What is Echinacea?
Echinacea is a genus of flower belonging to the daisy family. It is made up of 9 species, some of which are known for their use in herbal medicine. Perhaps the most well-known benefit of Echinacea is its reported ability to boost the immune system. However, more recent evidence suggests that it may also have benefits for boosting endurance.
Where Does Echinacea Come From?
Echinacea is native to eastern and central parts of North America. They are widely cultivated for both their medicinal properties, as well as ornamental flowers.
Like many herbal medicines, there are multiple active compounds in Echinacea that are responsible for a variety of beneficial effects within the body. These include cichoric acid, caftaric acid, and echinacoside.
Echinacea Benefits for Endurance
The keen endurance athletes among us will know of EPO. EPO is short for erythropoietin, a hormone that is regulates red blood cell production. Higher levels of red blood cells lead to increased oxygen transport and hence endurance. EPO is well-known among drug testers because doping with exogenous EPO is banned by many sporting organisations as it leads to unfair improvements as well as potential side effects. However, there is evidence to suggest that EPO may be naturally and safely increased through the use of Echinacea. It has been reported that significant increases (up to 63% at 14 days) of EPO were observed in men given large does of Echinacea compared to placebo (Whitehead et al, 2007). The same group of researchers then observed that such elevations in EPO improved running performance parameters (Whitehead et al, 2012).
Echinacea Benefits for Immune Function
There have been a large number of publications looking into the effect of Echinacea in preventing and reducing the severity of colds and flus. However, due to the number of species of the plant, the part used, and other variables, many studies have found conflicting results. In a meta study, it was found that that Echinacea decreased the likelihood of developing a cold by 58% and it reduced the duration of colds by 1.4 days (Shah et al, 2007). These results suggest that Echinacea may have immune boosting properties and be beneficial for both the prevention and treatment of colds.
Echinacea Negatives & Side Effects
The safety of Echinacea has been relatively well studied in the short term. However, continued long term usage data is currently lacking. When used in the short term, it has been found that Echinacea is a safe herb, showing only mild side effects among some people. These include rash, and stomach upsets as the most commonly occurring (Huntley et al, 2005). Its high level of safety has even been shown in children at ages as young as 2 years old (Taylor et al, 2003). However, severe allergic reactions, although rare, have also been reported (Huntley et al, 2005). It is recommended that people suffering from Echinacea allergies and asthma avoid using this herb, or products containing this ingredient.
Echinacea Recommended Doses & Ingredient Timing
The recommended dose of Echinacea for immune function has been said to be anywhere between 900 mg/day to 3 g/day, depending on the specific species (Shah et al, 2007). For improving endurance, much larger doses were needed, up to 8 g/day (Whitehead et al, 2007; Whitehead et al, 2012). These doses can be broken up and taken throughout the day.
Echinacea can be found as a stand-alone herbal supplement. It is also a key ingredient in many immune boosting supplements. Because of its potential to boost endurance performance, Echinacea can also be found in some pre workout supplements.
Echinacea can be stacked with almost anything. For boosting immune function, consider stacking Echinacea with other cold and flu relieving supplements such as vitamin C. Echinacea can also be stacked with many other endurance promoting ingredients such as caffeine, sodium phosphate, and sodium bicarbonate.
Huntley et al (2005), The Safety of Herbal Medicinal Products Derived from Echinacea Species: A Systematic Review. Drug Safety, 28: 387-400
Shah et al (2007), Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. The Lancet Infections Diseases, 7: 473-480
Taylor et al (2003), Efficacy and safety of echinacea in treating upper respiratory tract infections in children: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 290: 2824-2830
Whitehead et al (2007), The effect of 4 wk of oral echinacea supplementation on serum erythropoietin and indices of erythropoietic status. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab., 17: 378-390
Whitehead et al (2012), Running economy and maximal oxygen consumption after 4 weeks of oral echinacea supplementation. J Strength Cond Res., 26: 1928-1933