Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), also called coneflower and snakeroot, is a tall, flowering perennial in the aster and sunflower family that is native to North America. The generic name for this herb is adapted from the Greek word echino, which translates to “sea urchin” and is a reference to the rounded or cone-shaped disk at the center that’s covered with spiny nodules called awns. The long history of use of this herb in traditional medicine is owing to the observation made by Native Americans that wounded or sick elk seek out the plant to self-medicate.
The antioxidant and immunomodulatory activity of all nine species in the Echinacea genera are due to the presence of various phenols and fat-soluble alkylamides, which bind to certain receptors involved in regulating immune function, including immune suppression. These compounds also appear to trigger apoptosis, or programmed cell death, which can be thought of as hitting the “kill switch” to prevent the replication and spread of damaged or rogue cells.
While most people are familiar with the traditional use of taking Echinacea at the first sign of a cold, the herb is also associated with enhancing the performance of the lymph system, which equates to decreased inflammation. The lymph system represents a network of nodes and glands located throughout certain regions in the body that isolate and “recycle” toxins and other debris that occur as a byproduct of inflammatory processes. In addition to stimulating the movement of lymph fluid to accomplish this task, Echinacea also helps to reduce swelling association with inflammation.
Although all parts of the plant are used, Echinacea root is the preferred material to use medicinally. Prepare Echinacea root as tea (alone or in combination with other herbs) or as a tincture.