Modern research has shown Echinacea to exert significant effects on immune function in over 300 scientific investigations. However, not all of the clinical studies have been positive. Several classes of compounds are responsible for these effects. Mixed results from clinical studies with Echinacea are most likely due to lack of or insufficient quantity of active compounds. The best assurance for consumers to get the full benefit of Echinacea is to use a product that guarantees the level of active ingredients.
What Echinacea product do you recommend?
I recommend Echinamide™, a patented, super-extracted Echinacea product developed and marketed by Natural Factors. Many experts now consider Echinamide™ to be the ultimate Echinacea product on the market. Echinamide™ is unique in that it not only has standardized levels of active compounds; they are in ratios that have been shown to produce the greatest effect. It is not enough to be high in any one particular component of Echinacea, for maximum benefit it is very important that the product contain all of the active components in their natural and most effective ratios. And, that is exactly what makes Echinamide™ different from all other Echinacea products.
Dr. Rudolf Bauer of the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany, has conducted and published more research on Echinacea than any other person. His research has been critical not only to the understanding of Echinacea but also to its growing acceptance as an immune enhancing agent. According to Dr. Bauer “Echinamide™ is unique in that it has certain standardized levels of polysaccharides, cichoric acid, and alkylamides.” And, on the research conducted with Echinamide™, Dr. Bauer said, “This new data which has produced pharmacological results cannot be transferred to other products.” There are over 300 Echinacea products sold in the world, but there is only one with the unique chemical profile of Echinamide™.
Here is a brief summary of the advances made by the scientists at Natural Factors:
Improved Analytical Techniques
- Natural Factors has developed the appropriate techniques in chemical analysis to isolate and measure the substances within Echinacea purpurea that are responsible for its immune enhancing effects.
Better Growing Conditions
- Natural Factors has determined the optimal growing conditions using 100% organic growing standards for Echinacea purpurea to yield the highest levels of active compounds.
More Precise Harvesting
- By determining the level of active compounds through the growing cycle, Natural Factors harvests the plant at the most ideal time – when it is highest in active compounds.
Use of Fresh Herb
- Natural Factors uses fresh Echinacea purpurea because up to 30% of the active compounds are lost in the drying process.
Advanced Extraction Techniques
- Many key compounds in Echinacea are typically lost during the extraction phase or are left behind due to inappropriate extraction. Natural Factors has developed a patented extraction technique that results in a product with the highest levels and broadest range of active compounds available.
Improved Experimental Models
- Natural Factors worked with leaders in pharmacology to develop the experimental models designed to better understand and measure the immune enhancing effects of echinacea.
Proper Clinical Evaluation
- The encouraging results from preliminary studies with Echinamide™ are being followed by detailed clinical studies at major Universities.
What are some of these immune enhancing compounds in Echinacea?
The most important constituents of Echinacea can be divided into three major categories: (1) polysaccharides; (2) cichoric acid and other caffeic acid derivatives; and (3) alkylamides. Since echinacea contains a wide assortment of chemical constituents with confirmed immune enhancing effects, it is important for manufacturers to insure sufficient levels of all these active compounds. Unfortunately, most Echinacea products on the market do not specify the levels of active compounds because they have not been analyzed for them. And, when manufacturers do state the level of a particular marker compound most consumers fail to realize that concentrating only for one particular active compound of Echinacea results in loss of other constituents and, as a result, all of the synergistic effects. For example, some manufacturers standardize for “total phenolic content” or the compound echinacoside. However, although these sort of Echinacea extracts were found to have some antioxidant properties recent studies have found them to have no effect on enhancing immune function in experimental animal studies.1
What do you mean by synergistic effect?
One of the most interesting phenomena in nature is synergy. In the case of Echinacea, it appears that while individual immune enhancing compounds produce significant effects when they are combined in meaningful amounts there is an additive effect. The immune enhancing components of Echinacea work together in a harmonious fashion to produce the phenomena of synergy. In other words, 1 + 1 + 1 = 6. In order to appreciate this synergy, let’s take a look at Echinacea’s effect on white blood cells known as macrophages (“big eaters”). These cells filter the lymph and blood by engulfing and destroying bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells through a process known as phagocytosis.
How does Echinacea affect immune function?
One of the key manners in which Echinacea enhances immune function is via enhancing the ability of macrophages to engulf and destroy particulate matter.1-4 By enhancing the activity of these “garbage collectors” of the body; in essence the blood is purified. The specific components of Echinacea responsible for this effect are the polysaccharides, alkylamides, and cichoric acid. While each of these components is effective alone, the greatest degree of enhancement noted in research by Dr. Tapan Basu at the University of Alberta when the three active components are used in combination in the form of Echinamide™.5 What Dr. Basu demonstrated was the phenomena of synergy along with a clear dose dependent effect. In other words, Dr. Basu demonstrated that the effects with the three actives was greater than any individual active and that the higher the dosage of Echinamide™ the greater the effect on enhancing macrophage function.
Dr. Basu and others have also demonstrated that in addition to enhancing the ability of the macrophages to engulf and destroy foreign molecules, the active components of Echinacea also increase the ability of the macrophage to detect the presence of foreign matter in the blood and signal the other components of the immune system to mount an attack. This signal is in the form of chemical messengers. Over a dozen different factors have been identified. Interestingly, some of these messengers have been developed as drugs via the process of genetic engineering including interleukin-1 (IL-1) and granulocyte colony stimulating factor (GCSF). While these purified agents are showing promise in boosting immune function, especially in cancer patients, they are extremely expensive at this time.
Does Echinacea affect other types of white blood cells?
Yes, particularly interesting is its action on another type of white blood cell known as natural killer
cells.6,7 Natural killer (NK) cells got their name because they can destroy cells that have become cancerous or infected with viruses. Typically NK cell levels or activity will be reduced in individuals suffering from either chronic viral illness (such as chronic hepatitis or chronic fatigue syndrome) or cancer. Also, a decline in NK cell number or activity is also a common feature of aging. A recent study revealed that Echinacea had the capacity to increase NK cell numbers, in aging mice, reflecting increased new NK cell production in the bone marrow, leading to an increase in the absolute numbers of NK cells in the spleen, their primary destiny.6 These results indicate that Echinacea may be proven to help boost NK cells in aging humans as well. In addition, other studies have shown enhanced NK activity and function.7
Hasn’t there been research conducted on other Echinacea products?
Yes, but there is a serious problem when you look closely at Echinacea research – the lack of quality control in defining the Echinacea product used has led to inconsistent results. While some studies have been positive, others have not. Results are difficult to interpret because of the lack of quality control in the preparations used. The reason for the mixed results is most likely to the lack of consistency in the product being used. If the product, by chance, had sufficient levels of active compounds it would be effective. If not, then it would likely be no more effective than a placebo. What determines the effectiveness of any herbal product is its ability to deliver an effective dosage of active compounds.
Chemical analysis of commercial Echinacea preparations has demonstrated tremendous variation in the levels of key compounds even within the same product from batch to batch. For example, when Dr. Bauer analyzed various commercial Echinacea products he found that there was tremendous variation in the level of cichoric acid with most products containing either none or very little.8
Why is there such tremendous variation in the chemical profile of these other Echinacea preparations?
Many manufacturers are not employing the necessary quality control tests required to insure that the Echinacea is being grown properly and is harvested at the exact time for maximal levels of all active compounds. It is also imperative that the Echinacea be treated properly after harvesting. First of all, it is absolutely essential to use fresh plant material versus the dried plant or roots that most manufacturers use. Studies indicate that a significant amount of the active ingredients are destroyed in the drying process.
Processing time is also very important. If the fresh plant material is not processed immediately, the content of several key components – especially cichoric acid, alkylamides,– will be low (as much as 80% will be lost). It is also essential that the extraction be carried out under ideal circumstances. Natural Factors committed to finding the best conditions for extraction of Echinacea to yield the highest level of active components. They determined the best portion of the plant to use as well as the right temperature, length of time for extraction, and right concentrations for alcohol and water. And, since the active components have different solubility characteristics (some are more soluble
in water, others are more soluble in alcohol), they conduct different extractions to concentrate the different active compounds and then blend the extracts together to produce Echinamide™.
1. Rininger JA, Kickner S, Chigurupati P, et al.: Immunopharmacological activity of Echinacea preparations following simulated digestion on murine
macrophages and human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Leukoc Biol 2000;68:503-10.
2. Vomel V: Influence of a non-specific immune stimulant on phagocytosis of erythrocytes and ink by the reticuloendothelial system of isolated perfused
rat livers of different ages. Arzneim Forsch 1984;34:691-5.
3. Bauer R, Jurcic K, Puhlmann J,Wagner H: Immunological in vivo and in vitro examinations of Echinacea extracts. Arzneim Forsch 1988;38:276-81.
4. Burger RA,Torres AR,Warren RP, et al.: Echinacea-induced cytokine production by human macrophages. Int J Immunopharmacol 1997;19:371-9.
5. Goel, V, Chang C, Slama JV, et al.: Echinacea stimulates macrophage function in lungs and in spleens of normal rats. J Nutr Biochem 2002;13:487-92.
6. Perry NB, van Klink JW, Burgess EJ, Parmenter GA: Alkamide levels in Echinacea purpurea: effects of processing, drying and storage. Planta Med
7. Kim HO, Durance TD, Scaman CH, Kitts DD: Retention of caffeic acid derivatives in dried echinacea purpurea. J Agric Food Chem 2000;48:4182-6.
8. Bauer R: Standardization of Echinacea pupurea expressed juice with reference to cichoric acid and alkamides. J Herbs Spices Medicinal Plants