Echinacea Provides Supplement Manufacturers and Marketers Opportunities Year-Round
The growth of herbal-based products and supplements has not slowed down throughout the past decade. Even as the winter season winds down, cold symptoms and bouts of flu can still affect the immune system, driving consumers to seek out preventative aids to either limit their symptoms or boost their rate of recovery. Echinacea supplements are more than just a product trend; they have shown promise and sustainability in both preventative health care, as well as delivering proper maintenance for a working immune system.
According to American Botanical’s journal HerbalGram, Echinacea products are one of the top-selling supplements within the herbal category in the United States. In 2014, sales of Echinacea went beyond $50 million, becoming the third most popular herbal ingredient next to horehound and cranberry. Its status in the health sphere is well known; many consumers rely on the plant’s ability to maintain the integrity of their immune system due to skilled marketing and an assortment of clinical studies that demonstrate the herb’s efficacy. Highlighting its ability for preventative health is a major attribute of Echinacea that companies can utilize.
First in Immune Support Supplements
Otherwise known as the purple cornflower, the Echinacea is generally grown within the forests of North America, particularly in the southeastern region. Due to a variety of studies and the plant’s long history as a medicinal herb, Echinacea has been routinely used for the prevention of colds and the flu and is associated with an increased rate of recovery. Studies on Echinacea’s effects varies, however, recent evidence regarding Echinacea supplements target how the herb works as a very potent immune-system enhancer, or as an immunostimulant. Its ranking as one of the top herbal remedies in the world signals its popularity to the consumer base.
Unlike antibiotics, Echinacea’s benefits are categorized as preventative efforts, stimulating the body to produce more white blood cells which help fight off infection through a process called phagocytosis. Studies have shown that Echinacea can also help release interferons, compounds that kill germs as well as infiltrate their control center, keeping such germs from reproducing and helping increase the rate of recovery. T-cells, macrophages, and other immune system cells are increased to help protect the body against incoming infections. Other studies also infer that Echinacea prevents hyaluronidase from being created, which is an aggressive enzyme that attacks the barrier between health tissue and outside pathogens, such as the cold virus.
The immune system for the human body is constantly generating its own immune cells that fight against invading bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Studies on the immune system seem to suggest that as we age, our immune systems are unable to respond as quickly, leaving us more vulnerable to inflammatory diseases and infections. These conditions have increased along with life expectancy, leaving the elderly much more likely to contract health issues than the younger generation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respiratory infections such as pneumonia are one of the leading causes of death in people over 65 years of age worldwide. Research suggests that this is due to the decrease in T-cells, which respond to immune activity. T-cells are produced within the thymus gland, yet once the thymus gland atrophies, these cells decrease; a common occurrence as we age. With fewer T-cells to fight off infection, the risk of disease increases.
Overall, Echinacea has been researched extensively in regard to its antiviral effects, immune-strengthening benefits, and its maintenance of inflammatory activity. These properties have made Echinacea extremely suitable for immune-support supplements, with possible effects for:
- The common cold
- Acid indigestion
- Minor pains
A Plant with Many Varieties
There are nine species of Echinacea, but only three are used within medicinal products and health supplements; Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida. For each of these species, cultivation and demand varies. E. purpurea is the one most commonly used, while the latter two have decreased in population, resulting in commercial cultivation.
Echinacea angustifolia is a species type that is usually most effective when utilized in lab studies. Otherwise known as elk root, the thick and fleshy roots are generally used for extraction into immune support products and supplements. It is commonly used as a pain reliever for external wounds, inflammation, and arthritis. The antimicrobial properties of this species makes it well suited for strengthening the respiratory system by driving off infection in the respiratory tract.
Echinacea purpurea extract is derived from its flower and leaves. More extensively studied than other species, and with a long history as a cure-all medicinal herb among North American tribes, Echinacea purpurea is known as a very valuable immune-supportive herb. Studies have indicated that purpurea exhibits chemo-preventive properties. Containing alkamides within its makeup, these compounds can bind themselves to cannabinoid receptors, limiting tumor growth as a result. This species is also noted for immunotherapy usage, being able to stimulate immune cell activity. Echinacea pallida is usually blended in formulations containing the other two species and, though noted for its own medicinal properties, is not the sole active ingredient in Echinacea compounds.
Taking a Clinical Approach
While studies and trials have been performed with varying effects, however, one of the largest studies conducted on Echinacea heavily suggests that the herb can reduce the number of reoccurring colds. According to Cardiff University Common Cold Centre, the tests were conducted on 750 people for four months, and reduced the illness and its duration on subjects by an average of 26%. It also greatly reduced the frequency of colds in subjects with weakened immune systems by a total 60%.
Other clinical studies have had similar results. A trial conducted in the Czech Republic by Karel Raus demonstrated how Echinacea purpurea, formulated as a hot drink, was tested on 473 patients with early influenza symptoms, along with generic drugs and placebos. The rate of recovery was highest for those who took the Echinacea product, reaching to 50.2% after 5 days, and then increasing to 90.1% after 10 days for a full recovery.
There is also an additional meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies about Echinacea’s positive effects for reducing respiratory tract infections. The meta-analysis was conducted by Andreas Shcapowal from the Allergy Clinic of Switzerland, where the focus was on 12 clinical studies on Echinacea and how it affected recurrent infection, and then an additional six trials of 2,548 participants. The results concluded that Echinacea extracts used in those trials helped reduce the risk of infections in the respiratory tract, with implications that it potentially lowers respiratory complications.
Echinacea’s Diversity in Supplements
Echinacea supplements are generally made from either the above-ground or root sections of Echinacea, depending on which species is harvested. In the United States, the roots of E. angustifolia and E. pallida have been harvested since the 1800’s and are generally the species formulated in American-made products. E. purpurea is commonly used in Germany, where Echinacea supplement manufacturers extract the herb through its above-ground petals and leaves, and is popular among liquid delivery formats for consumers. 2 – 3 mL of standardized tincture extract are the general dosage for this format.
The most common delivery form for Echinacea are tinctures or extracts, mixed with an alcohol solution. With extracts, the herb is more readily absorbed into the human body, as the tincture extracts the plant’s phytochemicals at its freshest. However, tablets and liquid capsules are also suitable choices. These solid delivery forms are more readily standardized by its content of echinacosides for the consumers, as these compounds help indicate that the product is indeed derived from the plant’s attributes.
The Uniqueness of Herbal Claims
There are several requirements that herbal supplement manufacturers must keep in mind when developing their products, particularly pertaining to the labeling of their products. General label rules apply, such as:
- Listed contents of the herbal supplement
- Dosage recommendation
- Cautions about possible side effects or warnings to consumers with health conditions that may prevent them from taking the product
- Careful wording of health claims, a focus structure/function or health maintenance instead of assertions for treating or curing a disease
For Echinacea products, other label requirements are necessary:
- The name of the plant species used: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea purpurea are the three species most commonly used.
- Parts of the plant used: ie; roots, above-ground parts, or the whole plant.
- The processing method: alcoholic extracts, expressed juice, etc.
Potential in Sports Nutrition
Due to its potent role in immune support, Echinacea can apply to other major health areas for a variety of consumers. For dedicated athletes, the rigors of sports training and daily exercise can have adverse effects on the immune system when stressed to the limit. An overabundance of physical strain can alter the hormones within the body, breaking down protein and suppressing the activity of the immune-supportive cells. Due to overtraining, the lymphocytes, granulocytes, and macrophages that target against pathogens and viruses can no longer be stimulated, leading to infection, especially within the respiratory tract. Studies have shown that marathon runners have a higher risk of contracting respiratory tract issues than trained runners who do not race. In comparison, casual exercisers do not endanger their immune system as frequently as hard-training athletes do.
The marketing of Echinacea supplements for sports nutrition can be possible when outlying the effects the herb has on the immune system. A strengthening of the network, and re-stimulating the bacterial-fighting compounds can help athletes maintain their immune system. Studies have shown that Echinacea supplementation may help reduce immune suppression effects from training. There is also some small support that Echinacea may increase erythropoietin (EPO), meaning red blood cell production. With increased red blood cells, oxygen can readily travel throughout the body, and can benefit athletes who practice endurance training.
An Herbal Support for Mood
There is some evidence that suggest Echinacea can have positive effects on mood and emotional well-being. This is due to Echinacea’s stimulation of ‘feel good’ hormones within the body thanks to the aid of polysaccharides, a main component of Echinacea. Additionally, the resulting hormonal regulation can help maintain the immune system, and defend against common diseases. A lift to fatigue and invigoration are both common effects experienced by consumers who take Echinacea for mood support.
There have also been studies that demonstrate Echinacea’s effect on cognitive health. One particular study, which included 33 volunteers that experienced mild anxiety, took one or two tablets of an Echinacea supplement for one week. These volunteers, when first recruited, showed high scores on the State-Trait Anxiety Inventor (STAI), which measured trait and state anxiety. Their STAI scored decreased after three days, and remained stable for an additional three weeks.
Supplementation for Year-Round Prevention
On a global scale, the annual market for Echinacea, including finished products and supplements, reached a total of $320 million in 2012. Echinacea’s multiple benefits, though tied mainly to immune support, has an overreaching effect for many areas of the human body. Increasing circulatory function, cognitive support, as well as having potential in sports nutrition, the herbal profile of Echinacea is also favorable for many health consumers due to its natural origins and simple nutritional makeup.
Though the winter may be winding down, the immune system keeps meeting new challenges from day to day. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) viewed data from 1979–2001 at 500 hospitals across the United States. It was estimated that over 200,000 patients were hospitalized each year due to respiratory issues from influenza. Additionally, from 1976–2006, a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 people across the country had flu-associated deaths. The common cold, a constant enemy of the immune system, was the primary reason for more than 100 million visits to health centers. The combination of missed workdays resulted in a cost of $20 billion a year. Highlighting the need for preventative immune maintenance can appeal to consumers and the reduction of hospital costs. With its affect on the overall human body, these preventative costs can be a route for supplement manufacturers and marketers to establish a successful marketing campaign for Echinacea supplements.
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