Echinacea: A review of a popular American herb

At present times, Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower,  is commonly used as an immune booster.  This is an appropriate use of this herb, but few people are familiar with the true versatility of this herb.  Echinacea is in the Composite family (the same as dandelions) and is native to the United States.  East of the Mississippi it is present as Echinacea purpurea; on the western prairies, Echinacea augustifolia.  The Indians of the east coast did not use the plant frequently, but E. augustifolia was commonly used by the Plains Indians.  Today both are used interchangeably and research has demonstrated that they both contain similar constituents; however, the eclectic physicians of the nineteenth century felt that E. purpurea was not as potent as the western variety.

  1. augustifolia was initially marketed as “snake oil” by Dr. H. C. F. Meyer, who learned from the Indians that it could be used to treat snake bites. It was indeed used by the Indians for this purpose; Dr. Meyer not only claimed to have cured over 600 snakebite cases, but also allowed himself to be bitten by rattlesnakes to substantiate this assertion (I do not recommend emulating  Dr. Meyer in this endeavor).  By 1887, the leading eclectic physicians had introduced the herb into their practice, with one of them, Dr. John King, using Echinacea to give comfort and rest to his cancer ridden wife.  One of the most famous eclectic physicians, Dr. Harvey Felter, wrote in 1927 that Echinacea was a remedy to be used “where the blood stream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination imperfect…and there is developed…septic action…resulting in boils, abscesses and other septicemic processes.”  Matthew Wood described using raw Echinacea extract for this purpose on a man with multiple boils upon his face.  The fellow was instructed to apply the extract directly on the boils and to take it internally as well.  Six months later he returned with a “smooth complexion and a smile on his face.”

Perhaps the most characteristic indication for the use of Echinacea is in cases of utter exhaustion, often with a low grade fever (perhaps this is one reason why it gave comfort to Dr. King’s wife), befuddlement, chilliness and offensive discharges.  Matthew Wood also described using Echinacea on a farmer who literally worked himself to the brink of collapse, arriving at his office feverish and confused.  Historically, it was used to treat typhoid, diptheria, childhood exanthems (such as measles) and the poor effects of vaccinations, all conditions marked by overwhelming fatigue.

Echinacea is described as an herb with diffusive properties, meaning it produces numbness and tingling on the tongue when ingested.  Diffusive herbs tend to focus on a particular part of the body, in this case the lymph and blood.  The doctrine of signatures, which states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used treat ailments of those body parts, supports the use of Echinacea described above.  The flower petals are purple, suggesting its usefulness on the blood especially with blood stasis (as a practitioner of Chinese medicine might say), while the central mound of the flower indicates its characteristic usefulness for boils.

Modern research has shown Echinacea to potentiate the immune system by increasing the activity of white blood cells and by raising interferon levels.  It has very a mild propensity to assist in clot formation, stimulates T-lymphocytes and promotes phagocytosis, the process by which a white blood cell engulfs and destroys a microbe.  Its anti-viral activity has been well documented.

In summary, Echinacea has historically proven itself as a useful remedy for beestings, spider bites and snakebites.  It is an excellent immune stimulator, especially when exhaustion is part of the picture.  It can be used for boils and acne, both internally and externally, specifically when these ailments are a sign of either infection or a need for internal detoxification.  Large doses are unnecessary (and may in fact depress the immune system), but small doses (one to ten drops) taken repeatedly for a brief period of time -less than a month- will dramatically support the ailing immune system.

Dr. Daniel Smith practices at Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic on 1012 E. Jackson St.  He specializes in naturopathic oncology, but still maintains a strong family practice, treating all manner of conditions.  He can be reached at 541-770-5563 or drdanielnd@gmail.com.  Please ask specifically for Dr. Dan.