Echinacea

c.2018 Greg Tilford

Echinacea species                    Sunflower family

Appearance:     Echinacea (also known as “Purple Coneflower;”) is a taprooted perennial which may grow as high as 40″ .  Nine species of Echinacea  are native to North America; all have flowers with distinctive, cone-like central disks.  The rays of most species droop away from the disk when mature; with the most common species ranging in color from pale to dark purple.     Echinacea purpurea (illus.) is by far the most widely distributed species in North America.  For several decades this species has become very popular as a medicinal herb and garden flower. Dozens of cultivars of E. purpurea have been developed;  and it is estimated that the entire world market supply of this species comes from cultivated plants.   However, several other species, such as E. angustifolia and E. pallida  are quickly succumbing to commercial and environmental pressures.

Habitat & Range: In the West, Echinacea is largely an introduced plant.   Partial to open plains and wood lands, it’s natural range once extended from Eastern Canada, south into the Ozarks, and west throughout the corn belt states, to the east slopes of the Rockies.  Market pressures and continuing loss of habitat have eliminated most of the wild stands of Echinacea.  Its range continues to shrink… and today only small, isolated populations of wild Echinacea survive west of the Missouri River.

Cycle & Bloom Season:  A perennial which blooms early to late summer (depending on climate)

Parts Used:  Roots, leaves, stems, and flowers..

Actions:  Immunostimulant, antimicrobial.

Affinities:  Immune system, lymph system, urinary tract.

Preparation:  Tincture, decoction, dried and powdered root, or direct feeding of the fresh leaves, stems and flowers.

Specific Uses:  First and foremost, echinacea is an immune-supporting herb — it  serves to support intact immune functions through stimulatory and strengthening actions at various levels within the body.

No single constituent contained in the root or flowering upper parts of echinacea can be attributed to the immune-tonifying functions of this plant.  Instead, most herbalists  agree that the complex structure of this plant should be viewed as a therapeutic synergy of dozens of biochemical influences.  However, a few key constituents stand out as strong clues into exactly how echinacea works.

A great deal of scientific research has identified echinacea’s most influential immunostimulatory components as an extensive array of caffeic acids, volatile oils, polysaccharides, polyenes, polyines, and isobutylamides.   In simpler terms: echinacea’s immunostimulatory qualities are derived from a wide array of chemical compounds that allow the plant to be used in a variety of forms without sacrificing its effectiveness.  For instance, while many of the acid constituents in echinacea are poorly water soluble and require a strong alcohol base to extract them into a tincture form, the plant’s polysaccharide constituents are  exactly the opposite — they are easily extracted into water — and in fact are largely destroyed by alcohol.  Since both of these  chemical groups have been shown to possess strong immunostimulatory qualities, it seems that the plant is naturally designed  to accommodate a wide variety of metabolic needs.

Echinacea serves to support disease resistance several ways.  At blood level,  it accelerates phagocytosis; the means by which macrophages and other antibodies attack and remove bacteria.  At cellular levels, echinacea helps to reduce the production of an enzyme that breaks down hyaluronic acid; the compound which occurs between cells to bind them together.  By helping to eliminate this enzyme at the onset of an infection, it is believed that body tissues are less pervious to invading microbes, and in turn the invaders are more vulnerable to scavenging antibodies that have already been stimulated into action.  Echinacea has also been shown to stimulate the lymph system, thus helping the body in eliminating waste materials from the tissues, and it possesses measurable antimicrobial qualities which serve to assist the body’s fight against infection by intervening with invading bacteria at the point of invasion.

            Echinacea’s multi-directional means of immune system support , its primary usefulness depends on a healthy immune system.   Without a healthy population of unencumbered antibodies to work with, echinacea’s capacity to fight infection is limited to its simple, and less-than-impressive, antiseptic actions.  This means that timing is critical to echinacea’s effectiveness — this herb should be employed at the first onset of infectious symptoms, otherwise its activity will amount to a losing battle against microbiotic opponents that have already fortified their positions in the body.

Learn to recognize minute variances in your animal’s behavior and feeding habits.  Take extra time to give your pet a cursory examination during your daily grooming session or play times, and look for anything which may point to the introduction of an infection — an inflamed gum, a swollen flea bite, or a slightly runny nose may be indicators for the proactive use of echinacea.  If you are too late, and an infection has set in,  a great deal of echinacea’s potential effectiveness has been lost, and it’s time to consider calling in some other troops from the herbal army.   Don’t despair… try boosting echinacea with a small percentage of an antiseptic herb such as oregon grape, usnea , or organically grown goldenseal.  By combining echinacea with about 10% of one of these herbs, you will be offering a small measure of direct antiseptic intervention, without compromising populations of the beneficial microbes the body needs to help with its fight.  Topical application of antiseptics, directly onto the point of infection, will also aid in the healing effort.

So how much echinacea should you give?… For how long?… In what form?

Many people think that the potency of an echinacea preparation can be determined by the intensity of the tingling sensation it causes when placed on the tongue.  If this is your current method of judging echinacea preparations, please abandon it — a great deal of recent and continuing research has shown that the isobutylmides that are responsible for this sensation represent only a fragment of echinacea’s active constituents, and that their absence may not effect the overall effectiveness of echinacea3,.  In fact, the more we learn about echinacea, the more complex and diverse its medicinal actions become.

There is no  best kind of echinacea  preparation per se —  as long as care and quality has gone into propagation, harvest, and manufacture of the end product, all forms of echinacea preparations will contain adequate medicinal constituents to get the job done.  The question of what form of preparation to use internally in your animal hinges on what it takes to get a therapeutic quantity into the animal.  Echinacea is by no means a pleasant -tasting herb, and its administration  is compounded when we  consider the short digestive tracts and faster metabolisms of dogs and cats.   In these animals, the problem isn’t finding a preparation that contains high enough concentrations of active constituents, but finding one that is both palatable and fully assimilable by their short digestive tracts.  Cats in particular, don’t like alcohol and the sour-tingle that these extracts impart on the tongue (they typically foam at the mouth and sometimes act like you are force-feeding them a vial, poisonous fluid from the bowels of hell).   Dogs typically drink from toilets without complaint, and are somewhat less picky — but gel caps will often pass directly through them, undigested. Therefore, I prefer to use a low-alcohol, glycerin extract for the carnivores.  Glycerin-based preparations are low in tongue-tingling isobutylmides, but rich in readily-available polysaccharide constituents, and the sweet taste of the vegetable glycerin helps mask the unpleasant flavor of the herb.   Herbivores are  naturally designed to efficiently metabolize plant materials, and horses, goats, llamas and other large animals can be fed the flowering plants — or dried root can be added to their feed.

Dosage and duration of use is variable upon the needs and individual nuances of the animal, but a conservative rule for dogs and cats is to give 12 – 25 drops of the tincture, three times daily.  Horses, cattle, sheep, and other large animals can be fed a couple of handsfull of the dried, whole flowering herb per day.   Several high quality, powdered echinacea preparations are now available for equines and other large animals as well… use them as directed by your veterinarian or as suggested on the label.

In recent years, a rather heated controversy has arisen within the herbalist community concerning how long echinacea can be used before the body builds a tolerance to its immune stimulating actions.  In a  German study conducted  in 1989, a diminished response to echinacea was recorded in human subjects,  after five to ten days of normal dose administration4.   This raised questions of whether or not echinacea is effective when used over a long term.  However, closer scrutiny of this study has since concluded that while echinacea’s activity does fall off sharply after about five days of use, its long term use still maintains a higher level of immune system activity than that observed prior to its initial administration.   However, many herbalists believe that breaking the continuity of echinacea use every 5 to 10 days will allow for a greater immune boost, each time the therapy is reestablished after a two or three day break.  I agree, and believe that a break is necessary in any case, to monitor the unassisted recovery of the  animal.  Five days on; two or three days off is a good guideline to follow.

Aside from its immune-stimulating qualities, echinacea is a very good antimicrobial for the mouth and urinary tract.  It is very useful for treating bacterial or fungal infections of the bladder or urethra, especially when added to a demulcent and anti-inflammatory combination of herbs (see “Genitourinary Problems”).  Echinacea also has a long-standing reputation as a snake bite remedy.  Used internally and externally simultaneously, the herb is said to antidote the venom.  Although little scientific evidence exists to support such claims, hundreds of years worth of use amounts to more than folkloric trivia.  Knowing that about 85% of rattlesnake bites  involve only a partial injection of venom (or no injection at all), its is likely that echinacea serves to more to ward off infection and prevent tissue damage than to actually nullify the venom.  Echinacea works very well at releiving the pain and swelling of most insect bites and stings, especially when applied as a clay poultice.  See “Bites and Stings”, and the chapter on making herbal preparations for more information and recipes.

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