Study says Echinacea is not cold remedy
By Karen Kaplan
Los Angeles Times
Echinacea, the popular herbal remedy for fighting the common cold, does not ward off runny noses, sore throats or headaches, nor does it help speed recovery from cold symptoms, according to the results of a broad clinical trial published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
The federally funded research was undertaken because more than 200 smaller studies had provided inconclusive and conflicting results about the benefits of the herbal remedy, which is derived from the purple coneflower.
"We find no evidence that it actually does anything to common cold symptoms," said Dr. Ronald Turner, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the study's lead author. "If that's the reason you're buying it, then you're wasting your money."
Echinacea enthusiasts said they do not think the results of the study merit such a clear-cut conclusion. They noted that Turner and his colleagues used only the root of one type of the plant and said the dosage given was too low.
Echinacea, a member of the same plant family as sunflowers and daisies, was used for hundreds of years by more than a dozen American Indian tribes to treat snakebites, toothaches, coughs and other ailments.
Americans spent $153 million on echinacea products last year, making it one of the five best-selling herbs in the country, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, an industry publication.
The goal of the new study — funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health — was to pinpoint exactly how the herb attacks colds, said Dr. Stephen Strauss, the center's director.
Instead, the study concluded the plant served no such role.
"I would wish nothing more than for the echinacea study to be positive, but good science speaks for itself," Strauss said.
Turner and his colleagues tested three homemade preparations of echinacea, each designed to track the effect of a specific extract of the herb. All were derived from the root of the Echinacea angustifolia plant and contained the equivalent of 300 milligrams of echinacea per dose.
The researchers recruited 437 healthy volunteers and gave them a cold by squeezing droplets of the virus into their noses. Some of the volunteers took echinacea three times a day for one week before being infected. Others started taking it the day they were infected, and one group received a placebo throughout the experiment.
Researchers measured the level of antibodies produced by the volunteers, and even weighed their used tissues to determine whether patients taking echinacea produced less mucus than those on the placebo.
At the end of the study, the researchers could not discern any difference between patients who took any form of echinacea and those who took the placebo.
"None of the preparations we used had any effect on either the rate of infection or the severity of illness," Turner said.