Echinacea, also called purple coneflower, is one of the most popular herbs worldwide.
Native Americans have used it for centuries to treat various ailments.
Today, it’s best known as an over-the-counter herbal remedy for the common cold or flu. However, it’s also used to treat pain, inflammation, migraines and other health issues.
This article reviews the benefits, uses, side effects and dosage of echinacea.
Echinacea is the name of a group of flowering plants in the daisy family.
They’re native to North America where they grow in prairies and open, wooded areas.
Altogether, this group has nine species, but only three are used in herbal supplements — Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida (1).
Both the plant's upper parts and roots are used in tablets, tinctures, extracts and teas.
Echinacea plants contain an impressive variety of active compounds, such as caffeic acid, alkamides, phenolic acids, rosmarinic acid, polyacetylenes and many more (2).
In addition, studies have linked echinacea and their compounds to many health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, improved immunity and lower blood sugar levels.
Summary Echinacea is a group of flowering plants used as a popular herbal remedy. They’re linked to many health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, improved immunity and lower blood sugar levels.
Echinacea plants are loaded with plant compounds that function as antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules that help defend your cells against oxidative stress, a state that has been linked to chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and many others.
Some of these antioxidants are flavonoids, cichoric acid and rosmarinic acid (3).
In addition, echinacea plants contain compounds called alkamides, which can further enhance antioxidant activity. Alkamides can renew worn-out antioxidants and help antioxidants better reach molecules that are prone to oxidative stress (7).
Summary Echinacea is loaded with antioxidants, such as flavonoids, cichoric acid and rosmarinic acid, which may help defend your body against oxidative stress.
Research on echinacea suggests that it offers several impressive health benefits.
Positive Effect on the Immune System
Echinacea is best known for its beneficial effects on the immune system.
That’s one reason why echinacea is often used to prevent or treat the common cold.
In fact, a review of 14 studies found that taking echinacea may lower the risk of developing colds by more than 50% and shorten the duration of colds by one and a half days (11).
However, many studies on this topic are poorly designed and show no real benefit. This makes it hard to know if any benefits on colds are from taking echinacea or simply from chance (12).
In short, while echinacea may boost immunity, its effects on the common cold are unclear.
May Lower Blood Sugar Levels
High blood sugar can raise your risk of serious health problems.
This includes type 2 diabetes, heart disease and several other chronic conditions.
Test-tube studies have found that echinacea plants may help lower blood sugar levels.
In a test-tube study, an Echinacea purpurea extract was shown to suppress enzymes that digest carbohydrates. This would reduce the amount of sugar entering your blood if consumed (13).
This particular receptor works by removing excess fat in the blood, which is a risk factor for insulin resistance. This makes it easier for cells to respond to insulin and sugar (16).
Still, human-based research on the effects of echinacea on blood sugar is lacking.
May Reduce Feelings of Anxiety
Anxiety is a common problem that affects close to one in five American adults (17).
In recent years, echinacea plants have emerged as a potential aid for anxiety.
Research has discovered that echinacea plants contain compounds that may reduce feelings of anxiety. These include alkamides, rosmarinic acid and caffeic acid (18).
Another study found that Echinacea angustifolia extract rapidly reduced feelings of anxiety in both mice and humans (19).
However, as of now, only a handful of studies on echinacea and anxiety exist. More research is needed before echinacea products can be recommended as a possible treatment.
Inflammation is your body’s natural way of promoting healing and defending itself.
Sometimes inflammation can get out of hand and last for longer than necessary and expected. This may raise your risk of chronic diseases and other health problems.
Several studies have shown that echinacea can help reduce excess inflammation.
In a mouse study, echinacea compounds helped reduce important inflammatory markers and memory-loss caused by inflammation (20).
In another 30-day study, adults with osteoarthritis found that taking a supplement containing echinacea extract significantly reduced inflammation, chronic pain and swelling.
Interestingly, these adults did not respond well to conventional non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) but found the supplement containing echinacea extract helpful (21).
May Help Treat Skin Concerns
Research has shown that echinacea plants may help treat common skin concerns.
In another study in 10 healthy people aged 25–40, skin care products containing echinacea extract were found to improve skin hydration and reduce wrinkles (23).
Similarly, a cream containing Echinacea purpurea extract was shown to improve eczema symptoms and help repair the skin’s thin, protective outer layer (24).
However, echinacea extract appears to have a short shelf life, making it difficult to incorporate into commercial skin care products.
May Offer Protection Against Cancer
Cancer is a disease that involves the uncontrolled growth of cells.
In one test-tube study, an extract of Echinacea purpurea and chicoric acid (naturally found in echinacea plants) was shown to trigger cancer cell death (25).
In another test-tube study, extracts from echinacea plants (Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida) killed human cancer cells from the pancreas and colon by stimulating a process called apoptosis or controlled cell death (26).
It’s believed that this effect occurs due to echinacea’s immune-boosting properties (27).
That being said, human studies are needed before making any recommendations.
Summary Echinacea has been shown to improve immunity, blood sugar, anxiety, inflammation and skin health. It may even have anti-cancer properties. However, human-based research on these benefits is often limited.
Echinacea products appear to be safe and well-tolerated for short-term use.
There have been cases where people experienced side effects, such as (3):
- Itchy skin
- Stomach pain
- Shortness of breath
As echinacea appears to stimulate the immune system, people with autoimmune disorders or people taking immunosuppressive drugs should avoid it or consult their doctors first (3).
While it appears to be safe for short-term use, its long-term effects are still relatively unknown.
Summary Echinacea appears to be safe and well tolerated in the short term, but its long-term effects are relatively unknown.
There is currently no official dosage recommendation for echinacea.
One reason being that findings from echinacea research are highly variable.
This is why you should purchase echinacea products from trusted brands.
That said, research has found the following doses to be effective in aiding immunity (11):
- Dry powdered extract: 300–500 mg of Echinacea purpurea, three times daily.
- Liquid extract tinctures: 2.5 ml, three times daily, or up to 10 ml daily.
However, it’s best to follow the instructions that come with your specific supplement.
Keep in mind that these recommendations are for short-term use, as echinacea’s long-term effects on the body are still relatively unknown.
Summary Echinacea products are highly variable, which makes it hard to set a standard recommended dosage. The dosages vary with the form of echinacea you’re using.
Echinacea has been shown to improve immunity, blood sugar, anxiety, inflammation and skin health. It may even have anti-cancer properties. However, human-based research is often limited.
It’s considered safe and well tolerated for short-term use.
Suggested dosages vary depending on the form of echinacea you’re using.
Although it’s commonly used to treat the common cold, results in this area are mixed. While research has shown it may help prevent colds, shorten their duration or provide symptomatic relief, many studies have been poorly designed or shown no real benefit.
That said, there aren’t many products like echinacea with similar potential immune-boosting effects, so it might be worth trying it out.