Monday, October 20, 2014

Secrets of Echinacea

You would be hard pressed to find someone today who hasn't heard about echinacea. It's cure-all reputation has spanned the decades from the early days in the wild west, when traveling salesman sold ointments and oils of it that were supposed to "cure everything". In fact, some people believe that the term "snake oil" came from the oil made from the snake-shaped root of echinacea and sold by such salesmen. It has also been used for snake bites.

The local native people to the plains where echinacea grows used it for many things, including toothache (it is a local analgesic... good echinacea should make your tongue feel numb), sore throats, snake bites and certain infectious diseases.

Nowadays, echinacea is commonly used for colds and flus, and other types of infections. Lots of research has been done on it; both confirming these uses and questioning them. For me, echinacea has been incredibly effective taken at the onset of a cold when I feel a sore throat or fatigue. It's the primary herb in my cold and flu formula.

My experience confirms what other herbalists have said, which is that echinacea is most effective when taken intensively for a short period of time. Unlike herbs such as Astragalus and Reishi, it is for getting rid of colds rather than preventing them. I take one dropperful every hour during the day when I am sure I have a cold. Frequent doses are the best for acute situations, because the medicine is consistently in your system. If you let up, it might give the cold virus a moment to get the upper hand.

The root of echinacea is most commonly used. It can be easily grown in your garden, and comes back year after year. Some say it's the seventh year root that is the most potent. However, many people are hesitant to harvest the roots, as it kills the plant. Though the plant is quite resilient, it was overharvested from its native prairies, and people are now discouraged from harvesting in in the wild. As with many plants, its habitat is threatened by human developments as well. It's best to buy it organically cultivated. Pacific Botanicals even sells it fresh in the fall.

Echinacea tenneseensis is on the federal list of threatened and endangered plants. Seeds are available at Horizon Herbs if you want to help the preservation of the species by planting it in your garden. According to them, it's quite powerful!

Echinacea seed head tincture.
There are two varieties commonly available. The cheaper one is Echinacea purpurea, which is easier to grow but not as potent. The more expensive is Echinacea angustifolia, which is a wilder variety and stronger, but much harder to grow in your garden.

The seeds are, in fact, the most potent part of the plant. However, they are less often used. Echinacea has spiky seed heads that start flat and grow into cones as the flower matures. That's where the name "coneflower" comes from. These seed heads are also potent medicine, immature or mature.  On some varieties the seed heads can get huge! I like to harvest them when they get large, before they start turning black at the end of the season. I chop them up and tincture them, blending them in with the alcohol in my blender.

Cold and Flu Tincture
(formula from Stephen Harrod Buhner)

1 part echinacea seed top tincture
1 part red root tincture
1 part licorice root tincture

Red root makes lymph more efficient at processing immune system waste. This is helpful during a cold, because it prevents waste from backing up and causing swelling in lymph glands. Licorice root is also an antiviral herb, which decreases swelling and thins mucous. Combined with Echinacea, which encourages the proliferation of white blood cells, they make a great immune formula. This is effective at fighting viral colds, as well as bacterial colds, because they simply make your immune system more efficient. I've used it against so many colds with success that I'll never use anything else.

One last thing; echinacea won't work for someone whose innate immune system is compromised, because there is nothing to stimulate. So, if you're on chemo drugs or you have a weakened immune state, try something else!

Dosage: Take 2 droppersful every 2 hours at the first sign of a cold or flu. Consistency is important. If you were to take it only twice during the day, you will not benefit.

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