Does echinacea really work for colds and flu?

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As the cold season is upon us, and bird flu neurosis reaches fever pitch, there is a good chance increasing numbers of us will be looking at ways of protecting ourselves from viral invasion. One commonly used natural remedy for the prevention and treatment of the viral infections such as cold and flu is the herb Echinacea. However, earlier this year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that Echinacea did not protect individuals from the common cold. This study was accompanied by an editorial in the same edition of the journal which concluded that Echinacea is, essentially, useless remedy, and one that consumers should leave out in the cold.

The author of this editorial, Dr Wallace Sampson (a cancer specialist based in California), went on to suggest that remedies such as Echinacea were not even worthy of study, on the basis that they are implausible�. However, Echinacea has been shown to activate immune cells, known as natural killer cells, which have anti-viral action. This herb has also been shown to boost the production of a substance called interferon, which should also help the body ward off viral infections. In his editorial, Dr Sampson acknowledges Echinacea’s immune-stimulating potential, which leaves me wondering what it is about this herb’s proposed ability to ward off infection that Dr Sampson finds so implausible

My personal belief is that the methods used in the study which inspired the editorial are open to considerable question. For instance, the study involved instilling the cold virus directly into the noses of test subjects ” a technique that does not necessarily accurately represent how we are exposed to the cold virus an acquire colds in the real World. Also, there has been criticism from some herbalists that the dose of the specific type of Echinacea used in the study (Echinacea angustofolia) was less than a third of the accepted effective dose.

The results of this single study also need to be taken in the context of the wider evidence. A year 2000 review of dozens of studies looking at the ability of Echinacea to prevent and/or treat the common cold found that the majority of studies found Echinacea had positive effects, and concluded that overall, the results suggested that some echinacea preparations may be better than placebo�.

This review is referred to by Dr Sampson in a way which suggests that Echinacea was not found to be at all beneficial. It seems Dr Sampson’s apparent distortion of the facts regarding Echinacea may have come from a deeply ingrained scepticism of natural medicine: the last line of his editorial describes the alternative-medicine movement� as an errant social-medical trend�. Despite the comments of some cynical medical commentators, my experience in practice and a significant amount of evidence suggests that Echinacea does indeed have the potential to provide cold comfort.

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