If the sniffling, sneezing, and coughing around you hasn’t tipped you off, allow me to officially inform you – it is cold and flu season. And if you’re paying attention, I’m sure you are thoroughly confused as to which immune-boosting remedies are actually true, effective, and worth trying. Well, here I am to inform you that science has conclusively told us virtually nothing (sorry).
While some research is showing that there are certain therapies that may be helpful in fighting off, or shortening the duration of the common cold, it turns out that at this time, many of the claims boasting the benefits of some foods, nutrients, herbs, etc. in relation to the immune system are just not supported by evidence. But here’s the thing about proving cause and effect when it comes to food – it’s very difficult to do! Human experimentation, much to the dismay of many die-hard research junkies (hi!), is pretty unethical. So we are left to observe, for the most part. Many of the studies that have been published thus far have generally not been statistically significant enough to conclusively claim that any one remedy absolutely works to prevent illness. In this series, I will cover what we've got so far in the ways of research. We will kick this off with a little herb with quite a reputation...
Echinacea is a flowering plant that has often been associated with immune-boosting effects. This medicinal herb may come in the form of tea, capsules, liquid, or extract, among others. It has commonly been thought to boost the body’s fighting power against the common cold. So, what is the research telling us?
One randomized, controlled study (funded in part by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health) tested the effectiveness of Echinacea on the common cold, to find that those who received no intervention had a cold that lasted, on average, 7.03 days, versus those who received Echinacea whose colds lasted just slightly less than that – those who knew they were receiving Echinacea rather than a placebo had cold lasting an average of 6.87 days, where as those who did not know what they were receiving had cold durations averaging 6.34 days. Those who received a placebo, and were unaware of what they were receiving, had colds lasting an average of 6.87 days.
……. That’s a lot of numbers…..
So allow me to sum up for you – those who received an intervention of any kind (whether it was the treatment in question or simply a placebo) seemed to have slightly shorter duration of cold symptoms than those in the "NO INTERVENTION" group. This means that a placebo effect is a very strong possibility here.
Full disclosure – this study had some limitations, as all tend to have. For this study, these included:
· No way of being certain that these subjects actually had the “common cold” which was being studied (as opposed to flu or another virus, allergies, etc)
· Only 1 type of Echinacea formula was tested – another type may very well have yielded completely different results
· Results are group averages, so we see how this impacted the sample as a whole, not necessarily how the treatment impacted an individual
The authors of this study also noted that, although these limitations exist, there is a rather large body of research already in existence that supports their findings.
The Results: Might Echinacea have some benefits when it comes to boosting your immune system? Perhaps. Is Echinacea a for sure way to beat a cold, or shorten its duration? Nope. Placebo action may be in effect.
What Should YOU Do...?
If you're curious, it would likely not hurt to try Echinacea. As long as you are an otherwise healthy adult, and are not pregnant or breastfeeding, you could certainly give it a try, and see if it does anything for you individually. It's true that if your cold duration is shortened with the use of this herb, it may be due to a placebo effect. But sometimes, especially as the world is going on around me, and I just want this dang cold to be over with, placebo is good enough for me! Don't go scraping together what's left in your bank account for it... But if you feel like it, giving it a try won't hurt.
*Note: it has been found that if you are allergic to "ragweed, mums, marigolds, or daisies," you are more likely to have an allergic reaction to Echinacea.
If you want to read the NCCAM-funded Echinacea study, click here: http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=746567
So, do with that what you will! Next up will be a little water soluble Vitamin with a lot of hype. Come back to see how Vitamin C truly impacts our immune system.
In the meantime... Has Echinacea worked for you? What other immune-boosting tricks do you practice?