proof to say that it will reduce the duration of a cold should you catch one.

Reduced Respiratory Infections

A 2015 meta-analysis of six different studies reported that there is enough evidence to suggest that echinacea might reduce the risk of a respiratory infection that tends to reoccur. It also indicated that taking echinacea may even reduce complications associated with these infections.

A 2019 study agrees that this herb does show promise for preventing upper respiratory tract infections, yet there are also weaknesses in study methodology and reporting, so the evidence is somewhat limited.

Anxiety Relief

Another 2019 study involved participants taking either 40 milligrams of echinacea twice a day or a placebo. After seven days, those taking the echinacea lowered their anxiety scores by 11 points, whereas the placebo group only lowered theirs by 3 points. This difference remained three weeks later.

A 2021 study found that, while Echinacea angustifolia didn't appear to improve anxiety, it was associated with improvements in affect and emotional wellbeing.

Study results are mixed on echinacea's health benefits, with some research finding that it helps with certain issues and others finding no effect.

Possible Side Effects

According to the National Institutes of Health, echinacea is probably safe for most people, although some experience side effects such as stomach pain, nausea, headache, or dizziness. In rare cases, severe allergic reactions may occur, especially in those allergic to ragweed, mums, marigolds, or daisies. 

People who take immunosuppressant medications or tamoxifen, have allergies or asthma, are pregnant or nursing, or who are undergoing eyelid surgery should not use echinacea. Echinacea may also interfere with some other medications. Talk to your doctor if you are taking medication or currently managing a medical condition to make sure that echinacea is safe for you.

Dosage and Preparations

There is no recommended daily allowance of echinacea. It is sold in capsules, tinctures, and teas. You can also purchase loose leaf echinacea tea or tea bags online and in many health food stores. To prepare loose leaf echinacea tea:

  • Place flowers, leaves, and roots of an echinacea plant in a teacup. Be sure that the plant parts are free of dirt. 
  • Bring water to a boil and then let sit for a minute to reduce the temperature just slightly. 
  • Pour 8 ounces of water over the plant parts.
  • Let the tea steep for as long as desired. It will usually take longer than steeping traditional teas—up to 15 minutes. 
  • Strain to remove the flowers, roots, and leaves.
  • Flavor to taste before drinking.

Add honey, ginger, or other flavor enhancements and experiment with different flavors to find a combination that you enjoy.

What to Look For

Most studies investigating the effectiveness of echinacea generally use an extract form of the herb, not tea. Unfortunately, consumers can't verify the integrity of the herbal supplements or teas that they purchase in stores.

When selecting a brand of supplement or tea, look for products that have been certified by Consumer Labs, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take echinacea to work?

Echinacea should be taken at the first sign of a cold or illness. Alternative medicine practitioners recommend drinking echinacea tea several times throughout the day for about a week.

Does echinacea kill good bacteria?

No. Echinacea has immune-boosting properties, but it is not an antibiotic. So, unlike prescription antibiotics, echinacea does not kill bacteria—good or bad. It does not appear to have a negative impact on gut health, but it may cause stomachaches and nausea in some individuals.

I'm allergic to ragweed. Is echinacea safe?

Echinacea comes from coneflowers, which are closely related to sunflowers, daisies, and ragweed. If you are allergic to ragweed, mums, marigolds, or daisies, do not take echinacea as it may cause severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis.

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