My favorite herb has just been declared a miracle
by Kerry Bone

If you're a regular reader of my column, you know that Echinacea has long been my favorite herb. I should qualify this, though: I am specifically referring to the root of Echinacea angustifolia or Echinacea purpurea. For years I have been taking this combination on a daily basis for the maintenance of my immune system and for general health. That's why I'm so excited to tell you this month about new research that gives even more insight into what makes Echinacea a "miracle herb."

Your body is loaded with immune cells known as natural killer (NK) cells. These cells are part of your body's front line of defense against bacteria, viruses, and tumor cells. Since NK cells decline in number and function as you get older, this is thought to be one factor behind the increase of various cancers as people get older.

Dr. Sandra Miller and her team of researchers were searching for a safe way to support the role of your body's NK cells - something that would give your body a better chance of fighting off all types of diseases and ultimately allow you to live longer.1,2 They found their answer in Echinacea.

The researchers gave healthy young adult mice oral doses of Echinacea purpurea root (0.45 mg per 25 g body weight, similar to human dosage rates) to see if it would stimulate the production of NK cells. After receiving the Echinacea for two weeks, the mice had significantly higher levels (around 25 percent more) of NK cells in their spleens.3 They also had 25 percent more monocytes, the 'helper' cells for NK cells, in both their bone marrow and in their spleens. (The Echinacea treatment influenced no other white blood cell counts.)4

When they conducted experiments in healthy, elderly mice, the researchers found that after just two weeks of giving the mice oral doses of Echinacea, the NK cell numbers in their bone marrow and their spleens returned to the levels of young adults - and, just as importantly, the Echinacea also resurrected the killing capacity of these cells.5

Dr. Miller said, "These observations appear to apply uniquely to this herb since we could never rejuvenate the NK cell-mediated component of the immune system in elderly mice by any of the other typical NK cell enhancers."

Long-term use for lifetime benefits

One of the persistent controversies about Echinacea is whether you can safely take it for long periods of time. According to Miller's findings, the answer is definitely in the affirmative, at least when it's administered to mice. When mice were fed Echinacea purpurea root from seven weeks of age to 13 months (0.45 mg per 25 g body weight), not only was the Echinacea NOT detrimental - it was distinctly beneficial.6

By 13 months of age, only 46 percent of the control mice fed the standard chow were still alive, as compared with 74 percent of those consuming Echinacea. As might be expected from previous experiments, the NK cell levels in the Echinacea-fed mice were considerably elevated compared to controls. On this Miller writes:

Given that the key immune cells acting as the first line of defense against developing neoplasms in mice and humans are NK cells, it is not difficult to conclude that sustained enhancement of NK cells alone, throughout life, could readily account for the reduced frequency in deaths with advancing age. Spontaneous neoplasms (cancers), clinically undetectable, are well known to increase with advancing age in humans and mice. Thus, the logical corollary from this study indicates that chronic daily intake of Echinacea is clearly not detrimental to the immune system, but rather prophylactic.

Finally, Miller set out to determine whether Echinacea would still be effective once a cancer was already in progress. (In other words, can it treat disease in addition to preventing it?) To determine this, she and her team tested its effect on leukemias and lymphomas, since NK cells are the first line of defense against these and similar types of malignancies.

Leukaemia-induced mice typically died after 3 1/2 weeks, but one-third of the mice that were given Echinacea survived and went on to live a normal life span.

The implications of this research are exciting and far-reaching. First, it dispels some of the common myths about which part of Echinacea is the best and how it is best used (including the contraindication in leukemia from the now defunct German Commission E). It also provides insight into one of the key aspects of Echinacea's mode of action on the immune system: the profound boost in NK and monocyte number and function.

These cells represent that part of the immune system known as innate immunity. Any herb that acts largely on innate immunity will be beneficial in a whole range of areas, including infection prevention and therapy, cancer prevention and therapy, and even autoimmune disease. Above all, consistently using an herb that promotes innate immunity will extend life span, as Dr. Miller's experiments clearly show.7

The NK cell connection does need to be confirmed in humans, but this research fits perfectly with my understanding of the true value of Echinacea root. Preliminary clinical research by my research team found that an Echinacea root combination boosted white cell counts in healthy young adults.8 What now needs to be established is whether this observed increase in white cells is due to increases in NK cells and monocytes. A new chapter in the history of Echinacea is about to be written. KB

1 Christopher FL, Dussault I, Miller SC. Immunobiology 1991; 184: 37-52
2 Dussault I, Miller SC. Nat Immun 1993; 12: 66-78
3 Sun LZ-Y, Currier NL, Miller SC. J Altern Complement Med 1999; 5: 437-446
4 Currier NL, Lejtenyi D, Miller SC. Phytomedicine 2003; 10 145-153
5 Currier NL, Miller SC. Exp Gerontol 2000; 35: 627-639
6 Brousseau M, Miller SC. Biogerontology 2005; 6: 157-163
7 Currier NL, Miller SC. J Altern Complement Med 2001; 7: 241-251
8 Agnew LL, Guffogg SP, Matthias A et al. J Clin Pharm Ther 2005; 30(4): 363-369

This article was published in the April, 2007 issue of the Dr. Jonathan V. Wright's Clinical Nutrition & Healing newsletter.