When I was recently (and accidentally) bitten by a cat, I immediately reached for my echinacea tincture. Does that choice surprise you?
The advent of popularizing herbs means commercialization emphasizes only one major use for simplicity’s sake. Echinacea has become known as a cold and flu herb, so much so that over time, its many other uses have been forgotten. This is a shame because echinacea is far more important an herb than just for colds and flu; it is one of our best anti-infection and anti-toxin herbs available.
How Michael Tierra Brought Echinacea Back
I first learned about echinacea in 1980, not long after Michael brought it back into use in the early 1970s. It had been relegated to a dusty bottle on the back shelf of Nathan Pothurst’s herb shop in San Francisco, Nature’s Herbs, the last herbal pharmacy in North America. The story is this:
A nurse on the Black Bear commune where Michael lived at the time, would come to him daily with her hypodermic needle and gleaming white teeth to puncture him with an antibiotic to treat a staph infection he had. It worked, but Michael said “never again” and went in search of an herb that would effectively treat infections instead.
He decided to ask for echinacea because he had read about it in a long list of herbs that were supposed to be good for infections in Back to Eden, one of the only herb books available at the time. He thought it was such a weird name that it must be potent. No one had heard of it and it wasn’t available in any sources at that time – most people used goldenseal, which wasn’t reliable for infections.
When the then-hippie Michael asked for echinacea, Nathan said, “Oh that herb, no one ever asks for it anymore,” and he proceeded to inspect his basement where he found a bottle of about 8 oz echinacea and brought it out, giving Michael all of it. Michael immediately made it into a tincture so he could stretch it out to use on as many people as possible. Having no idea if echinacea would work or not, he proceeded to experiment with it on the rampant staph and strep infections, including his own, running through the Black Bear community where he lived then. It worked brilliantly.
History of Echinacea
Echinacea wasn’t recognized as an herb until about the 1880s after the westward expansion occurred throughout North America. It was one of the most important medicines of the Plains Indians. In the 1930s it was also one of the most popular herbs in America used by the Eclectics for infections until it came into disuse at the advent of the many new “wonder drugs” like aspirin and antibiotics.
As part of their “back to nature” craze, Germans in the U.S. knew about echinacea and smuggled the seeds back to Germany to grow. They thought they had the species, E. angustifolia, the wild version, but had the cultivated E. purpurea instead. Still, it was effective, and so was researched there by Madaus Pharmaceuticals.
The original Native American name for echinacea, ‘snake root,’ should prick your ears as to its original use across the prairies – yes, for snake bites – but also for any toxic condition. Echinacea is so useful as an anti-toxin, it was called a natural antibiotic by herbalists for many decades after its mid-20th century rediscovery by Michael.
Echinacea, the Powerhouse Herb
Echinacea is considered a “clear heat and clean toxin herb”; in other words, an alterative, or blood cleansing, herb. Such herbs have a broad antibiotic, antibacterial and antiviral action, detoxifying and treating infections including sepsis, contagious diseases and inflammation. It expels pus and treats conditions such as hot, swollen, painful swellings or sores with a fever, mastitis, pulmonary and breast abscesses, appendicitis, mumps, encephalitis, mouth and throat inflammation, toothache, canker sores, herpes simplex, tonsillitis, and similar conditions. It is also wonderful for insect bites and stings as well as skin conditions such as boils, abscesses, carbuncles, and wounds.
Echinacea is so useful, it’s still the main staple of my medicine and travel kits. No matter where I go, this is one herb I always carry.
Once, our son came home from college complaining about pain in his ankle. When I checked it, I found a tiny hole in his inner ankle near the heel. It was not only red itself, but also had a long red streak running up his leg. This being a sign of blood poisoning, I immediately pulled out my echinacea tincture, gave him a dropperful every fifteen minutes and also applied an echinacea poultice on the ankle wound. Within a half hour, the pain was diminishing. Over the next hour or two, I watched the red line move back down his leg until it completely disappeared.
I used to apply many different green leaves to bee stings to diminish the pain and treat the wound, but have since found echinacea to be more effective, its poultice faster and more effective every time. It is quite useful for any poisonous insect sting or bite as well as boils, abscesses, carbuncles, and other toxic skin conditions (take internally at the same time). Michael used to have nurses apply it to bed sores in hospitals. The old settlers used echinacea on saddle sores, too. I’ve also used it on my earring and ear pierced ear hold when the earring has been difficult to insert or caused irritation.
Echinacea is most useful for severe sore throats and yes, colds, too, though its efficacy is questionable and it’s not nearly as effective for these as many other easy-to-find cold and flu herbs. Plus, it’s practically never used for longer than 10 days for this because it isn’t found to be effective.
How Echinacea Works
Echinacea is not an “immune tonic” but is an immune stimulant. Its specifically affects the immune system by stimulating macrophages, phagocytosis, T-cell formation, and by inhibiting the hyaluronidase enzyme (through echinacin B) which doesn’t allow pathogens to break down cell walls and pass into sensitive tissues so it blocks harmful bacteria from proliferating beyond the site of infection, thus starving them off. Echinacea is antiviral by inducing an interferon-like mechanism.
For toxic conditions, echinacea should be taken internally as well as externally. Ideally, one takes a dropperful of the tincture every 15 minutes to every hour or two, thus keeping it available in the blood stream to offset the liver’s job of cleaning foreign substances from the blood. Taper the dose off as symptoms improve. At the same time, it may also be applied externally either by squirting the tincture on topically, or by applying a poultice on the area. The easiest way to do this is to saturate a sterile pad with echinacea tincture and tape over the desired location, changing it two to three times daily.
One study I was told about decades ago showed that echinacea was more effective if taken right before exercising and to exercise at least 15-20 minutes. My brother tried this once and touted its quite effective. (I should think exercising after taking any herb would help its circulation and so speed its effects, but maybe there’s something else more specific about echinacea at work here.)
There are about nine different species of Echinacea, all native to North America. The variety preferred by the Eclectic physicians of the early part of this century is E. angustifolia but other varieties, including E. pallida and the most common and cultivated E. purpurea, are of similar therapeutic efficacy. Additional varieties include E. simulata and E. paradoxa.
So what about my recent cat bite? I applied several squirts topically and the pain immediately went away. Over the next day and a half I was so busy I forgot about it until I noticed redness grow again in the area. I re-applied echinacea tincture once again and the bite is now gone. I didn’t even have to take echinacea internally, but I would have if these two topical applications hadn’t worked fast enough.
Next time you get a sting, bite, infection, toxic condition, go for echinacea. It’s time we bring back into use the property at which it excels.
Echinacea Root, Aerial Portion Echinacea spp.
Also called: Echinacea Radix, Echinacea Herba
Parts used: Root, aerial portion
Energy and flavors: Cool, bitter, pungent
Organs and channels affected: Lung, Stomach, Liver
Chemical constituents: Echinacin, echinacin B, high molecular-weight polysaccha- rides, polyacetylenes, highly unsaturated alkamides, caffeic acid derivatives (some species have unique constituents
Properties and actions: Alterative, carminative, vulnerary, antibacterial, antiviral; clears Heat toxins
Caution: There are no recognized side effects of echinacea overdose, but it can cause a scratchy, tickling sensation in the throat from excessive use.
Dosage and preparation: Standard decoction (root). Standard infusion (aerial por- tions). Tincture (all parts of fresh plant combined – 1:2 @75% ABV; dry leaf – 1:5 @50% ABV; dry root: 1:4 @70% ABV; dry seed: 1:5 @75% ABV), 10-30 drops TID.