Echinacea: Eclectic Research

Its effect on the normal individual; with special reference to changes produced in the blood picture

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 07-31-94 6(2): 4-5

Reprinted from the Electric Medical Journal 1935, p.34-36. Thanks to Christopher Hobbs and Dr. Ed Alstat for providing this article.

A group of medical students were asked to volunteer to take therapeutic doses of echinacea for a period of four days. The drug was so prepared that each man received a definite dose to be taken before meals and at bedtime. The doses ranged from 2 to 15 grains as represented by equivalent amounts of the specific medicine. Water was used as the vehicle.

The subjects were not told how much medicine each one was taking, but were asked to describe any changes effected by the drug. Blood was drawn by a lancet puncture before the treatment was begun and at the end of each twenty-four-hour interval. The sample of blood was taken on the same hour each day in order to avoid the normal fluctuation produced by meals, etc, on the white count. The blood was used for an erythrocyte, leukocyte, and a differential blood cell count.

The general effects produced by the administration of echinacea may be briefly summarized as follows:

Taste and smell

The general opinion was that the aqueous mixture of the drug had an acrid and slightly nauseating taste and a musty characteristic odor. Nausea was more pronounced with the larger doses (10-12 grains). In these sized doses there were eructations, following administration, for a period of ten to fifteen minutes. The eructated gas smelled of the echinacea taken.

Gastro-intestinal symptoms

In the small doses (2-4 grains) there was an absence of any marked effects. The appetite was little affected; it was increased if affected at all. The larger doses (10-15 grains) besides the eructations mentioned above, caused active movements of the stomach and distention. This was soon followed by a noticeable secretion of saliva. The taking of food relieved these symptoms. The larger doses at bedtime produced some distress which lasted about an hour. Echinacea has a slight effect on the bowels. In an unusually constipated subject a dose of 8 grains produced normal bowel movements and the dose of 15 grains produced three small, fluid stools after carminative action produced by the drug. After forty-eight hours, even the larger doses produced little activity in the gastrointestinal tract.

Genito-urinary symptoms

All the subjects agreed on a slight diuresis affected by the drug. This was manifested as frequent desire to micturate and a resulting small amount in each attempt. The effect persisted throughout the four days medication, but was more marked during the first two days.

The effect on the blood picture

The daily blood counts showed normal individual variations within the group. In every case there was a marked leukocyte increase during the first two days. In two-thirds of the cases the highest count reached was at the end of twenty-four hours’ medication. In the remaining third, the peak was reached after forty-eight hours’ administration. From the highest point, the counts of the white cells (total) gradually dropped and approximated the normal count during the third and fourth days. The red-blood cell count was little altered. The average of the counts for the entire group are listed below.

Blood cell count changes over time after echinacea

      White BC:  neutrophils Eosinophils Basophils Lymphocytes   Monocytes

Baseline         8990                                  5,560                185               83           2400                451

24 hours      12060          9010                 209               105          2810                592

48 hours     10,250          5910                 125               111          4360               591

72 hours        8,880          5190                 217                88           2950               376

96 hours       7,720          5160                 252                74           2650               399

The above figures show a significant change in the total leukocytes, neutrophilic leukocytes, and lymphocytes. Apparently the erythrocyte (red blood cells) and eosinophilic count showed no important changes. The average of the counts show a peak for the total white count after twenty-four hours. The peak for the neutrophils is also at this period, and the lymphocyte peak is reached twenty-four hours later.

Because of the figures in the above table, representing the averages obtained from a group, we may safely prophesize that echinacea will normally produce corresponding changes in the white blood cell counts.

Significance of observations

- The septic indications, “bad blood” and “ tendency to sepsis” as followed by the Eclectic medication is well substantiated by the findings in these observations. The increase in the neutrophilic granulocyte count points to an active response of the organism against infection. Following the primary increase in polymorpho-nuclears the increase in lymphocytes point to a reaction in which the body tends to build up resistance. From these facts, we can readily see that the septic conditions of boils, carbuncles, sloughing ulcers, and abscesses, etc, well indicate the use of echinacea.

- The value of echinacea over a long period of time is not herein argued but it is quite evident front the figures and graph that optimum results are to be looked forward to in the first forty-eight hours of administration.

- Echinacea acts as a mild laxative, carminative, and diuretic. In large doses, gastric disturbances may be produced. The best results with the least distress are brought about by doses averaging up to five grains of the drug. If larger doses be given, they will be best borne before meals.

- The variability in the effects of echinacea on individuals is a factor which can not be definitely stated in figures nor pictured in graphs. The personal equation is one which the practicing physician must solve for himself.

- It must be remembered that the data furnished for this paper are from normal individuals. It is not the purpose of the writer to make any definite statements as to the exact reactions produced by echinacea in disease. For this information he can do no better than to refer the reader to the works of Scudder, Felter, and Ellingwood.

Dose and side effects

One grain = about 65 mg, so the dose in this study varied from 130 mg to 975 mg taken four times a day. In a typical echiancea tincture (about 375 mg dry echinacea per ml) this would correspond to a dose range from about 15 drops to about 60 drops, four times a day, with side effects evident at the higher dose

Editors

Erythrocytes are red blood cells. Leukocytes are white blood cells. These include neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, lymphocytes, and monocytes. It is mainly the neutrophils and monocytes that attack and destroy invading bacteria, viruses, and other toxins through general non-specific immunity. Eosinophils are not active in normal infections, but are produced in large numbers in response to parasitic infections. The lymphocytes are active in acquired “cell mediated” immunity, and some form antibodies to specific antigens. This study shows that the body responds to echinacea with a response typical in general infection — the cells indicating general immunity peak first, followed by a peak in specific immunity.

Commentary

This study only measures one parameter of overall immunity. It also only measures short-term effects- it is possible that the blood counts would rise again with continued administration of echinacea. Another study (Jurcic et al) showed a steady increase in phagocytosis — the activity of the cells rather than their number — for five days of administration of oral echinacea. This indicates that it is possible that although numbers of white blood cells peak after 1-3 days, their overall immune activity could continue to increase. Another study (Coeuginet and Kühnhast) suggested a rise in general immunity with oral echinacea for eight weeks.

The accompanying study, however, does support the idea that echinacea is a stimulant and not a tonic, and therefore should not be used for extended periods i.e. the stimulating properties could overstimulate the system or induce a rebound deficiency. It was used for short-term acute conditions by the Native Americans and by the Eclectic physicians. The optimal duration of treatment is not clear, but many practitioners note that echinacea seems to lose effectiveness after ten to thirty days. (See the letter from Christopher Hobbs on page three.) The official German monograph recommends not taking echinacea for more than eight weeks.

References

Coeuginet E, Kühnhast R. 1986. Therapiewoche 36(33):3352-58

Juric, K. et al. 1989. Zeitschrift für Phytotherapie 10: 67-70.
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner




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